On the front page of the Richmond Magazine’s website, Harry Kollatz, Jr.’s popular blog (“The Hat”) today examined the lasting legacy of the Richmond Theater fire and promoted my lecture at the Library of Virginia. It also featured an extensive interview with me about the writing of the book, asking why did this event make such an international impression? He turned the interview material into a fascinating article, which really impresses me, considering the fact that I conducted the interview while running errands with a talkative baby on my hip. Not the most professional, distraction-free environment.
So here’s an excerpt:
For a graduate student in U.S history, the trail that began with the sermons was fortuitous. Troves of primary source material, letters, journals and monographs exist in seldom-visited corners of archives. “Everyone I encountered along the way was excited to know I was working on this story,” Baker says. And it was any historian’s dream of discovering a rich subject with disparate pieces never before gathered in one place.
Why was the Richmond Theatre fire such a huge event at the time?
While fires laid waste to entire sections of early 19th-century towns in the United States, few of them involved mass fatalities. Baker says that the localized nature of the fire and its deaths were unusual for the time. “The fire revealed a sense of vulnerablility among people,” Baker says. “Is this building I’m in safe? Can I get out of it if there’s an emergency?” After the fire, new businesses throughout the country advertised their recently constructed safe buildings. The suddenness of the event and the rapidity of the destruction of the theater was another cause for concern. It was the day after Christmas, and people had come to see a show that for almost 80 of them instead became a funeral pyre.
A poignant letter that Baker found at the Library of Virginia was by Louis Girardin, who translated the first play of the evening’s festivites, Family Feuds, or the Father. His wife and son died in the fire, leaving him a widower with two infant daughters. “He experienced the French Revolution,” Baker says, “and in this letter he writes of how when they went into the streets, they expected bloodshed. They knew they’d witness violence and death. The theater fire, though, was incomprehensible because of the innocent lives lost. And the number of women and children who died shocked people.”
You can find more of Harry’s writing on the Theater fire here, in another great blog entry.