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A Brief Introduction to the Fire: A Tragedy of Historic Proportions

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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.