December 5

This Day in History

Disaster

Dec 5, 1876:

Hundreds die in Brooklyn theater fire

A fire at the Brooklyn Theater in New York kills nearly 300 people and injures hundreds more on this day in 1876. Some victims perished from a combination of burns and smoke inhalation; others were trampled to death in the general panic that ensued.

The play The Two Orphans starring Harry S. Murdock and Kate Claxton was showing at the Brooklyn Theater on the night of December 5. The theater, built five years earlier at the corner of Johnson and Washington streets, was very popular at the time and all 900 seats were filled. Sometime near the start of the performance, a gas light ignited some extra scenery stored in the fly space behind the stage. It wasn't until midway through the play that stagehands noticed the quickly spreading flames. Unfortunately, there were no fire hoses or water buckets at hand and the fire spread, unbeknownst to the cast and audience.

Finally, someone shouted "FIRE" and despite Murdock's best attempt to calm the crowd, bedlam ensued, particularly in the balcony and rear of the theater. A narrow staircase was the only the exit from the balcony (there were no fire escapes) and panic resulted in a stampede in which many were crushed and others remained trapped. Meanwhile, the fire grew out of control. Witnesses saw Murdock return to the dressing room to change clothes; he then tried to wiggle out of a small window. He couldn't get through, and died when the floor gave way and he fell to the basement.

By the time firefighters arrived it was too late for hundreds of people. The fire raged through the night and destroyed nearly the entire building. When would-be rescuers were finally able to get in, all they found were bodies melted together. Up to 100 of the victims were burned beyond recognition and could not be identified. A mass grave was set up at the Green-Wood Cemetery. In all, approximately 295 people died. A 30-foot-high granite memorial was later erected in their honor by the city of Brooklyn.

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