Primary Resource

From the Diary of Charles Copland (1811)

In this extract from his diary, Charles Copland describes his attempts at rescuing his daughter Margaret from the Richmond Theatre fire, which occurred on December 26, 1811, and killed more than seventy people.

Transcription from Original

December 26th. She [Copland's daughter Margaret] with about 70 other persons perished in the conflagration of the Theatre, which took fire accidentally, and began in the scenery. It was a night of horror and of great distress to me, and also to many others, who were sufferers as well as myself by the loss of relatives who perished in the flames. Four of my children were in the Theatre when the fire broke out. I was there myself in the early part of the night, but got fired of the play and came home, and was in bed and asleep when the fire commenced. I was awakened by the cries of fire in the street; on opening my eyes, the room was illuminated by the fire from
the Theatre through the end window of the chamber, and which faced the Theatre. Rising and going to the window, I discovered the Theatre enveloped in flames, and before I got on my clothes I heard my daughter Elizabeth, who had escaped, coming
up stairs shrieking. When I got to my front door going out, I found crowds of people in the street coming from the Theatre. Some of them bearing away their maimed friends, who had suffered either from burning or broken limbs. On my way to the Theatre I stopt at every group I met to enquire for my daughter Margaret and my sons William and Robert, and after I got to
the Theatre I ran about in all directions making like enquiries,
but could hear nothing of them. By this time, and even when I
first got to the Theatre, all those who were maimed or hurt, either by burning or broken limbs, were carried off, and the crowd had removed from the Theatre twenty or thirty yards,
either forced back by the heat or the fear of the walls falling on
them, leaving a wide open space between the house and the crowd. Agitated by disappointment in not finding my daughter or my
sons, I rushed into the Theatre at the only outward entrance
door, and over a plank floor of about 12 feet wide to the narrow inward door, where the receiver of tickets used to stand to receive
the tickets of admission from those that went to the play, and at which inward door there was a step that let down to the dirt
floor that led to the foot of the stairway that ascended to the boxes. When I got to this inward door, I discovered on the dirt floor, and at a little to the left of the door, a female with her arms extended, and as I thought by her gestures, under the influence of mental derangement; she had passed the inward door that led to the outward door (the way I had entered), and was moving to the westward side of the house, and where there was no outlet.
I advanced quickly to her, and bore her out into the yard in front of the Theatre. Some of the spectators came up; I left her in their care, and immediately returned into the Theatre, and advanced to the foot of the stairway that led to the boxes above, and here was presented to my view the most appalling sight I had ever witnessed. At the foot of the staircase there lay twelve or fifteen human beings, if not more, some of them manifestly alive, and which I discovered by the wreathing of their bodies. I thought they were all females; one of them had her arm extended and erect. I seized her and carried her out into the yard, as I had done the one before, and when she was received from me by some of the spectators, I then proclaimed the situation of others that lay at the foot of the staircase, and ventured again into the Theatre to the foot of the staircase, but no one followed me. My daughter had worn to the Theatre a cloth riding dress, and when I was there a second time at the foot of the staircase I passed my hand over the bodies of the females that lay prostrate before me, with the hope of discovering my daughter by the dress she had worn, for I had not time to examine faces, although there was sufficient light, as well from the candles that were burning in the tin sconces that hung on the walls, as from the flames, above, the glare of which came down the stairway. Agonized by the disappointment in not finding my daughter among those who lay at the foot of the stairway, distracted too with the belief that my sons as well as my daughter were lost, the roar of the fire above, the crackling of the burning timber, and the apprehension that my retreat to the outward door might be cut off by the falling in of the floor above me, all united, so affected me (I tell it to my shame) that I retreated from the foot of the stairway, and went out without taking with me any one of those unfortunate victims that lay at my feet, and whose life I might have saved.

By what means death or torpor in so great a degree was produced in those that lay at the foot of the stairway, it is difficult to !say. No doubt but that suffocation had commenced as they got from the upper floor, and in attempting to descend the stairway they were borne down and trampled on; fright, too, might have had an effect. I remember well that the smoke on the ground floor, where I was, was not in such a degree as to endanger suffocation; it might. however, be in a degree sufficient to retard respiration in those who had suffered from smoke before they got from the upper floor. I think it probable, however, that the greater part, if not the whole, of those that lay at the foot of the stairway on the ground floor might have been had been carried out even when I was a second time at the foot
of the stair case, and which was the third time I had been in the
house. While I was passing my hands over their bodies feeling for a cloth dress, I frequently and with a loud voice called my daughter, hoping by loud speaking to rouse her, or some one of them, but the power of speech was gone or suspended. but other signs of life were not wanting. The sad catastrophe of this night
my feeling has hindered me from making a subject of conversation, but I have often wished that I knew the recollections (if any) which the two ladies I rescued had of the scenes that night.
I have said that there lay at the foot of the stairway twelve or fifteen, if not more. It is possible, however, that the perturbation of my mind at that time may have magnified the number. On coming out of the Theatre the third and last time I ran home not without a faint hope that my children might have escaped and returned home. I found my two sons, but my daughter was no more.