Primary Resource

"Report of the Committee of Investigation," Richmond Enquirer (December 31, 1811)

In its "Report of the Committee of Investigation," published in the Richmond Enquirer on December 31, 1811, the Richmond Common Council presents the results of its inquiry into the causes of the Richmond Theatre fire. The fire killed more than seventy people on December 26, 1811.

Transcription from Original

REPORT

Of the Committee of Investigation.

We the Committee, appointed by our Fellow-Citizens "to enquire into the causes of the melancholy catastrophe" which took place in this city on Thursday night last; a catastrophe, which has spread a gloom over a whole city, and filled every eye with tears; have given to this melancholy duty all the attention in our power.—We feel it due to ourselves; it was due to our weeping fellow-citizens; it was due to the world to collect all the lights which might serve to elucidate an event whose effects are so deeply written on our hearts.—We have seen every person who was behind the scenes, that was best able to assist our enquiries—we have heard their statements, and after sifting them as accurately as possible, beg leave to submit the following report to our afflicted citizens.

On the night of Thursday last, the Pantomime of "The Bleeding Nun, or, Agnes and Raymond" came on for representation after the Play was over. In the first Act amongst other scenes, was the scene of the Cottage of Baptist the Robber, which was illuminated by a chandelier apparently hanging from the ceiling. When the curtain fell on the first Act and before it rose on the 2nd, this chandelier was lifted from its position among the scenery above. It was fixed with 2 wicks to it; only one of them had been lit; yet when it was lifted above, this fatal lamp was not extinguished. Here is the first link in the chain of our disasters. The man who raised it, does not pretend to deny it—but pleads that he did so in consequence of an order from some person, whom he supposed authorised to direct him. That person was behind him; the voice had reached him, without his seeing the person, and he does not pretend positively to recognise him. We have not the most distant idea that there was the slightest mischievous intention in the order or in the act—it was inattention—it was the grosses negligence. The lifter of the lamp says that he was aware of the danger, and remonstrated against the act; yet yielded with too fatal a facility to the re-iterated orders of a person whom he saw not, but supposed authorized to direct him. We cast not the slightest imputations upon the Managers or any of the regular Comedians of the stage—their positions at the moment as well as other circumstances, forbid the idea that the order ever passed from their lips; yet the act was done. The lighted lamp was lifted—the torch of destruction gleamed at the top of the stage.

Mr. Rice (the Property-man of the Theatre) says, that he saw the scene was over in which the lamp was used; he saw the lamp after it was lifted up; he was aware of the danger of its remaining in that position; and spoke to one of the carpenters, three times repeatedly, "Lower that lamp and blow it out." He did not see it put out; for he was drawn by his business to another part of the stage.

Mr. West declares that he was passing by to commence the 2nd Act of the Pantomime, and saw the lamp up and heard Rice giving directions to the Carpenter to extinguish it.

Mr. Cook (the regular carpenter of the Theatre) declares that he saw the carpenter, alluded to above, attempting to let down the lamp immediately after the order to let it down had been given; that he has no doubt this attempt was made in consequence of the order; that he saw the cords tangle and the lamp oscillate several inches from its perpendicular position. The chandelier above was moved by two cords which worked over two pulleys, merged in a collar-beam of the roof; and one straight line from the beam to the lamp was, Mr. Cook things, about 14 or 15 feet. This same idea may be had of the degree of oscillation.

Mr. Anderson (one of the Performers of the Theatre) says, that he had remarked even before the representation, how unskillfully the chandelier had played; and that an attempt to move it had caused it to ride circularly round.

Mr. Yore (another of the workmen of the machinery,) most conclusively confirms this statement, he saw, that in the attempt to lower the lamp, as it was perched among the scenery, the carpenter had failed in his effort; that he then jerked it and jostled it, that it was thus swerved into its perpendicular attitude, and brought into contact with the lower part of one of those scenes. The scene took fire; the flame rose, and tapering above it to a point, must have reached the roof, which was elevated 6 or 7 feet only above the top of the scene.

We were assured, that the there was not one transparent scene hanging; that is, a scene coated with varnish and extremely combustible—that there was only one paperscene hanging, which Mr. Utt the Prompter declares, was removed 6 or 8 feet behind the lamp. Thirty-five scenes were at that moment hanging, exclusive of the flies or narrow borders which represent the skies, roofs, &c.—and of these 34 were canvass paintings; which though not extremely combustible on the painted side, are on the other so well covered with the fibres of the hemp as to catch the flame.

Efforts were made to extinguish the flame. Mr. Cook, the carpenter, ascended into the carpenter's gallery; but in vain. He didsucceed in letting down some of the scenes upon the floor, under an idea that this was the surest means of extinguishing the flame, but he could not distinguish the cords of the scene, that was then on fire. The roof soon caught, and the sense of danger compelled him to fly for his life.

The committee must now be under the necessity of drawing the attention of our fellow-citizens, to the events which took place in front of the curtain. Mr. West states that immediately on his entering the stage to go on with his part, he heard some bustle behind the scenes which he conceived to be a mere fracas—the cry of "fire" then saluted his ears, which gave him no serious apprehensions, as he knew that little accidents of this description had often taken place; that he heard some voices exclaim "don't be alarmed," which exclamation he repeated through a solicitude to prevent hurry and confusion; that he had not at that moment seen any flakes of fire fall behind the scene; but seeing them at length falling from the roof, he retired behind the scene and found the whole stage enveloped in flames; that he attempted to pull down some of the hanging pieces; when finding it unavailing, he attempted to make good his own retreat.

Mr. Robertson, who was the only performer besides, that came before the audience, assured the Committee, that at the moment when he first discovered the flame, it was no longer than his handkerchief, that he repaired immediately to the stage, as near the orchestra as he could come; there he conveyed to the audience, not wishing to alarm them, by gesticulation to leave the house; that in the act of doing that, he discovered the flames moving rapidly, and then he exclaimed, "The house (or the Theatre) is on fire;" that he went directly to the stage-box where some 3 or 4 ladies were sitting, intreating them to jump into his arms; that he could save them by conveying them through the private stage-door; & that he still intreated them, until he found it necessary to make his own escape; that his own retreat by the private door was intercepted by the flames; that he found it necessary to make his own escape; that his own retreat by the private door was intercepted by the flames; that he found it necessary to leap into the stage-box, & join the general crowd in the lobby; that he gained one of the front windows; assisted in passing out some 10 or 12 females, but at last found it necessary to throw himself from the window."

This narrative is due to the exertions of a gentleman, who first sounded the alarm; & to whom there are a few who have not done that justice which he deserves—Let us now return to the transmission of the fire—where the point of flame reached the roof. The roof was unfortunately not plastered & sealed—there was a sheathing of plank, pine plank, we are told, nailed over the rafters; & over these, the shingles. The rosin of the pine had perhaps oozed out of the plank, though the heat of our summer's sun, stood in drops upon it. Yet however this may have been, no sooner did the spire of the flame reach the roof than it caught. The fire spread with rapidity through this combustible material, unparalleled, certainly never equaled by any of the too numerous fires which have desolated our city—In 4 or 5 minutes at least, the whole roof was one sheet of flame—it burst through the bulls-eye in front—it sought the windows where the rarefied vapour sought its passage; fed by the vast column of air in the hollows of a Theatre, fed by the inflammable pannels & pillars of the boxes, by the done of the pit, by the canvas ceiling of the lower boxes, until its suffocated victims in the front were wrapt in its devouring flame or pressed to death under the smouldering ruins of the building.

Here we might pause in our melancholic task. We have traced the conflagration to the fatal lamp, lifted as it was lit, then jirked & jostled, out of is perpendicular position to the scenery——to the roof, until every thing was enveloped in fury——But there is one part of the subject which, though it does not fall strictly within the letter of the Resolution, or perhaps the line of our duty, is yet too interesting to be passed over. Why, this fatality? Why have so many victims perished on this melancholy occasion? It cannot be said, that it was the combustibility of the building, and the rapidity of the fire, great as they undoubtedly were, which altogether produced this mortality of the species—for we cannot believe, if large vomitories had been erected for the passage of the crowd, if there had been doors enough to admit them, that more than one-tenth of an audience should have perished on the occasion.

It was in the opinion of the Committee that this ill construction of the theatre itself was principally its cause. How numerous were the occasions on which it had long before been said, as the crowd was slowly retiring at the end of a play, "Suppose the house were on fire, what should we do?"—Yet we slept with too fatal a security over the evil—we trusted and we are ruined.—New doors were not opened; the winding stair-case was not straightened, the access to the avenues of the theatre was not enlarged.

Even the relics of our fellow citizens as they lay, pointed out the causes of this fatality. They were found strewed in heaps at the foot of the narrow stair case which lead from the boxes—and though with less profusion, on the ground immediately under the lobby of the boxes above, from which lobby their retreat down the stairs had been intercepted by the crowd which choaked them up. On that fatal night, there were in the Pit & Boxes 518 dollar tickets and 80 children—exclusive of 50 persons who were in the galleries. Of these, 598 had to pass through one common avenue, and although all the spectators in the Pitt may have escaped, except a few who may have jumped into the Boxes, yet the crowd in the Lower and Upper boxes had no other resource than to press through a narrow angular stair-case or to leap the windows.——The Committee not being particularly conversant with the construction of theatres, have requested Mr. Twaitts, one of the Managers of this Theatre, to furnish us with his ideas on the subject. He has favored us with a statement which we beg to leave to incorporate with our report, in the words following, to wit:

"By request of the Committee of Enquiry into the cause of the late dreadful calamity at the Theatre on the night of the 26th instant, I assert, that the loss of so many valuable lives, and the distress which is felt by and on the occasion, is wholly attributable to the construction of the late Theatre and its materials.

"In all Theatres, that I have seen, except the late one, there have been three distinct and separate doors of entrance—one to the Boxes, one to the Pit, and one to the Gallery. The late Drury-Lane Theatre had in the centre of each side a spacious hall, with broad and straight stair-cases, which terminated in the Lobbies of the Boxes; three entrances to the Pit, one in the front and one on each side; and four entrances to two Galleries, two on each side. These avenues were firm and commodious, and in their construction presented every facility for escape, when any danger assailed the audience. Miserable reverse! In the late Richmond Theatre, but one entrance to the Boxes and Pit, and that so narrow, that two persons could scarcely pass at the same time—the way then lying through a gloomy passage to a narrow winding stair-case, which terminated in as narrow a Lobby.—It is, therefore, evident, that this ever to be lamented loss, which as at once deprived your city of some of its brightest ornaments, and desolated many families, is wholly attributable to the mal-construction of the late Theatre, which certainly offered no means of speedy escape. The rapidity of the conflagration must have been caused by the unfinished state of the building, there being no plastered ceiling to wall to prevent the communication of flame."

The committee cannot close their melancholy labours without expressing one hop, that irreparable as our own calamities have been we may not have suffered altogether in vain; that our own misfortunes may serve as beacons to the rest of our countrymen; and that no theatres should be permitted to be opened in the other cities of the U. S. until every city facility has been procured for the escape of the audience.