The Brooklyn Theater fire of 1876 is considered one of the worst disasters in American theater history. The tragedy occurred on December 5th during a performance of the play “The Two Orphans” at the Brooklyn Theater located at 280-282 Washington Street, Brooklyn, New York. The fire began when a piece of scenery caught fire and fell on the stage. Despite the immediate attempts of the theater staff and actors to put out the flames, the fire quickly spread and the audience was thrown into a panic.
The panic was exacerbated by the fact that many people in the audience thought the fire was a part of the play and continued to watch, not realizing the seriousness of the situation. However, as more pieces of flaming scenery fell to the stage, it became clear that this was not a planned act and the audience began to frantically try to find an escape.
The theater’s architecture and design contributed to the disaster. The lobby, which many people would have tried to flee to, was located on the second floor and could only be reached by a narrow stairway. The stairway quickly became clogged with panicked patrons and many people were trampled or crushed to death as they tried to escape. The upper tiers of the theater, where many patrons sat, had only one exit and this too became clogged with people trying to get out. The lack of fire escapes or other means of evacuation also added to the death toll.
As the flames continued to spread through the Brooklyn Theater and the smoke and fire became unbearable, many people died from burns, smoke inhalation, or from being trampled. In only 10 minutes, the fire was out of control and the death toll began to rise. The fire continued to burn for several hours until finally dying down around 3 AM.
The final death toll of the fire is estimated to be around 300 people, although the exact number is not known as many of the victims were burned beyond recognition. The National Republican newspaper labeled it “Brooklyn’s Holocaust.” Many newspapers, such as the New York Tribune, began publishing the names of the victims and in the weeks following the disaster, there were numerous funerals and memorial services held for those who had lost their lives.
The Brooklyn Theater fire served as a tragic reminder of the need for proper safety measures and regulations in theaters. As a result of the disaster, the New York State Assembly passed legislation that required all new theaters to have fireproof walls, several exits, and fire escapes.
The Brooklyn Theater fire of 1876 remains a dark chapter in the history of the city of Brooklyn and serves as a sobering reminder of the importance of safety and preparedness in public buildings. The tragic event has been preserved in the digitized historic newspapers from the collection Chronicling America, providing us with a glimpse into the past and a reminder of the importance of learning from the past in order to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
The Brooklyn Paranormal Society with the help of this article aimed to keep the memory of the victims and the tragedy alive. The theater was later demolished but the site where it stood remains a place of pilgrimage for many who wish to pay their respects to the victims of the Brooklyn Theater fire of 1876.