Introduction Edit

Towards the end of the 18th century and into the 19th century, the capital of Virginia began to expand and flourish, attracting many prominent citizens.[1] During the winter of 1811 there was an influx of the upper class that came to Richmond to participate in the social season. One of the popular past times for all the classes in Richmond was attending theater performances. On the night of December 26, 1811 over 600 citizens went to the Richmond Theater to see a performance by the Placid and Green Company. During the performance a fire broke out, setting the entire theater on fire. Most of the lower and middle class held seats on the floor and were able to escape. The wealthy that were sitting in the boxes had a much harder times escaping the fire. After an investigation it was found that 72 people died, including the governor of Virginia, George W. Smith.  A large amount of the deceased where part of the upper class. The whole nation was shocked and mourned over the Richmond Theater fire. The Nation also held this event in its memory for decades.[2] Due to the higher regard for the elite the Richmond Theater fire was held in the memories of early Americans because prominent Virginia citizens perished.

Background Edit

In 1780  the capital of Virginia moved from Williamsburg to Richmond, bringing with it an influx of prominent citizens. At that time Richmond had a population of only 1800, half of whom where slaves. Through the rest of the 18th century and into the 19th century Richmond continued to grow in terms of its population and its importance. More planation families moved to Richmond as well as families from Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Germany and Holland, bringing a cosmopolitan air to the city.  Industries like flour and tobacco were established and started to flourish, adding more wealth to the city. The wealth of the city was easily seen though some of the Mansions that were being built there, including the Moldavia, Hancock-Caskie, and Hanover houses. By 1810 the population had expanded to 9,785 including 3,748 slaves. [1]

Entertainment became an important part of Richmond as the city’s population and popularity increased. One popular venue was the Haymarket Gardens, which included attractions like ice crème, coffee cake, bowling, shuffle board, and balls. Another well liked form of entertainment was the Richmond Jockey Club, one of the greatest racing centers in the US. 1 The Theater was also a common form of entertainment. A new Richmond Theater was built in 1806 and between 1806 and 1811 it had a great run with ten seasons and a total of 171 performances. [3]

As the capital of Virginia increased in population and importance it became the social center of Virginia. Political leaders and wealthy families would migrate to Richmond during social seasons. The winter of 1811 was a popular social season as Virginians came to Richmond to participate in Christmas festivities like dances and plays.  One of these social events was a benefit performance by The Placid and Green Company at the Richmond Theater on December 26. [2]

The Event Itself Edit

On the night of December 26, 1811, The Placid and Green Company held a benefit performance consisting of the plays “Family Feuds” and “The Bleeding Nun.” A crowed of 648 attended that night including many prominent citizens that sat mainly in the more expensive box seats while the middle class sat in benches around the pit and the lower class sat in the gallery. 2

The first act consisted of the play “Family Feuds” and other short performances that were illuminated by a chandelier. During intermission the stage hand was given the directions to raise the chandelier however the candles had not been put out yet. The property man of the theater, Mr. Rice, saw this happen and instructed one of the carpenters to lower the lamp and put out the candles. As the carpenter tried to lower the chandelier it began to oscillate and came into contact with some of the scenery.  The roof soon caught fire. Within five minutes the entire ceiling was ablaze.  [4]

Just as the fire was starting so was the second act. The curtain rose and the orchestra began to play. Mr. West, an actor, was already on the stage ready to start when Mr. Robertson ran out to the stage and announced the fire. Panic spread through the crowd as everyone started to try to escape. Most of those sitting on the ground and the pit were able to get out, but those sitting in the boxes only had one small staircase to escape from. Some of the people in boxes survived by jumping or being thrown out of the windows.  [5]

By morning time the Theater was burnt down and 72 people were dead. The news of the fire spread through and devastated America. Numerous newspapers articles were printed about the fire, describing it as one of the most horrific scenes to have occurred in the nation at that time.


The following is a list of those who perished in the Richmond Theater Fire

Benjamin Botts, William Brown, George Dixon, Robert Ferril, Thomas Frayser, James Gibbon, Edwin J. Harvie, Joseph Jacobs, Thomas Lacroix, Almarine Marshall, ----Nuttal,----Pleasant, John B. Rizi, John Schaub, George Wm. Smith, William Southgate, Abraham B. Venable, James Walden, Edward Wanton, John Welch. Adeline Bausman, Sarah C. Conyers, Margaret Copland, Elvira Coutts, Ann Craig, Judith Elliott, Fanny Graff, Patsy Griffin, Julia Harvie, Arianna Hunter, Eliza Jacobs, ---- Littlepage, Maria Nelson , Mary Page, Charlotte Raphael, Eliza Stevenson, Cicilia Trouin, Sophia Trouin, Jane Wade. Mary Bosher, Jane Botts, Anna F. Braxton, Josephine Convert and child, Rebecca Cook and child, Mary Davis, Mary Gallego, Mary Geradine and child, Eleanor Gibson, Ann Greenhow, Sarah Herron, ---- Jerrod, Betsy Johnson, ---- La forest, Ann Leslie, Zipporah Marks, ---- Moss, Elizabeth Page, Elizabeth Patterson, ---- Pickett, ---- Scott. Lucinda C. Wilson. Margaret Anderson, Mary Clay, Sally Gatewood, Ann Morton Green, Lucy Gwathmey, Judith Judah, Louisa Mayo, Nancy Patterson, Mary Gabriella Whitlock.[6]

Personal Account Edit

The following is a letter written by Caroline Homassel to an unknown friend in Philadelphia on December 27, 1811.

Dear old friend,

I am deeply sorry that I have not written to you in a while. So many terrible things have happened to me in the past year and I didn’t want to burden you with my problems, but I can no longer keep my life a secret from you. As you may remember on July fourth 1809, I met the love of my life, Alfred Madison. He was handsome, smart, chivalrous, and the nephew of the president. We were engaged to marry by October. Shortly after that my poor Alfred died of consumption.2 I was so full of despair I felt like I could not breath. I still cry every night and my friends and family have made countless attempts to cheer me up all of which have failed.

Last night my good friends Maria Mayo and Sally Conyers dragged me to the Richmond Theater where the most horrific event happened. I can barely think about it because it was so traumatic. As the second half of the play began an actor ran out on stage and shouted there was a fire. I looked up and saw the ceiling was starting to catch on fire. I heard screaming from all over. Panic struck me and I could not move then everything got blurry and I passed out. I slight remember being picked up by Philip Thorton, who carried me to a window. I remember looking down as Thorton held me from my hands out the window and seeing Almarine Marshall laying motionless on the grown covered in blood. I was dropped from the window and caught by Charles Hay and Doyle.[2] My body is covered in bruises from the fall and I still haven’t gotten out of bed because I am too sore. I was then carried home by Thorton and fell asleep right away. All night I had nightmares about the fire and woke up numerous times screaming. I still have not heard what happened to any of my friends and I am terrified that they did not make it. I already lost the love of my life and I can’t imagine losing some of my closest friends. I would gladly remain in bed forever and completely forget that last night happened.

I know I have unloaded a lot of information on you, but I don’t know what to do anymore. I am so lost and depressed and could really use your help to get through this.




After the fire occurred the Common Council of Richmond set up a committee consisting of Thomas Ritchie, William Marshall, and Samuel G. Adams to investigate the cause of the fire. [7]  The committee spent two days going through the wreckage and they also interviewed several people from the Placid and Green Company. The committee’s findings were posted in a report. [2]

In the committee’s report they found the initial cause of the fire to be the “fatal lamp, lifted as it was lit, then jerked and jostled out of its perpendicular position, to the scenery- to the roof; until everything was enveloped in its fury.” They did not place blame on the managers of the company and its workers. The committee did find that the reason for so many deaths was not the fire itself, but the construction of Richmond Theater. [5] The building was built to fit 500 people. The were only three entrances: one for the lobby, one for the stage, and one for the gallery. The halls and doors were all narrow, fitting only two people at a time. The stairway leading to the boxes was constricted and winding. The ceiling was also a pine roof with oil canvases tacked on to it. On The night of December 26 the theater was almost 150 people over capacity. When the theater started to catch on fire there were too many people trying to escape and not enough exits to escape from. It was especially hard for people sitting in the box seats to flee because there was only one winding staircase that led to the front exit. [2]

The Committee asked Mr. Twaits, one of the managers of the company, if the Richmond theater fire was constructed in a similar way as other theaters that he had been to. Mr. Twaits replied “ In all Theaters 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 Richmond theater fire was not up to the same standards as the other theaters at the time. [4]

Another cause for the large amount of deaths was due to overcrowding of the Theater. One reason there was such a large crowd the night of December 26, 1811 was because the famous actor George Frederick Cooke joined the cast of the Placid and Green Company for the night. Cooke was a very popular British actor who came to America to do a tour that would re-launch his career. He drew large crowds in every city he performed in including Richmond. If Cooke did not come to Richmond then the Richmond Theater would have been less packed and more people could have survived the fire. [2]

Primary Source 1 Edit


B. Tanner. The Burning of the Theater in Virginia. (Philadelphia, 1812.) 

B. Tanner, an artist in Philadelphia, published a painting of the Richmond Theater Fire on February 25, 1812. This image has become one of the most well know images relating to the theater disaster. This image of the Richmond Theater fire depicts how the fire was perceived by the nation and why it was remembered.

This picture was published almost two month after the theater burnt down. Even after two months the conflagration of the theater was still fresh in peoples minds and would stay there for a long time to come. This picture was also published in Philadelphia for the general public. Even in a city over two hundred miles away the disaster was still very relevant and touching to people of all classes. The news of the fire had spread as more papers where published about it in different cities across the nation. The Federal Republican in Baltimore, Maryland published the report of the Committee of investigation on January 9, 1812.[5]

The caption of the image is “The Burning of the Theater in Richmond, Virginia, on the Night of the 26th. December 1811, by which awful calamity upwards of seventy five its most valuable Citizens suddenly lost their lives and many others were much injured.” The caption of the image shows that out of all the details of the fire the one that was being remembered was the death of the prominent Virginian citizens. This remembrance of the valuable citizens who died is also imminent in articles about the fire.  For example, a New York paper stated when referencing the dead “ The governor of the state—the leading characters of the place- the gayest and most fashionable- those promised in marriage.” [8]

Primary source 2 3

The picture in itself illustrates the horror of the disaster that was described in the articles and personal accounts published about the Richmond Theater fire. Everyone’s face in the picture shows distress, agony, and sorrow. These emotions were felt by the nation as a whole as it read personal accounts like the letter from a gentleman in Richmond published by the Preparatory Office in Boston. In this letter the gentleman describes the scene and the loss of his young daughter. [9] The picture represents the emotions that were felt at the scene and the emotions the nation felt.

Primary Source 2Edit

Primary source 2 4

In the year of 1812 a book was published in Baltimore that consisted of articles, ordnances, and letters about the Richmond Theater fire. The letters in this book are from citizens of Richmond that either experienced the fire or are commenting on it as an objector. Theses letters demonstrate how the Richmond Theater fire was framed to emphasize the upper classes main role in the event.

Primary source 2 5
Primary source 2 66

Throughout these letters there is mention of a few names. A majority of the names mentioned are all prominent citizens or family of important citizens in Virginia. The mentioning of their names leaves an everlasting impression of who was effected by the fire. This is similar to the mentioning of the deceased governor in papers like The Enquirer. [5] Some of the gentlemen mentioned included Dr. McCaw, one of the foremost physicians in Richmond, Lieut. Gibbon, a Navy officer and son of a Revolutionary War hero, and Mr. Richards, a business professional. [2] Some of the young ladies motioned were Miss Conyers, Mary, Margaret, Miss Gwathmey, and Miss Gatewood, who were all daughters of wealthy Families.

More than one letter shares stories of gentlemen, who were sitting in the boxes, risking their lives to help children and women. These stories romanticize the event and emphasize the bravery of the wealthy men sitting in the boxes. One story of the heroisms was mentioned in two different letters. In this story a man risked his own life by helping a young boy get to the window and holding two little girls in his arms as he tried to make it down the stairs. Other stories of heroisms were told including a story of the editor of the American Standard helping to catch women as they jumped form windows. This story was published in an article about the fire in The American Standard. [10]

Another common theme throughout the letters is an emphasis on how horribly unimaginable the disaster was. One letter states “How can words represent what one night, one hour of unutterable horror, has done to overwhelm a hundred families with grief and despair.”[11] The use of these words creates a dramatic picture in the reader’s minds that stays with the reader. Similar language was used in a majority of articles published about the fire including a  poem entitled Theatre on fire. Awful calamity![12]

The combination of stories about the heroism of the upper class and the mentioning of specific names of the elite in these letters helped frame the disaster as one that mainly effected the upper class.


In 1812 the Common council appointed a Monument Committee headed by John Marshall to get a Monument for the victims of the fire constructed. The Monument Committee combined forces with the Association for Erecting a Church on Shockoe Hill to make a Church that would hold a monument. Combining forces would make it easier to raise the funds needed to build the church and monument. The Committee decided the Church should be built on the site the Theater burnt down. The joint committee purchased the land where the Theater was on for $4,500. The committee then raised the money for the church and monument through selling subscripts to the church. The committee also solicited submissions for the best design of the church and monument.  In May 1812 the committee official selected Robert mills design. The Church was done by 1814, but the monument was not installed until 1818. The monument was made of marble with a Roman urn on top of it and the names of those who died in the fire inscribed on the sides. The names on one side of the monument are all the men who died while the other three sides are inscribed the names of the women who died. The names of the black or poor that died in the fire are written on the bottom of the monument while the upper class names are written at the top. The first service in the Church was held on May 4, 1814.

On December 30, 1894 the church celebrated its eightieth birthday and in dong so remembered those who dies in the Richmond Theater fire.[2] The Church still stands today and just celebrated its 200th anniversary on October 2, 2014. [13]

See AlsoEdit

The Monumental Church♙

Great Boston Fire

Great Fire of Pittsburgh

History of Richmond

References Edit

1] Dabney, Virginius. Richmond: The Story of a City. Garden City: Doubleday, 1976

[2] Baker, Meredith. Richmond theater Fire: early America’sFirst Great Disaster. (Louisiana: Louisiana State university press, 2012),

[3] Shockley, Martin. "V." In The Richmond Stage, 1784-1812. University Press of Virginia, 1977.

[4] "Fire in the Richmond Theater." Federal Republican, January 9, 1812

[5] "Overwhelming Calamity." In Particular Account of the Dreadful Fire at Richmond, Virginia, December 26, 1811. Baltimore: Sower for Kingston, 1812.

[6] "Monument to the Victims of the Richmond Theater Fire." Richard Channing Moore Monumental Church Honoring the Theatre Fire Victims. January 1, 2005. Accessed December 8, 2014.

[7]"An Ordinance." In Particular Account of the Dreadful Fire at Richmond, Virginia, December 26, 1811. Baltimore: Sower for Kingston, 1812.

[8] “A Tremendous Conflagration” In Particular Account of the Dreadful Fire at Richmond, Virginia, December 26, 1811. Baltimore: Sower for Kingston, 1812.

[9] Distressing Calamity. A Brief Account of the Late Fire at Richmond, Virg.Boston: Repertory Office, 1812.

[10] "Most Dreadful Calamity." In Particular Account of the Dreadful Fire at Richmond, Virginia, December 26, 1811. Baltimore: Sower for Kingston, 1812.

[11]In Particular Account of the Dreadful Fire at Richmond, Virginia, December 26, 1811. Baltimore: Sower for Kingston, 1812.

[12]"Theatre on Fire. Awful Calamity!" January 1, 1812.

[13] "Monumental Church 200th Anniversary." Historic Richmond Building on History. Accessed December 8, 2014.

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