“Fire!” in a Theater: The Human Responsibility of “Natural” Disasters

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Historical Background

900 audience members filled the Brooklyn Theater on December 5, 1876 to watch Kate Claxton and Harry S. Murdock perform The Two Orphans. Shortly after the performance began, a gaslight set fire to extra scenery behind the stage and soon spread throughout the theater. After an audience member shouted, “Fire!” and the management realized they did not have fire hoses or water buckets, or fire escapes from the balconies, chaos ensued. Some escaped, but 295 people met their deaths either by burns and smoke inhalation or being trampled to death. When firefighters were finally able to enter the building, they found bodies melted together and 100 victims were burned so badly they were unidentifiable. The city of Brooklyn remembers the victims through a 30-foot-high granite memorial.[1]

Historical Questions to be Asked and Examined:

While the lack of fire hoses, water buckets, and fire escapes may not have directly spread the fire, they also did not aid those seeking safety. Additionally, the minimal number of exits created a panic that caused a stampede. Therefore, I hope to investigate the extent of damage and deaths that resulted due to human planning. Unlike the Chicago Fire of 1871, which was amplified by the preceding dry season, the Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876 occurred in a human constructed and monitored building. How many died at the hands of the fire versus the hands of panic and does this make it easier to place blame? Looking beyond this disaster, what was the role of the Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876 in creating safety measures in public spaces, and fire precautions?

Potential Primary Sources:

One heading of the Davidson College history department’s research guide on the library website is called “U.S. newspapers: 18th-20th century, multi-title collections.” It lists four databases to search newspapers published during the 19th century. I think newspapers are the quickest and easiest way to understand how New York as well as cities that are not New York report this disaster as news, opinion columns, and images. In these articles, I hope to learn about sources of aid, sentiments about management, and comparisons to similar disasters. The history department’s research guide also lists book and pamphlet collections, which will take more time to review, but will provide more significant narratives. I have looked through the available diaries and journal entries, but none list matches for this incident.

After creating my collection of primary sources I will begin to rely on secondary sources that describe the safety measures taken by different theaters in comparison to Brooklyn Theater as well as safety measures established after this fire to help me determine if the Brooklyn Theater Fire was preventable.

[1] “This Day in History: December 5, 1876: Hundreds die in Brooklyn theater fire,” History.com, Accessed February 20, 2014, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/hundreds-die-in-brooklyn-theater-fire

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