“'There is no danger; the flames are a part of the play.' As she spoke,a burning piece of wood fell at her feet, and she uttered an involuntary exclamation of alarm. This broke the spell which had heretofore held the audience.”
- Actress Kate Claxton as reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle,
Kate Claxton's attempts to quell the incipient panic that she was afraid would rush through the audience sadly went for naught. For in spite of attempts by Claxton, and several other members of the cast to calm the theater crowd, most of them did rush for the exits, and as a result, nearly three hundred people perished that night, on today's date, December 5, in 1876.
The Brooklyn Theater's Exits
The Brooklyn Theater first raised it's curtains on October 2, 1871 at the south east corner of Washington and Johnson streets, a single block
KEY to the diagram above:
Progress of the fire: 1. A border catches fire from a gaslight border lamp. 2. Actors attempt to calm audience; they fail and panic erupts. 3. Though panic-struck, patrons evacuate the lower portions of the theater successfully. 4. The balcony suffers from clogged stairwells (orange) filled with panicking, frenzied patrons, but police and firemen restore order in time. 5. Choking, deadly smoke hits the gallery before half the people can evacuate via a single stairway (red), which has also become jammed by too many people trying to exit at once. Diagram from "Wikipedia".
Kate Claxton Tries to Calm the Audience
It was later determined that the flames began when a gaslight being used back stage evidently caught onto some of the scenery that was therein stored for another part of the play. The peformance that night with Kate Claxton (below) was of a melodrama called "The Two Orphans." At that point in the
The Brooklyn Theater Audience Panics
The audience members on the first floor, as well as the members of the orchestra were able to effect their exit from the theater fairly quickly, as they had the exits right there, and had no stairs to negotiate. But at the exclamation "FIRE!" the audience members in the balcony headed for the exits and found themselves in a mad crush of panick-stricken humanity. It was a bad scene for those on the second floor, but firefighters who soon arrived and members of the theater staff were soon able to restore order and get these exits emptied. Unfortunately, such was not the case with those poor unfortunates caught on the third floor. They ran for the exits, and the smoke which quickly reached the ceiling rendered the one stairwell leading from that area nearly impassable. Human beings crushed each other to the floor, and most died from being crushed, while those who had not so perished would die of smoke inhalation.
The dead who were discovered mostly the next day were placed in coffins and stored in a nearby market building. Most of them were unrecognizable, and wound up being placed in a common grave near the theater site. Many years later, Miss Paxton would remember that terrible night in an interview with the New York Times:
Kate Claxton Remembers:
“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.”
On a much HAPPIER note:
An important birthday to note today -
Richard Wayne Penniman, known to the world as "Little Richard",
"Good Golly Miss Molly", "Tutti Frutti", "Slippin' and Slidin'", and a host of other rockin' tunes! Considered a key in the gradual move from rhythm and blues to rock and roll in the 1950s, he was also the first artist to put the funk in the rock and roll beat and was also an important contributor to the development of soul music in America.
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Darkest Hours: A Narrative Encyclopedia of Worldwide Disasters from Ancient Times to the Present by Robert Jay Nash, Nelson Hall Publ.,
New York, 1976, pp. 68 -69.