Strangely something ties these fires together although separated by 1,000 miles and four months.
December 5th, 1876 a fire in a Brooklyn Theatre claimed the lives of 278 people with 103 left unidentified in the Debris. April 12, 1877 a fire at the Southern Hotel in St. Louis claimed the lives of 40 people. Be it bad luck, an omen, or what some would call a curse, the story is intriguing. Strangely something ties these fires together although separated by 1,000 miles and four months.
On a cold December night in Brooklyn NY the well-known Brooklyn Theatre was hosting a sold out performance of 2 orphans. The theatre constructed in 1871 was an L-Shaped building with three floors of seating. The design of the building had no fire escapes in place for the stories above grade and only had three “special” exit doors on the main floor. These special exit doors were kept locked at all time to help prevent people from sneaking in to the performances.
The play was well underway when during an admission between the fourth and the fifth act a small fire was noticed on a painted canvas. The stage hand reported the fire to be no bigger than his hand he directed carpenters to extinguish the fire. A fire hose located behind many stage props was considered too cumbersome to deploy for such a small blaze. The stage workers attempted to beat the fire out with stage poles, however quickly the fire grew out of their control and the canvas burst into flames.
The actors tried to calm the patrons and continued with the final act of the play, it has been reported that actor Kate Claxton, survivor of the fire, told the patrons that “there is no danger; the flames are part of the play.” While the actors tried to calm the crowds an usher went to the back of the theatre and forced open one the “special” exits. While this action allowed those on the floor to safely evacuate it also allowed a rush of fresh air in which quickly spread the growth of the fire.
Others trying to exit found the other “special” exits to be locked with no ushers there to unlock these doors. The upper floors tried to exit in a panic causing people to be trampled while other on the third floor were reported to be jumping from the balcony in an effort to escape.
When the fire department arrived on the scene the intensity was so great that the Chief Engineer, Thomas Nevins, decided that the building was a total loss and the worked to confine the fire and protect exposures. The fire no larger than an individual’s hand was noticed that evening at 11:20 p.m., the theatre was reported a total loss at 11:26 p.m., and the rear wall collapsed on those trapped at 11:45 p.m.
So what is the connection between the New York fire and the fire four months later in St. Louis? That will have to wait until next week.