Brooklyn Theater Fire

Miss Kate Claxton reclined on a pallet of straw as she played the part of Louise, the blind girl in the popular melodrama of the times, “The Two Orphans.” It was shortly after 11 p.m., just minutes before the play’s end when a voice whispered through the curtains behind her: “Fire. The flies are on fire.”

Miss Claxton, and the rest of the actors on stage, all who heard the warning, went on nervously with their performance. Backstage, men were frantically attempting to put out a fire, ignited by a kerosene lamp, that ate its way up the fly curtains.

Since there was no hydrant or hose in the Brooklyn Theater that night of Dec. 5, 1876, anxious stagehands were compelled to use their coats and hands to stifle the blaze. One ran to the waterbuckets, usually filled each night before performances and set along a wall for just such emergencies. They were empty. He returned with a pole and tried to beat out the flames, but this only fanned them higher.

We thought we were acting for the best in continuing the play as we did, with the hope that the fire would be put out without difficulty, or that the audience would leave gradually or quietly. But the result proved that it was not the right course… The curtain should have been kept down until the flames had been extinguished, or if it had been found impossible to cope with them, the audience should have been calmly informed that indisposition on the part of some member of the company, or some unfortunate occurrence behind the scenery compelled a suspension of the performance, and they should have been requested to disperse as quietly as they could. Raising the curtain created a draft which fanned the flames into fury.”

— Kate Claxton

The next foray into the building did not occur until the daylight hours. Chief Nevins had his District Engineers organize recovery parties. With the exception of a short segment of the vestibule, the building had mainly collapsed into the cellar and burned until the wood material had been exhausted. What first appeared to be a great deal of rubbish in the cellar underneath where the vestibule had been turned out, under closer inspection, to be largely human remains, a large mass of people which had fallen into twisted and distorted positions and then burned. These were mainly from the gallery and the stairway, which, in the original structure, had been above the vestibule ceiling against the south wall of the building.

Removal of these remains would occupy much of the next three days. It was slow work; the conditions of the bodies were such that they would fall apart with only the slightest movement, and many had been mangled and dismembered. An exact body count was never obtained, given the state of forensic science in that era. With many bodies partially dismembered and scattered about by the gallery's collapse, and with faces burned beyond recognition, it was difficult to determine how many people were in a given pile of limbs, heads and trunks. The bodies could only be moved slowly. The capacity of the city morgue was quickly reached so an unused market on Adams Street was pressed into service. By Friday, December 8, Coroner Simms reported that 293 bodies had been taken from the theater site. The number was by no means definitive. Later, his own Coroner's Report would cite 283 fatalities. Much later, the memorial stone erected in Green-Wood Cemetery, would reference 278 deaths.