It is difficult to discuss calmly the frightful disaster which happened in Brooklyn on Tuesday night. No such awful sacrifice of human life has ever been known in this country shipwreck and the casualties of war alone being excepted. — New York Times editorial, Dec. 7, 1876
One hundred and thirty-five years this evening, nearly a thousand playgoers entered the Brooklyn Theater, at Washington and Johnson streets near City Hall, to enjoy the well-reviewed (and lengthy) production of N. Hart Jackson’s ‘The Two Orphans’. During the show’s final act, stage hands discovered that a set piece backstage had caught fire. The actors onstage attempted gamely to stay in character, for fear of causing a panic, until fiery bits of wood and flaming parts of the set began raining down upon them.
As the audience leapt to the aisles in terror, the actors tried to calm people to prevent a stampede, to no avail. An usher forced open a rarely used exit door to free audience members, but the rush of December air only fed the flames, turning the once elegant auditorium, built only five years previous, into an inescapable trap of heat and asphyxiation.
Twenty five minutes after flames were first spotted backstage, one entire wall of the Brooklyn Theater caved backwards into the inferno, the once elegant ceiling fresco nothing but a crumbling scorch now. Flaming projectiles caught in the wind settled upon surrounding structures, and firefighters scrambled to soak the inferno, now in fear of scattering randomly through one of Brooklyn’s oldest neighborhood. Most in danger was the hotel on the corner, where some audience members had found momentary safety.
Nobody is sure exactly how many died that evening — some number between 275 to 300 people. It is certainly among the worst disasters in Brooklyn history and one of the most catastrophic fires in American history.
The place where the theater once stood is now occupied by Cadman Plaza, in the grove of trees just east of the Henry Ward Beecher statue. Many of the bodies (over a hundred) are buried together under a memorial at Green-Wood Cemetery.
Top picture courtesy NYPL
Below: the area of Cadman Plaza where the Brooklyn Theater once stood.