Remnants of the Brooklyn Theater. Image via Wikimedia Commons
On December 5th 1876, at least 300 play-goers died due to a monster fire in the Brooklyn Theater, which was located in Cadman Plaza near today’s Borough Hall. The theater was very popular at the time. In fact, all 900 seats were filled that night. The Two Orphans starring Harry Murdoch and Kate Claxton was playing.
According to the Bowery Boys, a gas light ignited some extra scenery at the beginning of the performance. The fire went unnoticed until the middle of the show when stagehands saw the spreading flames backstage. Then, the entire backstage wall crumbled and fell, and the famous ceiling fresco was burned.
It’s not surprising that the Brooklyn theater crumbled into flames. This location is actually one of the windiest in New York City, so when people opened the windows and doors, huge gusts of wind only fueled the fire. Also, the architects of the theater made a fatal mistake by building only one narrow staircase leading to the balcony and neglecting fire escapes. To top things off, the theater had no water buckets or fire hoses.
As well as people dying from the fumes and flames, several play-goers were crushed in the stampede trying to descend from the balcony. Murdoch, the star of the show, first returned to his dressing room to change and then tried but failed to squeeze through a window. A make-shift morgue was constructed on the nearby Adams street to hold those who died.