On December 8, 1876, about 1,000 people came to the Brooklyn Theatre to see popular actors Harry Murdoch and Kate Claxton in The Two Orphans. The theater was located on Johnson and Washington (now Cadman Plaza) Streets in downtown Brooklyn.
It would’ve been just another night at the theater–except that a gas light ignited some scenery behind the stage, sparking a fire that became the deadliest in Brooklyn history. The actors tried to calm the crowds, but just before the last act, flames began raging.
Not surprisingly, the building lacked fire exits. With only one narrow staircase leading outside from the balcony, hundreds were trapped, then trampled.
About 300 people perished. Murdoch and other actors died, but Kate Claxton got out; nine years later, she gave this account to The New York Times:
“I looked up and through the flimsy ceiling of the old boathouse I could see sparks falling and little tongues of fire licking the edges of the drops and borders that hung in the flies. I went steadily on with my part. . . .
“By this time sparks were falling all over the stage, and the fact that there was a fire behind the stage could no longer be concealed from the audience. Still we continued to play. [Soon] a panic had broken out in the auditorium, and we saw that it was useless to attempt to proceed.”
The Brooklyn morgue, where fire victims’ bodies were taken
So many bodies were burned beyond recognition, the City of Brooklyn decided to bury them together in a common grave in Green-Wood Cemetery. A monument with inscriptions on all four sides marks the grave.