Friday, June 8, 2012

Interview--Meredith Henne Baker: The Richmond Theater Fire

Meredith Henne Baker
photo by Amanda K. Gille
I was recently able to read a very interesting and well written book by first time author Meredith Henne Baker titled The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America's First Great Disaster published by LSU Press. What a great read! Please see my review here.
Ms Baker has been kind enough to answer some questions about herself, her book, and her writing process and I am honored to share this with my readers.
Please be sure to check her website here or the book Facebook page here. Both are great informational resources.

CBR: Welcome and thank you for taking time to answer a few questions. First, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Thank you for hosting this interview! I'm a writer with an interest in history because of what we can learn about the present from the past. My particular interest is American religious history. I previously taught at a girls boarding school, worked in museum education, and developed educational programs for urban charter schools. Although I've won grants and awards for my historical work, I currently spend a lot more time hanging out at teeter-totters than archives, thanks to my toddlers. My husband and I do tote them around to lots of museums though.

CBR: Your book deals with what I consider to be a little known event in American history. What sparked your interest in the Richmond fire and led you to write a book about it?

I ran across about a dozen sermons about the Richmond Theater fire when I was a graduate student at William & Mary. They included sermons from the founder of Princeton Theological Seminary, from an English Quaker abolitionist, from a suicidal Unitarian schismatic--and I wondered "it was clearly an international incident...but whoever heard of this fire in Richmond?" 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more I dug in local archives, the more amazing sources I uncovered besides these feisty sermons--sheaves of letters, unpublished and heartbreaking memoirs, riveting survivor accounts, and candid obituaries in the local papers among others. Here was a trove of fascinating primary sources about this fire, ample evidence that it directly affected influential men and women of the time (Monroes, Marshalls, Madisons, among others) and I couldn't find a single book about it.

I became completely taken by this story and the people who experienced it. (If I didn't find it fascinating on a personal level, I never could have stuck with it for the past seven years!) I went on to write a thesis focusing on the changes the disaster brought to Virginia's religious climate and culture, and over the next few years, various professors and writer friends urged me to be the person to write that first book about the Richmond Theater fire. It was such an amazing opportunity, to be the one to unpack the story of a long-forgotten but very significant event in American history.

CBR: Can you describe your research and writing process? Were there any particular obstacles that had to be overcome in telling your story? Any groups or people that particularly helped you that you would like to thank?

I relied heavily on Virginia archives--the Virginia Historical Society, the Library of Virginia, university libraries, and the Library of Congress. Their staffs were unfailingly helpful. Once I left graduate school and was employed full-time, I had to make day trips to these places from a distance and became really efficient at cramming a lot of research in a short time. I'd pack a sandwich and a bottle of water in my purse, show up with those triplicate request forms pre-filled, and just plow through stacks of material until the place closed. It made a huge difference when libraries began to allow digital photography, because then I could skip time-consuming transcriptions or expensive copy machine tabs and just snap a shot of a letter or document and deal with it once I arrived back at home.

As for my writing process, I treated it like a job and made myself write for x hours a day for about a year until I had the manuscript finished. My goal was to have it the book ready by the 200 year anniversary of the fire (December 26th, 2011), although I missed it by a few months. There were a few reasons for this, but I will say the writing process slowed down considerably after my two
children were born. I wrote mostly late at night then, or whenever I had an hour or two where someone kept an eye on the kids for me. I have a new found respect for writers with young children. It's not easy! Especially when working on a manuscript that requires a lot of original research. In my acknowledgements I probably thank as many people for pitching in with child care as I do historical institutions.

CBR: You point out the connection of the Richmond theater fire to Edgar Allen Poe. Can you give readers a sense of this connection and do you think it played any part in his later writing?

Poe's mother Elizabeth Arnold Poe was a popular member of the Placide & Green theater troupe, which was performing on December 26th, 1811, the night the Theater burned. He probably would have been taken inside the theater on various occasions. (Historian Martin Shockley supposes that little Edgar might even have performed on the Richmond stage in an ensemble with other cast children that season.) Eliza Poe had died from an illness earlier in December although Edgar would, I understand, claim in later years that she and his father were both victims of the blaze. In December the Poe children were taken in by local families, and Edgar went to the family of John "Jock" Allan, who lived a few blocks from the site of the theater. Poe was only about 3 in 1811, but certainly this was a memorably tragic time in his life and an event that haunted Richmond for decades. He couldn't have escaped its shadow. I don't doubt that this dark occurrence and his family's proximity to it made a lasting impression on him.

CBR: In comparison to disasters today the death toll of just over 70 seems relatively small. Can you put in perspective the impact this had on Richmond and Virginia as a whole?

I think "impact" is the key concept here, and that doesn’t always have to do with an enormous body count. Percentage-wise, though, those 72 deaths (more in the months to follow) were significant. In a town of ten thousand, this single fire killed nearly one percent of its citizens. If 9-11 had resulted in 81,000 New York City deaths instead of around 3,000, that would be comparable. Fires were common, yes, but (surprisingly) didn't often result in mass fatalities.
This was like the Titanic or the Hurricane Katrina of its day--a disaster that (to that point) was just unparalleled. Newspapers from New Hampshire to South Carolina printed breathless updates for weeks after the blaze. U.S. Congress wore black armbands for a month, the U.S. Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. wore them for two. Cities across America sent resolutions to Richmond expressing their sympathy, and commemorative events were held in major cities like New York and Philadelphia. It even captured international interest--Americans overseas wrote home about it, and a
press in York, England published a religious booklet about the Theater fire. 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. It was easy for people to imagine that the victims' fate could (but for the grace of God) have been theirs. Additionally, the higher social status of most victims meant people recognized the prominent family names of the dead. George Smith, the governor of Virginia was among the dead. Also, the fact that many of those killed were young women captured great public interest and sympathy—similar responses can be seen in later tragedies like the Triangle Shirtwaist fire or the U.S. Arsenal explosion in 1864 where teen aged women lost their lives.

CBR: What impact did the fire have on public safety in general?

Horace Townsend, a journalist who wrote in 1883 about the Richmond tragedy in Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, summed up the public response to 19th c. theater fires rather succinctly: "Editorials are written in the newspapers, articles by experts appear in the leading magazines; the receipts of theatres and opera-houses suffer from a temporary diminution; the Fire Department officials bestir themselves and present voluminous reports; everyone comes to the conclusion that each and every place of public entertainment is a death-trap, and that “something ought to be done,” and the general result is that matters go on much as they did in the past."

CBR: We often think of early America as being a highly religious society. It seems your book actually paints a different scene. You point out the large growth in the four main churches, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist, and Methodist after the fire. Can you discuss the impact of the fire on both the church and the theater?

Virginia wasn't much of a church-going society in the early 19th century. After disestablishment in 1786, the dominant Anglican Church lost all public support and had to be self-sustaining. It floundered, and took a real hit financially and in terms of their membership. Other denominations struggled as well.

Richmond wasn’t any exception. Far from being the “city of churches” it would later be called, in 1811 there were only five houses of worship—Episcopal, Baptist, Methodist, Quaker, and a synagogue— for ten thousand inhabitants. In The Richmond Theater Fire I have the chance to describe religious life in Virginia in the Early Republic—ruined chapels, revivalists on horseback, and the kind of world where a church service was followed by a horse race and a drink. It's interesting--I was reading Lauren F. Winner's book A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith where she describes how everyday faith was lived out by gentry Anglican colonists in Virginia. Winner remarked that the church's fortunes turned around perceptibly after 1811. I propose that the Theater fire was the 1811 event that was the catalyst for that transformation and describe how in the book.

As far as the fire's impact on local theater, another wasn't built for nearly a decade. I write about the bickering over opening another one, the resistance from churchgoers, and the truly awful entertainment alternatives they had as substitutes for theatrical performances. A new theater was eventually built, of course, and John Wilkes Booth (among other notable actors) trod the boards there for a time.

CBR: The new Monumental Church was built on the location of the old Richmond theater. What role did the new church play in the growth of religion during this time?

I think Monumental—a Protestant Episcopal Church—made evangelicalism a viable option for the influential gentry class. To give a slapdash definition, evangelicalism (the brand of faith practiced mostly by Methodists and Baptists) emphasized missionary work, the preaching of the gospel, and a dramatic conversion experience. Evangelicals emphasized that Christians were to be separate and different from “the world.” Winner points out that Virginia’s gentry practiced their faith in a way that was comfortable with the world. You might play a hymn on your violin or a dance tune, and either was just fine.

The gentry (often Episcopalians) were very skeptical of evangelicals, who were considered “fanatics”, and their rowdy camp meetings which were spreading across the South—with convicted men and women shrieking and flailing over their sins—were just too over the top.

Yet when a new Yankee Episcopal minister showed up in the pulpit at Monumental, he gradually introduced evangelical practices, like emotional sermons and prayer meetings in a way that the congregation could accept. Mostly.

CBR: As talk of a new theater came about many people saw it as disrespectful in some way. Do you see any similarity to the way Americans respond today after a disaster either man made or natural?

Around 1816 one editorialist in Richmond argued “Four years have however now elapsed, since the disastrous event, which called forth all our sympathies—The population of Richmond has greatly changed, and is ever changing—Few persons are left in it, who were the immediate sufferers in that ever-to-be-lamented calamity…If they are convinced of [the theater’s] general good tendency … they will generously sacrifice their feelings to the public interest.” In other words: times change—eventually we need to switch out of the mourning garb, enjoy our lives, and not be mired in the past. Critics thought this man was disrespectful and callous. One suggested that every ticket for a performance at his new theater be sold at the monument to the old one—so purchasers would be forced to read the names of the dead.

There’s often controversy over how to properly memorialize the victims of a tragedy—just look at Ground Zero in New York City or the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.

CBR: While this time frame is generally considered a white man's world how did the fire affect others such as women and African-Americans?

Wow, good questions. Women made up about two thirds of the victims (which didn’t say much for Virginia chivalry, some alleged), which drew a lot of sympathy from the public.

But in terms of how the calamity affected women, let’s take a look at the survivors. Most of the adult men who died were married and were the family breadwinners. In these days before life insurance, this meant that their wives were almost immediately in financial peril. In the papers, auction notices go up: the Governor’s family, now that he’s dead, is auctioning off their furniture, their slaves. A shop owned by a prominent Jewish family that lost five people in the fire is liquidated. And on and on. The story paints a very dire picture of how quickly fortunes could turn.
The story of enslaved hero Gilbert Hunt shines a light on the immense injustices suffered by African-Americans in this time. After Hunt saved the lives of about a dozen women who were jumping from the Theater’s windows, many expected him to be granted his freedom. (As a member of a volunteer fire brigade, he later saved dozens more.) Instead he labored for years until he paid for his manumission himself. Society insisted black men and women remain in a subordinate place, separate and unequal, even when they clearly deserved great public respect. Even the black and mixed-race victims’ names were placed in a lower spot on the memorial.

CBR: Your book is the winner of the 2012 Jules and Frances Landry Award. Overall, what has been the reception to your book?

The award was such an honor. What a wonderful surprise to be among the ranks of previous awardees: four Pulitzer Prize winners and such notable names as John Hope Franklin, Robert Penn Warren, Drew Gilpin Faust, and Lewis P. Simpson.

As for the reception of the book, I've had a number of historians and archivists tell me, "We've been waiting for someone to use this material and write about the fire!" The Library of Virginia hosted a marvelous book signing event (detailed on my blog at, the lovely staff at the Historic Richmond Foundation has invited me to speak on several occasions, and I’m lined up to deliver a Banner Lecture at the Virginia Historical Society this December. There’s also been interest from various churches because of the religious history aspect of the story.

CBR: Do you have an idea on what you will be working on next?

Right now I am mostly writing shorter pieces—articles and the like. I can’t wait to dig in to my next big project, though, and have a few ideas and historical characters that have captured my interest. (And there are other books I want someone else to write. For instance, I don’t have time or know enough French, but could someone please write a good biography of Louis Hue Girardin? That man must be one of the most dashing, fascinating, pulled-up-by-his-bootstraps characters in the Early Republic.)
Thanks for the interview, Robert, and readers are always welcome to send me questions or contact me through my website.


  1. Robert! Very Nice Work! I visited Richmond and it is rich in antebellum history. Tell the author that the interview sold at least two books: one to the academic library I direct and one to the library's director.

  2. WOW! I consider it high praise that you read the interview and that it helped sell copies of the book. Thank you for reading and I will be sure to pass along your kind words.

  3. Thanks for the interview, Robert, and Mr. Redd, I hope you enjoy the book!