200th Anniversary of Historic Richmond Theatre Fire
Today, December 26, is the 200th anniversary of the fire that destroyed the Richmond Theatre and killed at least 72 people inside. Nearly 600 people packed the Richmond Theatre on the day after Christmas in 1811. As the curtain rose for the final performance of the night, a candle on a chandelier brushed against the backing of some scenery, and it was not long before the extremely flammable theatre was engulfed in flames. The theatre was built five years earlier where the 1200 block of East Broad Street is today. It replaced another theatre that burned in 1800. With inadequate and narrow stairs and only three exits with doors that opened inward, the crush of people rushing to escape was just as lethal as the fire itself. Those killed included Virginia Governor George W. Smith and United States Senator Abraham B. Venable, who had become president of the Bank of Virginia. Of the 72 people confirmed killed, 54 were women. The remains of the victims are buried in a crypt underneath Monumental Church on Broad Street. The church was erected as a memorial to the victims and opened for worship in 1814. A marble monument on the church's portico bears the names of those who died. The Episcopal church congregation worshipping at that site grew during the following years and eventually led to the founding of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in downtown Richmond in the 1840's. As Richmond, a city of nearly 10,000 people at the time, reeled in the aftermath of the disaster, evangelical clergy seized the moment to preach against the theater and other public amusements. There was a call to end such "frivolity" and move to a more "God-fearing" existence for the city. Plans for a new theatre took shape in 1816, but it took three years for the new theatre, dubbed "The Theatre," to be completed at the corner of Seventh Street and East Broad Street. Forty-three years later, it burned as well. Maury Place at Monument is just a short drive to Monumental Church in downtown Richmond.