In 1811 Richmond was small by American standards, with a population of just under 10,000 people, about 40 percent of whom were enslaved African Americans. The city was divided into three wards—Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe—with most people living in Madison Ward, near the city's center. This is where the Richmond Theatre was located, on the corner of H (later Broad) and Twelfth streets, in a neighborhood called Court End, just north of Capitol Square.
In the 1780s Thomas Wade West and a partner, John Bignall, had renovated the former Quesnay's Academy building to make a theater there. It burned in January 1798 and John Marshall, then Chief Justice of the United States, led a fund-raising effort to rebuild. A new three-story brick theater was constructed on the same site and opened on January 25, 1806. It stood approximately ninety feet long, fifty feet wide, and thirty feet tall, with a capacity of about 500 people.
Placide and Green played several nights a week at the Richmond Theatre. On December 26, the program featured two full-length plays separated by an intermission of four short, light musical numbers. The first play, The Father; or, Family Feuds, was an English translation of Le Père de famille (1758) by Denis Diderot. The translator, Louis Hue Girardin, operated the Hallerian Academy, Richmond's largest school for children. Sentenced to death during the French Revolution, Girardin had escaped to America, where he married Katherine "Polly" Cole, from Albemarle County. The second play, Raymond and Agnes; or, the Bleeding Nun, by M. G. Lewis, was a pantomime, a British form of theater, generally reserved for the holiday season, that involved music, slapstick, gender-crossing, and audience interaction. Pantomimes were considered suitable for the family and attracted many parents with their children.
December marked the opening of a new session of the General Assembly and was the height of the social season in Richmond. On December 26, more than 600 people packed into the Richmond Theatre, filling the venue about 20 percent over its estimated capacity. The audience represented more than 6 percent of Richmond's total population and included several state legislators, a former congressman and a former senator, a bank president, at least two newspaper editors, and the newly elected governor, George William Smith.
The Richmond Theatre's doors typically opened at six, with the entertainment beginning at seven and lasting as long as five hours. According to one witness, the fire began at "about half past ten o'clock." The curtain had just closed on the first act of Raymond and Agnes when an unidentified voice shouted for a stagehand to raise the prop chandelier. "It was fixed with 2 wicks to it," a later investigation found; "only one of them had been lit; yet when it was lifted above, this fatal lamp was not extinguished. Here is the first link in the chain of our disasters."
Above the stage hung thirty-four backdrops painted with oil on hemp canvas. Lest these catch fire, the property-man ordered that the chandelier be brought down immediately, but the ropes became tangled. The actor Thomas C. West later testified to having seen the property-man issue his order a second time but he became distracted with another issue and did not follow up. West took the stage for the second act and thought nothing more of it until he heard a small commotion and saw "flakes of fire" fall around him. Multiple witnesses recalled hearing a general cry of "Fire!" followed by assurances that it was a false alarm. Thomson F. Mason told the Richmond Enquirer that at first he "supposed it was probably the falling of some ornament or lights intended to illuminate the scene," but within four to five minutes the roof had caught fire and pandemonium ensued.
Many others in the boxes crowded onto the winding staircase. Fire damage and the weight of the evacuees caused it to collapse in short order. Allen was nearby at the time. "All those that fell with the stair-case must nearly have expired with the smoke at the time, as the smoke was excessively severe," he remembered. "I heard neither sigh nor groan uttered from any one of them." Charles Copland had run into the theater in search of his daughter Margaret, and "here was presented to my view the most appalling sight I had ever witnessed. At the foot of the staircase there lay twelve or fifteen human beings, if not more, some of them manifestly alive, and which I disovered by the [writhing] of their bodies." It was too dark to see faces so Copland ran his hand over dresses in hopes of recognizing the fabric of his daughter's riding dress. He never found her and she was later declared dead.
"Some got killed in the fall," Thomas R. Joynes, a delegate from Accomack County, wrote to his brother, "and some got their legs and arms broken and some few escaped unhurt." At least one woman jumped to safety only to be crushed to death by those jumping after and on top of her.
Attempts at Rescue
George Tucker, who later served in Congress and was a founding faculty member of the University of Virginia, had left the performance early because his feet were cold. He returned and later claimed in his autobiography to have been "instrumental in saving several females from the flames." While searching for his daughter, Charles Copland managed to rescue two women but felt ashamed for not doing more. Some men managed to escape only to reenter the theater in an attempt to save family and friends. This was the case with Governor Smith, who had been witnessed outside the building but was later confirmed dead inside.
Outside the theater survivors suffered from shock, many of them severely burned. Cast members wandered around dazed, while Frances Willems Green, still in costume as the Bleeding Nun, searched for her daughter, Ann "Nancy" Morton Green. Having attended the show as an audience member, apparently against her parents' wishes, Nancy Green was the company's only fatality that night.
Early reports numbered the dead at anywhere from 50 to 200 people, but within a few weeks the number had been fixed at 72, including 66 whites and 6 African Americans. The scholar Meredith Henne Baker has raised the total to 76 and argued that it is probably higher. Most of the victims—at least 54—were women and girls. This fact apparently prompted a newspaper in Baltimore to boast that its men would have performed better in the service of women. Thomas Ritchie, the editor of the Richmond Enquirer and a survivor of the fire himself, angrily responded that while there may have been some men "who too readily listened to the laws of self-preservation," others acted with great courage. It just happened to be the case, he wrote, that the boxes were disproportionately occupied by women.
The theater, despite having been constructed of brick, was reduced to "nothing more than a few blackened, crumbling walls surrounded by mounds of charred bodies, bone fragments, and smoking timbers," according to the scholar Meredith Henne Baker. She has guessed that the fire reached a temperature of more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, bodies were identifiable only through patches of clothing, pieces of jewelry, or other kinds of relics. The governor—whose remains were described as "a crisped lump"—was identified by a distinctive stock buckle, which had secured his neckwear.
The investigative committee issued its findings on December 31, or just five days after the blaze, and fully exonerated the theater company of any wrongdoing. Rather than point to negligence in allowing a lit candle to be raised, the committee faulted the design and construction of the theater. Richmonders seemed less inclined to forgive the company, a circumstance that perhaps prompted the actors to pen an open letter, published in the Enquirer on the same day. "From a liberal and enlightened community we fear no reproaches," they wrote, "but we are conscious that many have too much cause to wish they had never known us. To their mercy we appeal for forgiveness, not for a crime committed, but for one which could not be prevented." As part of its official mourning, the city prohibited any theater productions, balls, or other assemblies for four months, leading the players to bemoan their "sentence of banishment" and wistfully recall the support they had felt during the illness of their member Eliza Poe. The next month, twenty-one of the company's actors and stagehands were returning to South Carolina when their sloop wrecked at sea; they all survived.
The burial committee, meanwhile, determined that the bodies could not and should not be removed from the site of the theater. On December 29 a funeral procession wended its way through the city, along the way picking up the coffins of victims who had died from the effects of their injuries. It ended with an interment ceremony at the burn site officiated by the Episcopal minister John Buchanan. On New Year's Day services were held throughout Richmond, including at the State Capitol.
At the time the deadliest urban disaster in American history, the Richmond Theatre fire captured the public imagination in part because the victims were wealthy and distinguished. According to the historian Meredith Henne Baker, later, far more deadly fires did not prompt similar memorials or legendary tales of lovers dying in each other's arms. Two hundred years later, however, the fire has been "gradually forgotten," according to Baker, "no more than a footnote and a crumbling white memorial that once earned the wonder of a nation."
1780s - Thomas Wade West and John Bignall renovate the former Quesnay's Academy building in Richmond to make a theater.
1794 - Two South Carolina theater companies, one operated by Thomas Wade West, the other by Alexander Placide, merge.
January 1798 - The former Quesnay's Academy building in Richmond, now a theater, is destroyed by fire.
1799 - Thomas Wade West, a theater company manager and actor, dies in an accident in Alexandria. His widow, Margaretta Sully West, takes over the company.
1804 - John William Green takes over management of the Placide and Green Company of actors.
January 25, 1806 - The new Richmond Theatre building, at the corner of H (later Broad) and Twelfth streets, opens.
December 8, 1811 - Elizabeth Hopkins Poe, a twenty-four-year-old English-born actress, dies in her Richmond boardinghouse. The cause is probably pneumonia.
December 26, 1811 - A fire destroys the Richmond Theatre during a performance, killing more than seventy people, including the governor of Virginia.
December 29, 1811 - A funeral procession ends at the site of the Richmond Theatre fire, where the victims' bodies are interred.
December 31, 1811 - Richmond's Common Council releases its report on the causes of the Richmond Theatre fire, declaring it to be an accident that turned deadly due to the building's poor construction and design.
December 31, 1811 - Actors belonging to the Placide and Green Company pen an open letter after the Richmond Theatre fire seeking the city's "mercy" and "forgiveness" but denying any fault.
1812–1814 - Monumental Church, designed by the architect Robert Mills for the site on the Richmond Theatre fire, is constructed.
January 1, 1812 - Memorial services for the victims of the Richmond Theatre fire are held throughout Richmond, including at the State Capitol.
1965 - Monumental Church in Richmond is deconsecrated by the Episcopal Church.
November 5, 1968 - Monumental Church in Richmond is added to the Virginia Landmark Register.
April 16, 1969 - Monumental Church in Richmond is added to the National Register of Historic Places.
November 11, 1971 - Monumental Church in Richmond is declared a National Historic Landmark.
- Revolution and Early Republic (1763–1823)
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Wolfe, B. Richmond Theatre Fire (1811). (2017, August 11). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Fire_Richmond_Theatre_1811.
- MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "Richmond Theatre Fire (1811)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 11 Aug. 2017. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: February 20, 2017 | Last modified: August 11, 2017
Contributed by Brendan Wolfe, editor of Encyclopedia Virginia.