Richmond Theater Fire America's First Great Disaster“The Richmond Theater Fire is totally engrossing, a real page turner.” Katherine Fuller-Seeley, author of “Celebrate Richmond Theater”

Best study yet of antebellum Richmond…highly recommended.” review by CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries.

“Gracefully written…A solid contribution to early American history.” Nancy Isenberg, author of Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr

“An important chronicle of a tragedy that marked — and changed — Richmond.” Virginia Book Notes, Richmond Times-Dispatch

Winner of multiple awards for outstanding historical literature:
the LSU Press 2012 Jules & Frances F. Landry Award
and the 2012 Phi Alpha Theta Best First Book Award

A Tragedy of Historic Proportions


Volume of Smoke, Virginia Commonwealth University Theater Dept.

The day after Christmas in 1811, hundreds of Virginia’s most prominent citizens thronged into the rickety Richmond Theater. Among the holiday crowd of soldiers, slaves, statesmen, and debutantes were the families of Governor George Smith, Chief Justice John Marshall, and President James Madison. The audience prepared for an evening of comedy and merriment, little supposing when the play began that the evening would end in tragedy. During the second act of “The Bleeding Nun,” a tiny fire kindled behind the scenery, raced to the ceiling timbers, and swallowed the trapped audience in ravenous flames.

“The disaster & grief seem to be universal. None has entirely escaped. Very many years will pass away before the town recovers from the gloom into which it has been plunged.”   James Monroe, January 1, 1812.

After this night, Virginia and the nation would be forever changed. The mass civilian casualties of the Theater Fire—nearly a hundred killed in mere minutes—were unlike anything experienced in America’s young history. It was, at that date, the worst urban disaster to affect the country. The fire was only the opening act in a remarkable story of transformation. The disaster was almost solely responsible for the revivification of a fast-fading Episcopal Church in Virginia, launched the first national discussion on public building safety, and spurred an American backlash against the theater and the acting profession. It also resulted in the construction of Monumental Church in Richmond–a memorial to the victims created by America’s first native-born architect, Robert Mills.

The Award-Winning Book

In The Richmond Theater Fire, the first book about the event and its aftermath, the curtain is pulled back on this forgotten catastrophe and its wide societal impact using private letters, personal diaries, rancorous newspaper articles, and a score of printed sermons, among other rare or never-before-published primary documents. By viewing the event and its outcomes through the fascinating lenses of early nineteenth-century medicine, theater, architecture, and faith, The Richmond Theater Fire by author Meredith Henne Baker reveals a rich and vital untold story from America’s past. The book has been awarded the 2012 Jules and Frances F. Landry Award for most outstanding book on a southern topic published by LSU Press and Baker was the recipient of the 2012 Phi Alpha Theta National History Honor Society “Best First Book Award.”

The Site

Welcome to the site! Please see the events page for information about commemorative activities and Meredith’s speaking engagements. The book has received lots of great press–find out more at the reviews & praise page! If you are interested in the people affected by the fire, please visit the resources page where you will find a timeline, selected bibliography, and a victim list. And please visit the blog for a background look at the writing of this book and more current information about the Richmond Theater Fire. We also have a facebook page and a documentary video which may be viewed below! Despite not being tremendously computer-savvy, I created and update this site myself, so please visit again… I regularly expand the content!


The Burning: The Richmond Theatre Fire of 1811 from Darryl Johnson on Vimeo.