Up in Flames

When a glittering evening in 1811 turned tragic, it claimed 72—including Virginia’s Governor.

It was the end of a good run.

The Charleston-based theater troupe, Placide and Green, had staged more than two dozen performances in Richmond over four months in 1811. They’d performed The Merchant of Venice and The Lady of the Lake, but nothing had topped the benefit performances held for actress Eliza Poe, who’d fallen gravely ill midway through the season. When Poe died of tuberculosis on December 8, she left three children behind, including her youngest, three-year-old Edgar.

Now, in late December, the troupe blanketed the city with flyers advertising one final performance; Diderot’s The Father and a pantomime, titled Raymond and Agnes.

 “Mr. Placide’s Benefit Will CERTAINLY take place on THURSDAY NEXT,” the flyers announced in bold letters. 

The timing was perfect. The General Assembly was in session, and the successful planters and merchants of the Commonwealth had brought their wives and children to the capital for the winter season. When they weren’t doing business or calling on friends and family, they attended Richmond’s dances, card parties, cockfights, and especially theater.

The performance, the day after Christmas, was a sellout. Newly elected Governor George Smith was among more than 600 ticket-holders who crowded into the theater that evening. 

Also in attendance was former U.S. Senator Abraham Venable and the trial lawyer Benjamin Botts, who had defended Aaron Burr in his 1807 trial for treason. 

The three-story theater stood at the corner of 12th and Broad. It had been built five years earlier to replace the original theatrical complex, Quesnays, which had burned to the ground in 1798, uninsured. The dirt floors, sparsely furnished boxes, and single staircase was all the company could afford for the building that replaced it. 

Still, the place was a party. The boxes teemed with the well-to-do; a second-floor gallery was reserved for Black audiences, both free and enslaved, along with the city’s prostitutes and drunks; and in the pit—where cheap “seats” could be had for pennies—the audience stood and mingled, shouting over the actors, who could hardly be heard over the din. 

The scene backstage was equally chaotic. Backdrops disappeared into the flyspace above the stage, props came and went, and the actors—who played multiple roles—changed in and out of costumes in the nick of time. In the middle of the pantomime, when the property manager noticed a lit chandelier had been inadvertently hoisted into the flyspace, no one batted an eye.

But later, when the stage crew released it, a broken pulley locked, catching the rope and sending the chandelier swinging. Within moments, a candle had kissed one of the backdrops, and a flame shot toward the timber ceiling. 

From their seats, the audience detected nothing out of the ordinary.

The fire was contained in the flyspace above the actors’ heads. But the actors’ faces soon clouded with panic. Would the crew put out the flames, they wondered? Or should they sound the alarm and risk a stampede? After several long and excruciating moments, one actor delivered the line that would outlive them all: “The house!” he shouted. “The house is on fire!”

Confusion rippled through the audience. Was the line scripted? A few people moved toward the exits, but many stayed put. When one actor finally leapt off the stage and into the pit, looking up to the boxes and urging women to jump into his arms, a terrifying reality set in. With the theater on fire, everyone—save the second floor gallery—would have to crowd through the lobby to escape through a single set of doors. 

Pandemonium erupted. As smoke filled the building, people pushed their way toward the stairccase. When it collapsed, some turned to the windows and jumped, desperate to escape. Gilbert Hunt, a blacksmith and slave, saw the flames nearby and rushed to the scene, then fetched a ladder and a mattress to soften falls. 

The Richmond Theatre Fire, December 26, 1811, as depicted by Philadelphia artist B. Tanner.

When the embers cooled, it took three days to account for the 72 people who’d perished. Among them, Governor George Smith had escaped the building, but died when he returned to the theater to save his missing son. Senator Venable, too, was lost, as was Benjamin Botts. 

Of the dead, more than 52 were women. More than one eyewitness described those shoved aside and trampled in the panic, although the night brought its own heroes. Hunt is credited with saving a dozen women’s lives. And Lieutenant James Gibbon, Jr., remained with his panicked fiancée. The pair were found amid the ashes, still wrapped in each other’s arms.

Shockwaves of grief radiated through the country. The disaster was the deadliest ever in an American city. Those lost were buried together, on the theater site, which became hallowed ground.

 When news of the tragedy reached Benjamin Henry Latrobe, in Washington, D.C., the architect of the U.S. Capitol was inspired to offer his services, should Richmond choose to erect a monument in memory of the dead. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, on behalf of the city, accepted Latrobe’s offer. The architect submitted a design for Monumental Church, which included a pair of marble panels engraved with the names of the dead. 

When his protégé, Robert Mills, submitted a strikingly similar plan for a church with marble panels that undercut his bid, Latrobe was outraged. Had his monument design been leaked in an effort to solicit a lower bid? The city hired Mills under a swirl of controversy. Latrobe saved his choicest words for a letter he wrote to Mills to express his “astonishment … that we should both have invented the same thing in the same moment.” 

Both architects would go on to adopt fireproof construction practices. And later in his career, Mills would design the Washington Monument. But it’s Latrobe who is remembered today as the “father of American architecture.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue. 

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