December 5, 1876 was a dreadful night for the patrons of the Brooklyn Theatre.
While awaiting the curtain to rise on the final act of The Two Orphansone of the stage’s gaslights ignited a backdrop. With no pails of water around and the hose obstructed by props, the crew tried to beat out the fire, but this only made it worse. Unfortunately, they did not realize the seriousness of the situation and brought the curtain up, further fanning the flames. The actors went on with the scene, including one the namesake orphans, Kate Claxton, who layed on a bale of hay as the fire grew around her. When the audience caught on, panic broke out. The actors tried to keep order and told them to remain seated. Of course this did nothing and the anarchy continued.
There were three different levels of seating at the theater. Those in the orchestra were able to flee quickly, though early on, some were so panic-stricken that they tried to jump on the stage, not realizing that they were heading towards the fire instead of away. The patrons in the mezzanine were supposed to have accesses to two exits but one was locked, so 360 or so people had to push and tumble over one another down a single staircase to freedom. The audience in the balcony were the worst off, being so close to the ceiling with the suffocating fumes and raging heat. They only had one very long and winding staircase. There were 400 people and most of them would not make it. Firemen could only get as far up as the mezzanine and not hearing any signs of life above them, they assumed most people had already made it out.
Model of the building and the source of the fire
The body count was at at least 278, possibly up to 300, but so many were charred beyond recognition and falling apart that it was hard to have a definitive number. Ironically, the theater was up to code. The staircases and exits were considered wide enough and numerous enough, even more so than many other buildings in the city at the time. For decades, the blame was put on the ineptitude of the theater’s management, with no thought given to revising safety protocols.
VISIT THE HANDSOME MEMORIAL
GREEN-WOOD CEMETERY’S BROOKLYN THEATRE FIRE MEMORIAL
A granite obelisk marks the burial spot of the one hundred and three bodies which were unidentifiable or belonged to families who could not afford a proper burial.
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