Sunday, May 6, 2012

Book Review--The Richmond Theater Fire

Baker, Meredith Henne. The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America's First Great Disaster. LSU Press, Baton Rogue, LA. 2012. 317 pages, 241 pages of text, index, bibliography, notes, b/w photos. ISBN 9780807143742, $39.95.

As the year 1811 drew to a close many unusual events took place. An annular eclipse happened, a massive earthquake shook the New Madrid fault line, and war with Great Britain seemed a certainty. Author Meredith Henne Baker points out though that with the Christmas season upon them Virginians were able to look past the uncertain and partake of the social season which increased the population of Richmond.

A popular form of entertainment was the theater and so on December 26 approximately 650 patrons of all social classes crowded a Richmond theater to see the main event of the night Raymond and Agnes: or, the Bleeding Nun, a popular pantomime written by Matthew Gregory Lewis. Here in a cramped theater, with little attention paid to building safety, more than 70 theater goers would lose their lives as a candle on a chandelier set hemp backdrops on fire. A fire that would quickly engulf the building and change the course of Richmond history for the foreseeable future.

With expert skill and story telling ability author Meredith Henne Baker takes us on a tour of early Richmond and the theater setting. As you are reading you almost feel like you are in the cramped areas looking for a way out whether by an inward opening door or through a window and the resulting long drop to the ground all the while the flames are nipping at your heels or taking the staircase out from under your feet. If you are lucky enough to not be on the staircase you still might meet your death by being trampled or breathing the hot carbon monoxide fumes.

The day after the fire the city began the long road to healing. Members of all social status had perished from young children all the way to the governor of Virginia, George William Smith. On December 27 several committees were formed; burial, census (to determine the number of dead), collections (to build a monument), and an investigative committee. The theater company was eventually cleared of wrong doing and on December 29 a funeral was held at the theater site.

Many organized religions of the day were already vocally against the theater as a whole, considering it to be wasted time, against the virtue of thrift, a lead into temptation including prostitution (many times theaters were used as a meeting place), and the lives of actors and actresses were many times immoral. Preachers claimed the fire to be a sign from God that the United States should repent for it's ways including the embrace of slavery and a failure to take care of it's soldiers.

Monumental Church. Taken from
 the archives of Historic
Richmond Foundation.
(photo by Richard C. Cheek)
With difficulty in raising the needed funds the monument committee eventually merged with a church group and Robert Mills was chosen to build what became known as Monumental Church, eventually becoming an Episcopal church. The seeming merger and splitting of the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches is well covered as is a controversy in the design competition.

Baker traces the growth in religion in Richmond and discusses the four major religious branches practiced there: Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian. Each is given considerable treatment of their beliefs and how the church grew and prospered after, and in many cases because of, the tragic fire. The major figures of each branch are discussed as well. Also covered are how the new views toward religion affected women and African Americans.

Richmond Theater in 1858
As would be expected, time moved on and a new theater was eventually built, opening in 1819 despite calls that it was disrespectful to those who had perished in the fire. With all organized religion firmly against it, the new theater struggled at the beginning, attracting only inferior acting companies. The theater stayed open however and the building received major upgrades in 1837-38 and by the 1850's Richmond was considered the entertainment capital of the upper south. A young actor by the name of John Wilkes Booth performed there in 1858-59. In 1862 the Marshall Theater burned to the ground only to be rebuilt using smuggled materials. No longer seen as a reminder of the dead the theater was an escape from the horrors of the Civil War. The rebuilt theater was eventually closed for good in 1895.

Don't be fooled by this being a university press title. While the scholarship and research are there (over 40 pages of notes and a 17 page bibliography loaded with primary sources) this is a highly readable work. I would rank it alongside Norman MacLean's classic Young Men and Fire as a must read for those interested in books dealing with fire disasters, though they are two completely different books. This is highly recommended for those interested in early Richmond or Virginia history, early American religious growth, disaster literature, or anybody who likes good solid non-fiction.

The Richmond Theater Fire is the 2012 winner of the Jules and Frances Landry Award as awarded by LSU Press for the most outstanding achievement in the field of southern studies.

*Thank you to LSU Press for providing a complimentary review copy.

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