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Monday, July 9, 2012

Richmond Theater Fire

The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America's First Great Disaster, Meredith Henne Baker (LSU Press, 2012) 317 pages, illustrations, index, ISBN 978-0-8071-4374-2, $39.95

The Richmond Theater Fire is another facet of local history I grew up hearing about, but about which there was precious little written. Sometime in the mid-80s I got the opportunity to tour Monumental Church - built as a memorial to the victims of the fire on the site of the theater - including going into the basement where the large concrete bunker-like vault is located which houses the remains of many of the victims. Creepy factor aside, how could one not want to learn more of this event? Until LSU Press released Meredith Henne Baker's book The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America's First Great Disaster earlier this year, there wasn't really much to go on in the way of modern writings of the story.

On the day after Christmas 1826, an audience of hundreds packed into the Richmond Theater, situated on what is now Broad St, about a block from the Capitol near the crest of Shockoe Hill. When a stagehand mistakenly hoisted a chandelier with a still-lit candle into the rafters, disaster resulted as curtains, scenery and backdrops caught fire. The flames quickly spread and chaos quickly descended. Too few exits, narrow corridors and stairwells, locked windows, inward-opening doors and resulting confusion all combined to cost approximately 70 lives, including that of Virginia's Governor George Smith. The temperature of the resulting inferno is estimated to have been in excess of 1000 degrees. Few of the victims were able to be identified after the fire. Dozens of others suffered injuries either from burns, smoke inhalation, leaping from windows, or simply being trampled underfoot by the crowd. In the wake of the disaster, the city of Richmond formed a committee - headed by John Marshall - to construct a memorial. The resulting Monumental Church opened a few years later, with the remains of many of the victims entombed beneath it. "The death count alone did not make the event so horrific and psychologically traumatic; it was its unexpectedness and the helpless nature of the victims it selected." (pg 111)

I have mixed feelings about Baker's book. The parts about the actual fire itself and the immediate aftermath are excellent. However, they occupy only about half of the book. The rest is given to Virginia's religious history up to that time and a history of 18th and 19th century theater. Granted, some of both are required to put the event in the proper context, but the author gets too carried away with the social and religious history for my taste. For all the religious history that the author presents, I would have liked more about Monumental Church - beyond the actual fund-raising and controversy over the design, there is precious little about it.

The author's recounting of the actual fire is excellent - it just occupies a very small portion of the book. The first-hand accounts of it are far more numerous than I had expected them to be. One of the greatest assets of the book is a 3-d diagram of the likely design of the interior of the theater - very vital to understanding how the crowd became trapped inside. However, one has to search for the final death count - a rather important statistic for the event. Unless I somehow missed it, the "official" death toll (72) - although referenced several times - is not presented until page 219 - long after its proper place in the narrative. She also briefly tackles the myth begun by one Edgar Allan Poe that his parents were killed in the fire (pg 116).

It is surprising to me that given the importance of the theater fire in Richmond's history that it took more than 200 years after the event for the first worthwhile study of it to appear. This is definitely a much-needed work. The depth research is incredible, both into the fire and Richmond's religious history as well as early American theater history. The latter two were quite unexpected in this work. Definitely recommended for anyone with an interest in Richmond history, as well as theater history and religious history. I would have given more stars if there was more about Monumental Church, or if the social history were scaled back - I find the book's title does not reflect the proper ratio of actual event history to social history.


  1. Charlie, thank you for your thoughtful review of my book. I'm glad you enjoyed the chapters about the fire itself; the first-hand accounts I came across were astounding in their detail and I'm pleased that I was able to capture the drama of that evening. While I'm sorry that you didn't enjoy the portions about the theater and religious changes as much, they were a necessary part of my thesis (and I think contain much that will interest a Virginia history buff). The book was based on my graduate thesis, after all, and I had something to prove: the Richmond Theater fire was not only an interesting disaster, but a critical catalyst for cultural change in Virginia. It made a huge impact on the entertainment community and the way that people practiced the Christian faith for the rest of the century.

    A few points of clarification: the fire occurred in 1811 (not 1826), and the death count is first mentioned on page 64 in the chapter entitled "Loss." It would have been an egregious error, I agree, to neglect mentioning this until the end of the book. Fortunately, it's an error I didn't make! All best and I look forward to exploring your website more.

    Meredith Henne Baker

  2. Ms. Baker - My apologies on the casualty list; somehow I missed that. Premature senior moment on the year - originally I had that as Dec 26 - the "26" part carried over. I look forward to future works.
    Charlie Knight