On December 5, 1876, upwards of 900 people were gathered in the Brooklyn Theatre enjoying a production of The Two Orphans, starring Kate Claxton and Harry S. Murdock. Claxton especially was a major star of her day, and the play, a melodrama in five acts adapted from a French play, would go on to be one of the most produced theatre pieces in the country well into the twentieth century. Just at the beginning of the final act, a cotton backdrop above the stage swayed close to a gaslight and caught fire. Several crewmen attempted to dowse the flames without stopping the show or sounding any alarms, but failed, and in the conflagration and ensuing panic that followed, at least 278 people died (an exact number was never determined). The theatre burned to the ground in ninety minutes.
The Brooklyn Theatre stood on the corner of Johnson and Washington Streets (now Cadman Plaza East at this junction), directly across Johnson Street from where the U.S. Post Office building now stands. Built in 1871, the theatre was made mostly of wood, and was lit by gaslights. The auditorium rose three tiers high, including the first-floor Parquet Circle, a second-level Dress Circle balcony, and the Family Circle (the cheap seats) on the top tier. This third level was accessible by just one switchback staircase, and once upstairs, there was no way out except that staircase. Most of the dead had been sitting in this section of the theatre.
It was between the fourth and fifth acts that a crew member noticed the small fire in the rear fly area above the stage. Rather than evacuate the theatre, it was decided to put out the flames while the show went on. Most theatres at the time kept water buckets and wet blankets backstage for smothering small fires, and the Brooklyn Theatre had a hose tied into a dedicated water pipe. However, all those were on the deck and the fire, small though it was, was in the air, and when the curtain rose for the final act, the inrush of air from the auditorium fanned the flames, which ignited other scenic drops and the dry wood battens that held them, and the fire took off.
The performers onstage bravely tried to calm the audience as it rose and ran for the exits, but as the fire grew, the actors, too, ran to escape. Foolishly, Murdoch and castmate Claude Burroughs, a popular young rising star, went to their dressing rooms to grab warmer clothes than their costumes allowed, and both perished. Claxton and another actress, Maude Harrison, escaped through an underground passage that led from their dressing room to the box office on Washington Street.
Newspaper accounts of the fire describe horrific scenes of people being trampled, trapped, and jumping from windows, of which there were few, and ventilator outlets, and the collapse of the still-crowded and burning Family Circle tier into the middle of the ground level and on into the theatre’s basement.
The list of the dead includes not just adults, but many children and teenagers. Of the 278 known dead, 103 bodies were unidentifiable and were buried together in a mass grave in Green-wood Cemetery, where an obelisk stands today marking their final resting place.
The Brooklyn Theatre fire was at the time the worst public-assembly fire disaster in U.S. history, and today remains the third worst. A new fire code was instituted as a response, and included requiring theatres to have brick proscenium walls rather than wood, and to have a fire-proof house curtain. Those curtains, of course, were for almost 100 years after made of asbestos, now a known carcinogen and banned substance.
A fascinating footnote to the fire concerns Kate Claxton. As noted, she was a popular, highly regarded actor at the time of the fire, but just months later, she traveled to St. Louis to perform in a show there, and just after she arrived, her hotel burned down, with Claxton making another last-second escape. Thereafter, many actors refused to join any show she was in, and superstitious audiences fearfully avoided her performances. Her career was irreparably damaged.