A performance on the evening of December 26, 1811 at the Richmond Theatre was a double billing -- a play followed by a pantomime. Because it was Christmas time and the last opening of the season, the auditorium was packed with an audience of 598 people (518 adults and 80 children).
A fire started in the theater just after the curtain fell during the first act of the pantomime. The lit chandelier in the auditorium was lifted before the flames had been extinguished and became entangled in the cords used to hoist it to the cling. The chandelier tilted and caught the scenery on fire. Flames quickly spread to other parts of the set, then to the wooden ceiling which began to rain down embers. The impact of the fire was worsened because the stage curtain hid the initial flames from the audience.
In the ensuing panic, once the audience realized what was happening, many patrons were pushed and fell and were unable to escape. Others jumped out of the windows, while many assembled near the windows but were too afraid to jump.
Many members of the upper echelons of Richmond society were in attendance on the night of the fire, and many were killed; among the dead were Pages, Nelsons, and Braxtons - all FFV families. Seventy-two died (54 women and 18 men). Among the victims were Virginia's sitting governor, George William Smith, and former senator Abraham B. Venable. The governor had purportedly died trying to save his child from the flames.
The fire was the worst urban disaster in American history at that time. Today, Monumental Church sits where the original theater stood - at the corner of 12th and Broad Streets near the old MCV medical building.
Image: Virginia Historic Society