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Brooklyn Theater Fire (1876): Topics in Chronicling America

In 1876, the Brooklyn Theater became the site of one of the most devastating fires in United States history. This guide provides access to materials related to “Brooklyn Theater Fire” in the Chronicling America digital collection of historic newspapers.

Introduction

"The awful disaster at the Brooklyn Theater. Diagram showing the ground plan of the building and the lobby which the bodies were found." December 7, 1876. New-York Tribune (New York, NY), Image 1. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

On December 5, 1876, a fire at the Brooklyn Theater began when a piece of scenery caught fire and fell on the stage. In a little over 10 minutes, the fire was out of control and the audience thrown into a panic. People clogged stairwells and trampled fellow patrons in an attempt to flee the spreading flames. Almost 300 people were claimed by the fire. The National Republican newspaper labeled it “Brooklyn’s Holocaust." Read more about it!

The information in this guide focuses on primary source materials found in the digitized historic newspapers from the digital collection Chronicling America .

The timeline below highlights important dates related to this topic and a section of this guide provides some suggested search strategies for further research in the collection.

Timeline

December 5, 1876
11:20 PM
During a performance of the Two Orphans, a piece of scenery caught fire after being struck by a falling light fixture. Immediate attempts to put out the fire failed. Pieces of wood and canvas, but some of the actors continued acting as convinced some audience members that the fire was a part of the play. But more flaming pieces fell to the stage and the audience panicked.
December 5, 1876
11:30 PM
In only 10 minutes, stairways were clogged by patrons from the upper tiers. This caused human crush as people pushed to get to the lower level exits. People simply trampled over those that had fallen down in the stairwell. Many people died as the flames intensified and the smoke became unbearable, or simply because they were trampled by panicked patrons attempting to get out.
December 5, 1876
1 AM
The fire begins to die down and finally burns out around 3 AM.
December 9, 1876 Many newspapers, the New York Tribune in particular began publishing the names of the victims. The fire claimed about 300 lives but numbers are inconclusive as to the degree to which victims were burned beyond recognition.