The Richmond Theater Fire book (and the March 15 Library of Virginia speaking engagement/ Monumental Church tour) are featured in a new Richmond.com cover story. Author Jennifer Pullinger interviewed me about the initial research and writing of the book, which was fun to recall. She also went with the classic “theatre” spelling in the title. I tossed around both options and went with the modern American spelling throughout the book, so it wouldn’t distract the contemporary reader. But doesn’t “theatre” look lovely?
Article Full Text:
New Book Examines Richmond Theatre Fire
“You may pass by it all the time – 1224 E. Broad Street in downtown Richmond – completely oblivious to the deadly event that took place there more than 200 years ago. On that site once sat the Richmond Theatre, until December 26, 1811, when a quick-moving blaze engulfed the structure, burning it down and killing nearly one-sixth of those in attendance that night. Of the 600 people who were packed inside the theatre that day, 72 people perished – 54 women and 18 men – including Virginia’s sitting Governor George W. Smith and other prominent Richmonders. Today the site is home to Monumental Church, built in 1814 to serve as a memorial to the victims who perished in the catastrophe that captured international attention and sent an entire nation into mourning.
The event was considered one of the worst urban disasters in America at its time. “This was like the Titanic or the Hurricane Katrina of its day – a disaster that was just unparalleled,” said Meredith Henne Baker, author of the new book “The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America’s First Great Disaster,” from LSU Press. Washington, D.C.-based Baker will be at the Library of Virginia on March 15th, 2012 to talk about the making of the book, exactly what happened that day, as well as the religious and cultural changes that came about as a result of the tragedy.
Baker said that she was first struck by the story of the fire as a graduate student studying American History at William & Mary. One day, she happened upon a few sermons about the fire. “The more I dug in local archives, the more amazing sources I uncovered besides these feisty sermons – sheaves of letters, unpublished and heartbreaking memoirs, riveting survivor accounts and candid obituaries in the local papers among others,“ Baker said. “Here was a trove of fascinating primary sources about this fire, and I couldn’t find a single book about it.”
During the course of her research, Baker says she was most surprised by how much the event captured national – even international –interest. “I suspect one reason for the interest in the blaze was that it happened in a large public building, the likes of which could be found in many urban areas,” Baker said. “It was easy for people to imagine that the victims’ fate could have been theirs. Additionally, the higher social status of most victims and the fact that many of those killed were young women captured great public interest and sympathy.”
The remains of those who lost their lives in the fire are buried in a crypt in the church’s basement, while a historical marker out front reminds people of how Monumental Church came about.
Baker’s Library of Virginia talk on March 15th, 2012 will happen from Noon-1PM. A book signing will follow her talk. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.theaterfirebook.com.
Jennifer Pullinger is a writer and editor in Richmond. Visit her at www.jenniferlpullinger.com