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Letter from Thomas R. Joynes to Levin S. Joynes (December 27, 1811)

In a letter to his brother, Levin S. Joynes, dated December 27, 1811, Thomas R. Joynes, a delegate from Accomack County, describes his experience in the Richmond Theatre fire the day before. The fire killed more than seventy men, women, and children.

Transcription from Original

Richmond December 27th1811

Dr Brother,

I have now taken my pen to relate to you a circumstance which occurred in this City last night, at the recollection of which my heart is chilled with horror. It was a scene the horrors of which the most fruitful imagination cannot conceive and much less can any person describe its tragical aspect—

Last night there was a Play performed a this place and such a crowded audience was never before witnessed at the Richmond Theatre. There were not less than seven Hundred persons. About half past ten o'clock several pieces of fire fell from the top of the Theatre down on the stage amongst the Actors and in an instant it was discovered that the whole house was envelloped in flames. Then commenced a scene of horror and misery, than which one more tragical perhaps never happened. The Shrieks of women and children, the cries of men in search of an affectionate wife, a tender child, or an aged parent, presented to view the scene of woe and misery which I can scarcely mention without my blood chilling in my veins.

When it was discovered that the house was on fire, I was, with a great many others, in the third story in a situation extremely remote from the door, and I have abundant reason to thank Heaven for my escape from that abyss of destruction in which so many perished. When the fire was discovered I rushed to the stair-case, and with Considerable difficulty I made my way through the crowd and was one of the first who escaped through the door entirely unhurt. When I got to the ground the whole roof was an entire volume of flame. A few minutes after I got out, the whole staircase was in flames which prevented persons from escaping in that way, and there was no alternative but to jump out at the windows. Hundreds flocked to the windows in the second and third stories and precipitated themselves down on the ground. Some got killed in the fall and some got their legs and arms broken and some few escaped unhurt. But the most melancholy tale remains yet to be told. More than one Hundred persons of every age and sex perished in the flames! I myself saw a crowd standing at one of the windows when there were well surround by the flames, their clothes took fire and they perished in the general conflagration. I saw two wretched men, frantick for the loss of an affectionate wife, and dear relatives and connexions, after they were themselves safe on the ground rush impetuously into the flames and share the fate of those who were dearer to them than life. I have this moment returned from the place of this melancholy catastrophe, where great quantities of human carcasses are to be seen which were not entirely consumed by the fire. The precise number who perished is not ascertained, but not person thinks there was less than one hundred and some compute the number at 150 persons.

Amongst the unhappy sufferers we have to lament the death of some of the most respectable citizens. Amongst whom are George W mSmith Esq r, who was recently elected Governor of this Commonwealth, who having saved his wife perished in an attempt to save his child—Abraham P. Venable Ex-president of the Virginia Bank—Benjamin Botte Esqr Attorney at Law and his wife—Mrs Thomas Wilson the mother-in-law of Littleton Upshur Esqr of Northampton and numbers of others of equal respectability might be enumerated. Severn E. Parker and his wife were both sitting in the same row of seats with me, though at some distance apart—Mr. Parker took his wife in his arms and carried her, over the heads of the crowd, to a window in the second story, from whence they both leaped out. Mr. Parker escaped unhurt. Mrs. Parker got considerably injured, though I believe not dangerously, but the extent of the injury I cannot ascertain as I have not seen Mr. Parker this morning.

It was supposed when the fire was first discovered, that the house was intentionally set on fire, and that it was only the precursor of scenes still more tragical than the ones which has happened. It was supposed by many to have been the signal for insurrection, and that those who escaped the fury of the flames, might have to encounter an enemy more destructive than fire itself. But there is now no doubt but that these fears were groundless. If there had been any intention of that kind, it would have been carried into effect when the flames were at their height, and all the inhabitants were collected there. It has been, I believe, satisfactorily ascertained, that the fire was accidentally commun[ic]ated by a lamp to the scenery, and in a few seconds after it first took fire the whole scenery and indeed the whole house was in flames.

When the house was tumbling in, and the unhappy victims were sufferings the pangs of death, the miserable survivors of departing connexions were franically [sic] running to and fro, and exclaiming to every person they met with, "Have you seen my dear wife?" "Have you seen my husband?" "Have you seen my dear son or daughter," "Have you seen my brothers, sisters, father or mother?" The subject is too shocking to dwell on.

All the members of the Assembly from the Eastern Shore escaped unhurt, and it is not yet ascertained whether any members of the Assembly were killed.

You will please communicate to my dear mother and all my connextions my fortunate escape from destruction. The enclosed letter you will please forward immediately, as it may prevent the anxiety and uneasiness which would be occasioned by the reading of the newspaper account with [out] hearing from me.

I shall write to you again in a few days, when sprits bec [torn] giving you information on other subjects

I remain yr affectionate brother

Tho R. Joynes

Mr L. S. Joynes

[Addressed]

Mr. Levin S. Joynes

Accomack County

Virginia

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If the post master at Drummond Town will send this letter immediately he will confer a particular favor on two of his friends.