The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The 1811 Richmond Theater Fire

December 26 is the 201st anniversary of the tragic Richmond Theatre fire in Richmond, Va. The fire broke out during the evening performance when an oil lamp ignited pieces of stage scenery, sending the packed house of 600 running for the exits. But the theater, built long before fire safety regulations, couldn’t accommodate the escaping crowd, and in the end, 72 people were killed. Horrific accounts of the event appeared in newspapers across the country.

Harriet Otis, daughter of U.S. Senate Secretary Samuel Allyne Otis, was living in Washington, D.C. at the time. On December 28, 1811, she wrote: 

Papa came home at noon with the sad intelligence of the destruction of the Richmond theatre by fire, in which many noted and interesting people perished—among others Lieut Gibbons [James Gibbon, U.S. Navy] who was here a little while since—so little while, that I felt a sensation of horror at hearing he was no more—the particulars of this horrible catastrophe I do not yet know.

Two days later, she had a little more information:

Every tongue utters some new circumstance of horror respecting the Richmond sufferers—Poor Gibbon! hard as seems his fate well may his mother, rescued by him, exult in such a son—He had saved her and rushed back to save Miss [Sallie] Conyers a lady to whom he had long been attached—his efforts were vain and they both perished.

 Bostonian Sophia (Sewall) Wood didn’t hear about the fire until January 7. While newspaper reports had overestimated the loss of life, Sophia was deeply affected by the story:

This eve heard of a most melancholly heart-rending account of a dreadful fire at Richmond in Virginia. The Theatre burnt to ashes & 150 Persons fell victims to the flames. This news, so distressing we cannot contemplate unmoved. Oh! but how littlecan we feel for those sufferers & yet how much.

Religious leaders were soon speculating about metaphysical causes. Was the fire a punishment from God for the institution of slavery? For theater-going and other “vices”? The MHS holds a number of sermons preached shortly after the fire, one of which boasts the colorful title: Repent! repent! or likewise perish!...on the late calamity at Richmond, Virginia.

Sophia Wood took a similar line: 

Good often arises from the most calamitous events & tis to be devoutly wish’d, that this signal distress, will direct the minds of the disapated inhabitants of V___a to that divine sun of truth & religion, without which our lives are blanke here & the prospect of the future is indeed melancholly.

Harriet Otis, however, hesitated to pass judgment. On January 5, she described a sermon by Senate chaplain John Brackenridge that drew parallels to a Biblical story:

Mr Breckenridge warned us in a very good discourse not to think that “those Jews on whom the tower of Siloam fell were sinners above all others”—Alas who could be so dead to compassion as to pronounce such a sentence on the Richmond sufferers.

The Richmond Theatre building had been entirely consumed, and in 1814 Monumental Church was constructed on the site as a memorial to those who died.


permalink | Published: Wednesday, 26 December, 2012, 1:00 AM


Jan 1, 2013, 9:58 pm

Meredith Baker

Thank you for sharing this post on the Richmond fire. It certainly is interesting how the event captured the attention of Americans from all corners of the new nation. When researching my book "The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America's First Great Disaster" (LSU Press, 2012), I found several connections between Richmond and Massachusetts. There are several documents and sermons from Massachusetts about the fire I unearthed in the archives which represent a variety of views on the meaning of the disaster. One young men's association in Boston commissioned a sermon from Methodist Elijah Sabin which lambasted the theater, and a Harvard student composed a lengthy monody sympathetically lamenting the fate of those lost in the Richmond theater during the blaze.

There is another connection: the Massachusetts legislature sent a resolution to the people of Richmond in 1812 to express their sorrow and condolences. All the best and I hope anyone interested in further information about the fire will take a look at the book or visit the book's website:

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