A fiery night at the theater in Brooklyn

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. 

harpersweeklybrooklynfire

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.”

brooklynfiremorgue

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.

brooklyntheatrefiremonument

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5 Responses to “A fiery night at the theater in Brooklyn”

  1. CelestialCharms Says:

    What a sad day in Brooklyn it must have been. So many families much have been touched by that tragedy. I hadn’t heard of that event…thank you for posting about it.
    Maureen

  2. Ruth Edebohls Says:

    Kate Claxton is also buried in Green-Wood.

  3. Pat Says:

    I’m glad I found your blog! I also write about Brooklyn and NYC among other subjects on my blog.

    Are you aware of the Civil War veteran project that has been going on fro over five years at Green-Wood Cemetery? Jeff Richman, the Green-Wood historian and a group of volunteers, myself and my husband among them, have found over 3,000 CW veterans buried there. We have been ordering headstones from the Federal Gov for those who had none or that are illegible. If you go to my blog labels on my right side bar and scroll through my Brooklyn posts I have two detailed blog posts about it and some of the CW veterans buried in Green-Wood.
    Jeff also published a book about many of them — you can see that on Green-Wood’s web site.

  4. Gary Says:

    I just read an interesting account of “Kate Claxton of the Brooklyn Fire”…She tried to reassure the crowd that “we are between you and the flames” and was found the next morning dazed and burned wandering in Manhattan near City Hall. She claimed she could not recall how she crossed the river but with this being years before the Bridge she likely crossed by ferry.

  5. wildnewyork Says:

    Great little story. I think Kate is worthy of a blog post of her own…thanks for sending it on.

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