Richmond Story: The 1811 Richmond Theater Fire

In the 19th century, theater was the primary public entertainment for all socioeconomic classes, from the gentry to the enslaved. To meet the high demand and keep fresh faces and talent in rotation, traveling theater companies roamed the country, stopping for months-long stints in cities before moving on to the next place. Thus embedded in a city for a season, the actors and actresses became temporary citizens and minor celebrities among the population. 

In August of 1811, the Placide and Green Company, from South Carolina, arrived for a season in Richmond.  Among them was an English actress named Eliza Poe. At the Richmond Theater at Broad and 12th Streets, the company performed different plays several nights a week. Wealthier Richmonders paid a dollar to sit in front of the stage, or in suspended boxes above the crowd.  Less well-to-do attendees, including the enslaved, could sit in the balcony for 25 cents. A typical night’s entertainment could last five hours, with two full-length plays separated by short skits. 

The Richmond Theater seated 500, though the December holiday season strained its capacity.  On December 26, with the General Assembly in session, the evening’s performance had drawn 600 spectators to the 3-storey brick theater.  In a town of only 10,000, that was 6% of the population. State legislators and even the Virginia Governor George W. Smith came. The second play that night was a “pantomime”—a musical slapstick production—called The Bleeding Nun. For this, 80 children were also in attendance for the performance that would quickly become the deadliest urban disaster in American history at the time.

538.01, The Burning of the Theatre in Richmond, Virginia, on the night of the 26th December 1811, Drawn February 25, 1812, The Valentine

After the end of the first act of The Bleeding Nun, a crew member accidentally raised an onstage chandelier that had not been snuffed out.  The flames caught on 34 suspended hemp backgrounds, painted with oil. Within a few minutes, the roof of the theater was engulfed in flames.

The poorly designed theater had few exits. The discount seats in the balcony and the stage had separate doors, but those on the floor and in the boxes could find no easy way out. The fire spread so fast and became so hot so quickly that witnesses claimed people died in their seats, overcome by shock. The wealthier patrons in the upper boxes packed the only small staircase, which collapsed. Historians estimate that the temperature inside rose to 1,000 degrees.  In the chaos, trapped on the second and third storeys, burning people threw themselves out of the windows.

Despite acts of heroism by both the enslaved and the elite, rescue was utterly impossible for many of those trapped.  The entire building burned to the ground too quickly.  Seventy-two people died in the Richmond Theater that night—including 54 women and girls. 

Gilbert Hunt, an enslaved man who personally rescued 12 women from the upper windows, returned to the scene the next morning: “There lay, piled together, one mass of half-burned bodies—the bodies of all classes and conditions of people—the young and the old, the bond and the free, the rich and the poor, the great and the small, were all lying there together.”

Governor Smith was only identifiable by a stock buckle.

A stunned city went into mourning as news of the horrific disaster spread around the world.  With so many of the dead burned beyond recognition, the victims were all entombed together on the spot, over which Monumental Church was soon built as a memorial. Richmond officials prohibited any plays, balls or assemblies for four months in respect for the dead. With their contract thus cut short, the shocked, embarrasse, and traumatized Placide and Green company quickly cleared out of town.

They did, however, leave one person behind. Just a few weeks before the fire, one of company’s star players, Eliza Poe, had died of an illness in a boarding house here.  he left behind a three-year-old boy named Edgar.  A prominent local family, the Allans, adopted him and made him a wealthy Richmonder overnight. Many believed this to be a fortunate turn for the impoverished orphan, though perhaps Richmonders could never quite shake his association with so much death and destruction.  Perhaps that shadow followed him all of his life.

Richmond Story: Jewish Family Services

As we close in on the fourth night of Hanukkah, we wanted to explore the history of the Jewish faith here in Richmond and one of the premiere service organizations that grew out of this community.

When Virginia was first established as a colony, all residents were required to support the Anglican Church. But with the 1786 passage of the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, Richmond became a potential home for people of other faiths. Just four years later, by 1790, nearly 100 Jews had settled here, making Richmond the fourth largest Jewish community in the United States. Members of this community built Kahal Kadosh Beth Shalome, the city’s first and the nation’s sixth synagogue. In the 1830s, new Jewish immigrants from Germany and Bavaria began arriving in Richmond. They initially worshipped at Beth Shalome, but preferred to follow the Ashkenazic rite, as opposed to the Sephardic tradition. In 1841, they founded Richmond’s second Jewish congregation, Beth Ahabah—in English, “House of Love.”

V.86.96.05a, Jewish Family Services brochure, 1984, The Valentine

Congregation Beth Ahabah hired Rabbi Max Michelbacher and began to fundraise for a synagogue, which they built in 1848, at 11th and Marshall Streets. A year later, the women of the congregation founded a volunteer organization to help those Richmonders in need, regardless of religion. They called it the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Association.

 The mission of the LHBA was simple: to provide help where help was needed. To accomplish this, the versatile group often shifted focus to meet the demands of the evolving city. During the Civil War, the women tended wounded soldiers, sometimes converting their own homes to hospitals. After the war, they assisted widows and orphans. Under the leadership of President Zipporah Cohen in the early-20th century, they rose to meet the material needs of the Great Depression, in addition to battling issues like alcoholism in the Roaring 20s. The organization’s range could be surprising. In the 1950s, LHBA became a formal social services agency, changed its name to Jewish Family Services (JFS), and opened an adoption center. In 1969, they founded a counselling program in the Fan neighborhood for disillusioned and homeless youth. 

 Though the JFS provided services in a largely Christian city and regardless of the faith of those in need, they did not lose sight of the plight facing Jewish communities across the globe.  As world events displaced Jews on the other side of the Atlantic—most notably in 1890 from Eastern Europe, in 1938 from Nazi Germany and 1989 from the U.S.S.R.— JFS focused its efforts toward helping refuges from those eras escape persecution and resettle in Richmond. They recruited sponsors to assist new immigrants, taught them English, found them homes and helped introduce them to a completely new culture in America.

 Jewish Family Services is still in operation today. As the American population ages, the group now offers extensive elder care services, in addition to adoption and family counselling. As Richmond history marches on, however, don’t be surprised to see this enduring organization once again rise to meet new needs in our community.