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This Day in Richmond History: December 26, 1811

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The Richmond Theatre catches fire, claiming the lives of at least 72 people

Close to 600 people, 80 of which were children, attended the Richmond Theatre the night after Christmas, enjoying the play The Father, and then the pantomime entitled Raymond and Agness, or The Bleeding Nun. The Richmond Theatre, which sat along Broad Street facing south between what is now Twelfth and College Streets, consisted of an orchestra section, main balcony, and upper box seats. There were only three exits out of the building.

During the final act of the night, during the pantomime, the stage curtains brushed against the candles of a nearby chandelier, initially setting some scenery on fire. The flames quickly spread to all of the other scenery and to the pine roofing. Smoke and flame turned an enjoyable night into a nightmare for the nearly 600 theater goers who suddenly found themselves fighting with each other to escape through one of the narrow doors or windows in the brick structure.

As panic struck the crowd, people were crushed trying to get out of the theater-turned-fireball. Some people crowded near windows to possibly escape via that exit, but stalled out of fear for jumping at that height. A Dr. James McCaw helped to lower several people to safety. Gilbert Hunt, a former slave who had bought his freedom, caught the theater goers as they were lowered by McCaw. Finally Hunt caught Dr. McCaw just as the area he had been standing near the window collapsed. Both of these gentleman would be recognized as heroes.

There were many prominent Richmonders and Virginians in attendance that night, many of whom would perish. Among them was the sitting governor, George William Smith, and former senator Abraham Venable. Governor Smith, like many people, initially escaped the theater but returned out of fear that unaccounted family members were still trapped. He believed that his daughter was still inside, so he returned, only to be killed by the fire. As it turned out all of his children survived.

Smith and Venable were just two of the 72 or more deaths that night, many of which were prominent members of Virginia families. A staggering 54 of the dead were women. Three children died out of the total as well. This tragedy was one of the first and most shocking civilian disasters to take place in America up to that time. While many tragedies had taken place on U.S. soil, and death had struck during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, nothing of this magnitude with so many innocent civilian deaths had occurred due to an accident like this.

This disaster took place during the height of the Second Great Awakening that was spreading through America. Many people viewed this disaster as proof that God did not approve of theaters or acting, which was a prominent opinion during those times. It took nearly a decade before another theater was allowed to open up for business in Richmond.

In commemoration for those who died that night, the Monumental Church was built on the site between 1812-1814, and commissioned by Chief Justice John Marshall. Below the sanctuary is a crypt where the bodies of those who perished that night of December 26, 1811 are buried. Also at the site of the church is a monument to those who died.

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