Primary Resource

"Statements," Richmond Enquirer (January 2, 1812)

In a series of statements, published in the Richmond Enquirer on January 2, 1812, witnesses to the Richmond Theatre fire describe their experiences. The fire killed more than seventy people on December 26, 1811.

Transcription from Original

STATEMENTS.

I occupied on Thursday evening a seat in the lower corner box on the left of the entrance into the Theatre. The first I saw of the fire a piece of paper in full blaze was descending from the top and was then about fifteen feet above the level of the stage, ere it alighted, a general cry of "fire" pervaded the house; and the persons immediately quitted their seats. I was among the last to do so, and when I got half of the distance to the stair-way I met with Mrs. Scott, a lady of my acquaintance who I entreated to be calm, and not too precipitate; as her safety depended on deliberation; her answer was "I am not alarmed and will do so" we advanced a few feet and a loud cry that it was a "false alarm" induced me to return to the corner where I had sat and looked through a door then open, and there I discovered the scenery in full blaze and the canopy on fire. I hastened back to the crowd. Being a stranger to the Theatre and ignorant of its construction I knew of no mode of escape except through the avenue I had ascended to the boxes. I found it blocked up by the crowd, and the light being very vivid, I discovered that the persons in it were principally Ladies; they were greatly alarmed and crying for relief, and entreating the crowd not to destroy them; still persisting in the belief that as the fire was in the rear, the danger was no very imminent; unwilling to crowd on those before me, and being too lame to encounter the struggle, I refrained from pressing upon them, but in a minute I found my hopes were illusive—black thick smoke rushed upon us, so instantaneously suffocating that those who had yielded to their fears by crying sunk without a groan, and I found a space in front no longer crowded expect by prostrate bodies. I advanced until the external light ascertained to me that I was opposite a window near the head of the stairs; this I endeavoured to force, but the bodies of some persons standing in that direction stopt me two feet short of it. In the efforts made after the smoke reached me I must have consumed in half a minute. I then was compelled to breathe this oppressive smoke, which was so intolerable that I could only make one convulsive struggle to advance, and I then sunk senseless—My last recollection was that my feet were descending; but whether the door or stair-way were broken or I had reached the descent, I am not conscious. I heard no noise. Insensibly I descended to the level of the pit and there a strong current of fresh air revived me, as I lay amongst a heap of prostrate persons. I struggled to rise and found my self on my feet with a lady clinging to me, she entreated me to save her, and as she was unable to support herself I carried her in various directions to find the other door, which I avoided from a mistake that had almost proved fatal. I saw several persons falling from the windows into the street in full blaze, and my impression was that becoming desperate by the fire, they were plunging from the boxes into the pit, the place of all others most to be avoided; in this effort to find the way out I saw several gentlemen running to and fro, to whom I addressed the enquiry "which is the way out?" but obtained no answer. I at length determined to find the avenue through which the great column of air entered; and by running towards it, soon gained the door. When we got out, the fire was pouring through the front windows, and ere two had advanced far the roof tumbled in. The lady whom I rescued still claimed my assistance and I carried her to a place of safety—I saw no more of the scene until the walls tumbled down, and do not know if any, or how many got out after we did, but I am confident that if those from without had ran in, many who fell by the suffocation & were bu[r]ned before they regained strength to rise, would have been saves.

J. G. JACKSON.

December 30.

Sir,—Agreeably to your request, I proceed to state the circumstances attending my situation and escape from the Theatre on the awful night of the 26th inst.—I carried with me to the play and the two Miss Herons, Alfred Gilliat, Peter Kirby and Nicholas Gilliam nephews of my wife and self, the House was much crowded; for the girls, I with difficulty procured seats among some of their friends mostly ladies in box No. 8, and for the boys, seats in the back of box No. 7—and was sitting, when the curtain rose in the second act of the Afterpiece next the boys, immediately after which the alarm of fire was given, and instantly I saw the fire falling on the stage. On rising from my seat I desired the boys to take care of themselves and escape as soon as possible, and proceeded myself towards the seats in the next box which were occupied by my neice [sic], the Miss Herons, and their party, with the intention of assisting them out of the House. I reached the place without much difficulty, but the party had all left their seats and in endeavoring to return thro' the lobby I was carried with the current of the crowd opposite to the place from whence I had departed and found that Mrs. Gibbon, Mrs. Gallego, Miss Conyers and the three Boys had all left their seats—In the then state of affairs it was evidently fruitless for me to search for either of the persons of whom I had been in pursuit, and at this juncture I began to think of myself for the first time,—I was in the lobby next to box No. 7, and the flames were approaching with a degree of fury, and rapidity that perhaps was never exceeded—hitherto the scene had been all bustle, confusion and consternation; it now changed to one of awful horror and desperation that beggars all description,—all ceremony was forgotten in conforming to the first law of nature—I perceived the centre window in the front end of the House & determined to endeavor to reach it—with the assistance of a sword cane which I had in my hand, and the partition betwixt the lobby and box No. 7. I mounted on the heads of the crowd betwixt me and the window—by this time the House was in total darkness from the smoke, but in groping I providentially reached the side of the window, surrounded by the unavailing and afflicting cries of those suffocating around me. I stepped within the window, and with difficulty raised the lower sash with the intention of slipping out, and had thrust my feet thro' for that purpose when the sash was suddenly pressed down and caught my feet betwixt it and the window sill. I extricated one foot but could not extricate the other, until those behind me who had sufficient strength left to mount over me and the lower sash which kept me down, did so; in this situation I found myself so far gone from suffocation that I gave myself up as lost, the flames however rushed over my head and the introduction of fresh air at the bottom of the window gave me new life,—those behind me being no longer able to keep me down, I with a last effort raised the window, extricated my foot and jumped out, without receiving any injury from the fall, tho' much injured in one of my feet from bruises occasioned by the pressure of the window sash, and I have other wounds and bruises received in the lobby and window so slight however as under other considerations not to be worth naming.—Mr. John Lynch merchant of this city was I believe the only person who past thro' the window after me. I left many others about it, all of whom must have perished—so rapid was the fire that I do not think three minutes could have elapsed from the first alarm until I reached the window; at any rate with all the exertion that I could make, about thirty feet would I think include the whole space of my progress from the first alarm until I reached the window, and at that time many were expiring with suffocation—In the midst of so much sorrow and grief it affords me much consolation that the three boys and Girls whom I carried with me have all escaped with their lives, altho' the efforts which I made with the view of assisting them were unavailing. The scene which ensued out of the house was witnessed by many, and like that with in, will long be remembered, but probably never adequately described.

I am respectfully sir,

You ob't servant,

M. W. HANCOCK

SIR,

In consequence of the conversation, we had this evening, I take up my pen, and without further preface, state, that when the commencement of the dreadful Fire on

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Thursday night was announced from the Stage, I was leaning over the back of the front box, which was next to the north side of the Theatre; on my left hand was Lt. Gibbon, and on the bench directly below, were Mrs. Gallego, Miss Conyers, Mrs. Gibbon, Mrs. Braxton, Mr. Venable and others, whose names I cannot recollect; the alarm of fire was immediately succeeded by a cry of, 'tis a false alarm, there is no danger, and as we did not imagine any, both Lieut. Gibbon & myself endeavored to quiet the apprehensions of the Ladies in the box: I fixed my eyes on the Stage; the scene which was down, had the appearance of a transparency, behind which gleams of light seemed to descend; but this did not convince me, or any person near me; a moment however decided, the front scene is in flames, and I then resolved to give all that assistance which humanity dictated, and reached over for Miss Conyers, who had sunk motionless below. Lieut, Gibbon did the same, we took her over, we held her between us, she is in a state of insensibility, and to all appearance dead, her head falling over my left arm; in this manner we proceeded towards the head of the stairs, when Gibbon, said, Lynch leave Sally to me, I am strong enough to carry her, she is light, and you can save somebody else. I replied, God bless you, Gibbon, there is the stairs. I then turned round and proceeded for my original situation in order to take out some of the other Ladies, & as I returned, I perceived the dreadful element rush with the rapidity of lightning from the stage, along the facing of the upper boxes, taking both sides at the same time, and from the dreadful column of smoke which was then thrown down upon the centre of the front boxes, the flames must have met there: all was now utter darkness in the lobby, and suffocation threatened. I could not do any thing, I was in the midst of a crowd of sufferers, the cries were dreadful, it was an awful period, and only that the end window was then burst open we must all, all that were in that lobby, would certainly have been suffocated; the opening of the window brought relief & hope, I moved on with the throng to the window, & got to the West side of it. There was a gentleman in a light coloured coat, fixed fast in the window seat (whom I since understand was Mr. Hancock,) it appeared to me that his legs & thighs were fixed betwixt the sill of the window and the brick work: men and women were precipitating themselves on his shoulders, regardless of his entreaties to allow him to free himself, and of the fate that waited them below: many bodies were laying on the ground to appearance dead, and the flames were passing out of the top of the window; I was undetermined, and at that moment I was pushed away towards the west wall of the Theatre, again suffocation threatened, the flames were rushing on in all directions, my hair caught on fire, (for my hat was gone,) hope deserted me, I was struck with horror at the idea of being burnt alive, I rushed towards the window, waving my hands as quick as possible over my head and clothes: this was a dreadful moment, I saw many drop down on each side of me suffocated, and I passed over some bodies on my way: the window was now free, and I was scarcely on the bottom of it, when I heard an awful crash behind me, I threw myself out, and providence preserved me. I am with heartfelt feelings of congratulation on your own providential escape,

Very respectfully,

Sir,

Your most ob't,

JOHN LYNCH.

Richmond, 29th Dec. 1811.

Dear Sir—Being told, that for the purpose of collecting the best information concerning all the circumstances attending the late dreadful conflagration, you were desirous of obtaining from each individual who had escaped, a short account of the manner and circumstances under which such escape was effected; I send you the following statement:

As the curtain arose for the commencement of the 2d act of the pantomime, I was standing in the lobby on the lower range of boxes, conversing with some of my friends through the broken pannel of a box about thirty feet from the head of the stairs. This box was entirely filled; among others who were in it, and who have perished, I remember Mrs. Gallego, Miss Conyers, Lieutenant Gibbon, and Mr. Venable.—Immediately after the rising of the curtain, and as the scene commenced I saw several flakes of fire fall about the centre of the stage; but supposed it was probably the falling of some ornament or lights intended to illuminate the scene.—The cry of "fire" was instantly given—I advanced a few steps into the lobby enquiring from whence the alarm arose and met several persons, some of them known to me, calling out that it was a false alarm—I turned about and now saw the curtain dropped and a very large bright light behind it—I then felt assured that the house was on fire in that quarter—The consternation and confusion had become general—I felt no fear whatever from the flames, and was only apprehensive that by the impetuosity of the crowd, many would be crushed to death—and with others united in calling out to those around me, that the danger was magnified, and beseeched them not to press so fast on those before—we called to the winds—I endeavoured now to force my way back to the side of the box I had left, to calm the fears of those with whom I had been speaking and to wait until the crowd had passed—This however was impossible—The column of the crowd in which I was enclosed, bore me irresistibly, but slowly along towards the stairs—still feeling no fears of being overtaken by the flames, I continued folded in my cloak and pressing my weight backwards, to give as far as possible an opportunity to those on the had of the stairs, (where the pressure already seemed dreadful) to effect their escape—suddenly I perceived a thick, black, hot smoke, curling down our heads—persons were no longer to be distinguished—utter darkness prevailed—suffocation was fast approaching—for the first moment I was seriously alarmed—and by the most violent exertions endeavoured to make my way to the head of the stairs—it appeared to me I could not gain an inch—Those around me were sinking—my own strength failed, and I verily believed that I never should see the light again—At this instant a window on my right was forced open—the fresh air somewhat dissipated the smoke and revived us to new exertion—a universal scream of mingled joy and despair was given, and a rush towards the windows—those next it seemed unable to move and cried out "that they were pressed to death"—I was within a few paces of it—and by desperate exertions endeavoured to reach it—I could not—In a last effort of despair, assisting myself by the shoulder of someone next to me, I drew my feet up and was thrown by the united impulse of others, and my own exertions, with my feet directly on the window sill, at the same instant fortunately seizing a broken fragment of the sash, I passed my head under it and reached the ground without material injury—I left many behind me.

THOMAS F. MASON.

Monday morning.

Sir—My friend Mr. Thomas Nelson has informed me, that you wished me to state the particulars of my providential escape from the dreadful fire which consumed the Theatre on Thursday night last. The y are as follows: The late period at which I arrived at the play house, compelled me to ascend to the second row of boxes to procure a seat for Mrs. Pendleton and myself, where we remained until I discovered the second spark of fire fall on the stage in front of the curtain, when I immediately heard the cry of fire from behind—I then left my seat, and proceeded along the gangway, towards the head of the stair case, entreating the affrighted females to have patience, and not precipitate themselves into the immense crowd that was pressing forward, lest we should be trampled to death, believing, that by waiting a few minutes, we should have more room, and consequently descend with more expedition and safety.

In a few seconds, however, I was convinced by the effect of an indescribable current of steam on my flesh, and smoke on my lungs, that I had miscalculated, and that our escape must be instantaneous or not at all, as suffocation threatened. With an energy which nothing but such a dreadful crisis could inspire, I rushed forward, retaining my wife's arm locked fast in mine, until I attained the first turn in the stair case just below, or perhaps nearly opposite the window, next the front corner, on the lower, or side next the meeting house .At this place, the crowd behind me trod on the tail of my large loose great coat, completely stopped my progress, and had well night thrown me backwards, which nothing but an exertion I did not think myself capable of making, prevented. In this situation, my wife (great God, sir, figure to yourself my agony!) was torn from me by the resistless force of the crowd, and just at the instant of our separation, numbers were trampled down, and I did verily believe, that she was one of those unfortunately victims. I thought I had then lost the object which had thus far stimulated my exertions, and remained perfectly motionless for some seconds, having fixed myself in the corner of the brick wall to prevent being forced down, and reflected on the impossibility of extricating myself from the impending destruction, by following the prodigious crowd that was then wedging me in my fortunate corner. While these reflections were crossing my mind, I heard the window forced open just above me, and felt the reviving influence of the delicious air which rushed upon me, and invigorated the efforts which then saved my life. By exertions which I now consider as supernatural, I reached the window, which at that auspicious moment in enjoyed undisputed possession of, and after looking down to ascertain where I might alight with least injury to myself, as well as to others, who had preceded me, I seated myself on the window sill, and eased myself off very deliberately and gradually, reflecting at the same time, that if I could contrive my clothes to touch the wall as I descended, the force of my passage down would be somewhat broken. I soon experienced the happy reality of this experiment, for I landed on my feet, perfectly erect, and have never since felt the least soreness or inconvenience from my manner of escape.—Thus, sir, I have in a hasty manner complied with the requsst [sic] to the best of my recollection. I will not attempt to describe to you my sensations for some time after I had escaped, for although miraculously preserved myself, from what I had seen before I got out of the house, and what I saw afterwards, I was agonized with the conviction that a beloved wife and child had perished. You who are a Husband and a Parent, must if possible, finish the picture.

I am, sir,

Your most obedient,

EDMUND PENDLETON, Jun.

G. Huntington Bacchus states for the information and at the request of Mr. Ritchie that he and his party were in the upper boxes; that he was standing in the box when his party was sitting close to the fire place on the left of the theatre, that the first intimate he had of fire was from the two sparks, or flakes of fire, that succeeded each other as they fell upon the stage.—Mr. Robertson was then on his knees before the portrait of a beautiful lady, which was represented upon the back or after scene, and, as I supposed, was performing a part of the pantomime, for I heard no exclamation of his, till after the sparks fell. Mr. Robertson then looked up, and I think, reported that the House was in flames.—I was then occupied in detaining Miss Maria Nelson, Miss Mary Page and Miss Elizabeth Pendleton, by persuasion from rushing into the pressing multitude; pointed to the stage and informed them that the distance was such, that the fire could not possibly arrive so as to injure us in our retreat, and they would endanger their lives by the oppression of the crowd—Miss Nelson and Miss Page concurred with me in opinion. Miss Pendleton shrieked & was apparently fainting; I caught her, and by rather stern advice and caution which used she revived, or recovered her faculties. I then turned to Misses Nelson & Page, who seemed very calm and collected, at this instant Miss Pendleton forsook us and the same moment the scenery descended in a terrible blaze upon the stage; we then began gently to move out of the Box and we had just merged from the door when it appeared to me, that the most, if not all of the canopy or vault of the theatre fell with considerable noise like the rushing of flame, into the pit or hung round the gallery and upper boxes like curtains & canopy—I suppose it was one minute from the sparks to the falling of scenery. I did not look again towards the sage. I moved moderately forward about 12 or 15 feet toward the stairs & the ladies as I supposed near me.—There was just light enough to see blackness of a very dense smoke which was rapidly rushing & whirling over our heads; I heard the breaking of a window, it struck me forcibly as a most prudent though. Even here and at this moment I did not think there was great danger in proceeding the usual way out of the theatre, although I trembled much at the apprehension of error in my calculation of safety from delay—The construction and materials of the house, I was with others ignorant of, but the lightning velocity of the flame exhibited the fact that I was mistaken as to the composition, & I trembled—The window burst through, the air reached me, 'twas pleasant, I was within six feet of it, I turned involuntarily, I caught the fresh breezes which rushed in to produce an equilibrium—the flame and hot smoke of turpentine and paint reached my hair, my right ear, and curled round my head. I inhaled it, my nose was burnt, all reflection was selfishness, I sprung to the window and leaped about 12 feet from the house & about 30 feet fro the ground.

Sir—Myself and daughter set in the left front box on the second seat from the pit during the performance, and at the moment the actor was kneeling to the portrait, I saw several sparks of fire on the stage near the actor—There being a general motion throughout the house, a voice was heard saying, "keep your seats, there is no danger," which caused a delay among many—and I, anxiously looking from whence the sparks proceeded, discovered the upper part of the scenery on fire, and at the same instant the cry of fire became general, and every person alarmed crowding from their boxes in such confusion that there was no possibility of escaping, and turning round to view the fire, saw one of the actors tearing down the scenery—and still thinking it was only the scenery on fire, felt not the least alarmed—On looking around in the boxes and pit, I could discover but very few people, and those were all very near us—On account of the vast number crowding for the stairs caused our stay, and we being hindmost and all on a sudden the stair case gave way with the crowd, and left us alone—that moment the smoke rushed up with such heat, we could scarcely get breath, and on turning round to get breath, discovered fresh air, which I fortunately found proceeded from a window, it being so very dark it was impossible to see—nor could we hear any person near us from the time we left the stairs until we descended the window. I put my daughter out of the window and immediately followed myself—she was fortunately caught by some gentlemen, and escaped unhurt, and myself but slightly. One of the gentlemen says he is very certain there was none came out after us through the front windows, and in less than 10 minutes after we left, the flames rushed out of the windows. All those that fell with the stair-case must nearly have expired with the smoke at the time, as the smoke was excessively severe. I heard neither sigh nor groan uttered from any one of them. It is my opinion had the people in the lower boxes got down in the pit and passed out of the west side, it would certainly have given room for the upper boxes, and by that means almost every soul have been saved.—I am yours with sincere respect,

JEDEDIAH ALLEN.

Dear Sir,

What I know concerning that destructive fire from actual observation, is, although limited, very correct, having had no particular relative to protect; every object and stress, that came within my observance from the beginning to the end is as clearly before my mind's eye now as it was at the unfortunate crisis.

I told you, that Mr. G. and myself were walking up the hill, not more than twenty or thirty perches from the theatre when the first flash appeared—he ran frantic to the protection of his wife and child.—I, coolly and deliberately to that of all within my power—the first I beheld in distress rivetted my whole attention—at the N. W. window in the front of the theatre a number of ladies appeared most of whose faces I knew—I called to them to jump out, they did, and were all saved—even from a broken bone, yet some much injured by the flames—Mrs. McRae and Mrs. Pickett were undoubtedly the two last who escaped from the ruins—Mr. Richards' family with many more had been received before undamaged—although frequently knocked down, I received all the ladies from that window and no man ever assisted one of them. If it were necessary I could be particular in Mrs. Pickett's case—as she suffered more from unfeeling men than any lady I saw—as soon as she was safe, I ran round the building to see if any body else could be saved—I saw that all within were lost, my attention was next drawn to the door, near which I had stood from the beginning; there the blackened and lifeless bodies of many who are now in a fair way of recovery were trodden down by a gasping multitude—I, with the assistance of a few whom I do not recollect, dragged out many apparently dead—among whom were Miss Davis and Mr. Tiffin and the unfortunate Miss Harvie, these were all the bodies I recognized, the last of whom appeared most likely to live; for she could speak; but the others, although no much damaged externally, were apparently lifeless.

The most pleasing part of my life was that which spent in the act of preservation, but the most melancholy in assisting the preserved and seeking the lost—you saw part of that yourself.

Your friend & Servant,

D. DOYLE

Sir—I compliance with your request, I send you a brief statement of the little to which I was an eye witness in the late disastrous fire at the Theatre. I was at the head of the brick-row, on my way from the playhouse when I heard the first cry of fire—without any other delay than was occasioned by aiding in drawing the Fire Engine about 10 or 15 yards, I hastened to the Theatre door. Mr. Allen Taylor had just come out & Mrs. Gibbon was standing still immediately within apparently in a state of stupefaction—I drew her through the door and proceeded on to the partition door where the checks were received—between these doors I met several men and women making their way out—In proceeding on the foot of the stairs, I saw no person of any description—but along the stairs from the first landing place lay a number of women on their faces, side by side, their heads towards the floor—They were all apparently lifeless—their clothes disordered and some of them naked from the waist.

My first impulse was to take up one of the smallest—in carrying her to the outer door I met no person—but two men there received her. Three or four gentlemen who I presume had been before employed in taking out the females afterwards came in, & lost no time in removing the other ladies.—They were all carried as far as the door, and there they were received and borne off by others. I think that Mr. John G. Smith and Mr. Alexr. Sharp of this town were two of those who were in the house when I was, & were very active. I distinctly recollect what I saw when I first in, but the horror of the spectacle which presented itself to my eyes at the foot of the stairs, (unapprized as I was until then that I had not met the last of the audience,) makes my recollection very indistinct of what passed afterwards. I am however confident that all those who had reached the lower flight of the stairs were rescued from the flames, and I flatter myself that they are now living. Mr. Smith and Mr. Sharp and probably one or two others can vouch for the same fact.

Your's, &c. G. TUCKER.