In December 1835, Lower Manhattan was decimated by a tragic fire that claimed 700 buildings. The destruction of the incident was exacerbated by frigid temperatures which froze the water from firemen’s hoses. The estimated cost of damages caused by The Great Fire of 1835 was upwards of nearly $600 million dollars in today’s money. In a new audio drama, Burning Gotham, director, actor, and writer James Scully uses the fire as a historical benchmark from which to explore the people and places of 1830s New York City, a city that was rapidly expanding and bursting onto the world stage.
Join Untapped New York Insiders to go behind the scenes of the new podcast with creator James Scully on February 23rd! This virtual event is free for Untapped New York Insiders. Not an Insider yet? Become one today and get your first month free with code JOINUS.
Making “Burning Gotham”
Burning Gotham, which was an official 2022 Tribeca Audio selection, is an ensemble soap opera that features famous and infamous characters from the time of the fire. In each episode, we meet characters both fictional and real. Familiar New Yorkers who make an appearance include John Jacob Astor, Eliza Jumel, and Washington Irving among others. The first episode starts seven months before the fire itself, on May 1st, 1835. This date, from colonial times to just after World War II was known as Moving Day in New York City, the day when all annual leases expired. The chaotic scene of renters pouring into the streets of Manhattan makes for a dramatic opening.
“There were so many wild things going on in 1835 New York that still affect us today,” Scully told us, “What surprised me the most was that the Tammany Hall Democrats were already in power in 1835. Mayor Cornelius Lawrence was the first popularly elected mayor in New York City history. He was a Tammany Democrat. Truthfully, that’s just the beginning.” Scully drew inspiration from a myriad of 19th-century stories including the building of the Croton Aqueduct, The Penny Press Wars and the greatest literary hoax of the 19th century, P.T. Barnum’s dazzling exhibitions, and the brutal murder of Helen Jewett, considered the City’s most beautiful woman.
Scully, a native New Yorker, was looking for inspiration for a New York-based historical fiction podcast when he took to the streets to learn more about the fire. “I was aware of the Great Fire of 1835, so I took a walk to the area where the fire began while listening to The Bowery Boys’ episode on the fire. The location where the fire began is just north of Hanover Square. I was standing there about 100 feet west of the East River (which would have been relatively similar in 1835) when I realized that all the streets in the area converge around this point. If one wanted to perpetrate an arson and ensure it did the most damage, this was the exact spot to start that fire. This initial inspiration for Burning Gotham led my writing partner Olga Lysenko to begin researching New York in 1835, which as it turns out, is one of the wildest (and most forgotten) years in the history of New York. We had no idea it would take nearly five years of research and development to get the story right.”
Raised on radio dramas that he would listen to with his grandfather, Scully knew he wanted to take the story of the fire and turn it into something more than a typical historical podcast. He was further inspired by The Fireside Mystery Theatre, an acting troupe that he is part of that produces an old-time radio-styled original anthology audio drama and variety show. “If we were to turn on a radio seventy-five years ago, the majority of what we would have heard would have been fiction. There’s an underdeveloped market for fiction and Burning Gotham’s era of New York City history is largely forgotten. New Yorkers love stories about New York drama and intrigue, especially ones they haven’t heard before,” Scully told Untapped New York.
The first eight episodes of Burning Gotham are available now. Join Untapped New York Insiders to listen to the first episode and go behind the scenes of the new podcast with creator James Scully on February 23rd! This virtual event is free for Untapped New York Insiders. Not an Insider yet? Become one today and get your first month free with code JOINUS.
Making “Burning Gotham”
Next, check out 5 Places to Spot the Woolworth Building’s Fireproofing Methods and The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911