Sunday, January 26, 2020

RISK: "A brief history of theater fires in New York City—and the regulations that helped people escape them"

From Lapham's Quarterly:

A brief history of theater fires in New York City—and the regulations that helped people escape them.
Monday, October 07, 2019
On November 26, 1864, eight militant Confederate supporters set fire to several New York City hotels as part of what the New York Times called a “diabolical plot to burn the city of New York.” This round of arson was an arm of a coordinated national attack on several Northern cities intended to turn the tables on an inevitable Union victory. It was sponsored by the government of Jefferson Davis, secretly supported by many Northern politicians, and conducted under the command of combat officer Colonel Robert Martin. The fires were intended to serve as distractions in each city as Confederates concurrently raided local treasuries and sprang inmates from nearby prisons.

That night, the Winter Garden in Lower Manhattan was hosting a special benefit performance of Julius Caesar. The play featured the three Booth Brothers onstage together for the first time: Edwin, Junius Brutus Jr., and John Wilkes, the last of whom would soon commit his own egregious act of pro-Confederacy vigilantism. An alarm rang out next door in the burning Lafarge House during the performance.

The Times reported, “The excitement became very intense among the closely packed mass of human beings,” and “the panic was such for a few moments that it seemed as if all the audience believed the entire building in flames, and just ready to fall upon their devoted heads.” The coolheaded Edwin Booth, who was watching the ensuing mania from the stage, broke character and instructed the two-thousand-person audience to remain calm.

Across the street at Barnum’s American Museum, 2,500 spectators had gathered to watch a performance. Edwin Booth was unaware that one of the Confederate vigilantes, the “Southern Hotspur” Colonel Robert Cobb Kennedy (who got drunk and went rogue, abandoning the hotel plan), had exploded a bottle of a combustible substance in the hall. The stairway caught fire, and the crowd panicked.

The substance, which emulated the ancient incendiary cocktail known as Greek Fire (believed to be a combination of naphtha and quicklime), relied on oxygen to grow. Many of the cramped spaces and closed rooms in which the blazes had begun were too confined for the fires to become very dangerous. The fires were put out quickly despite the desperate crowds causing mayhem in the streets. Of the nearly 800,000 people in the attacked venues or surrounding areas in New York, miraculously none were seriously hurt. All of the buildings remained intact. The perpetrators were apprehended.

The journalists covering the story for the Times were aware that the happy ending was anomalous, if not just extremely lucky. If the plan had “been executed with one-half of the ability with which it had been drawn up,” a reporter wrote, “no human power could have saved this city from destruction.”

Building fires, and specifically theater fires, have always been a serious risk to urban spaces. On June 29, 1613, for example, the firing of an onstage cannon during a performance of Henry V set fire to the roof of the Globe Theatre, burning it to the ground. The Gilded Age’s rampantly poor building maintenance and serious overcrowding made structures particularly susceptible to fire and dangerous, however. William Paul Gerhard, an engineer with the British Fire Prevention Committee, stated in a report that by May 1897 there had been 1,115 recorded theater fires in Europe and America (since records had been kept); there were 460 theater fires across America and Europe just from 1800 to 1877. Gerhard claimed that the average life of a theater in the United States was only about thirteen years due to fire.

American journalists repeatedly demanded that immediate architectural reform was necessary. Structures did not have enough exits or extinguishing materials, and maintenance of those that existed was often neglected. “In yesterday’s Times,” one reporter noted in 1872, “we recorded no less than twelve fires which took place in twenty-four hours and three of them were very destructive.” The most precarious of all edifices were theaters, which packed in crowds night after night and were illuminated by many small flames or, eventually, vast amounts of newly developed electrical equipment.

The Chicago Times ran an enormous front-page story about a local theater fire in February 1875, with shocking subheads like burned alive and hundreds of charred and distorted corpses. It included horrifying details about patrons’ struggles to escape and their gruesome deaths. The article turned out to be completely made up, but it wasn’t a hoax. It was a cautionary tale, printed by the newspaper in hopes of raising awareness about poor fire-safety measures in public buildings, particularly entertainment venues—a lesson no one seemed ready to learn yet.

On December 5 of the following year the Brooklyn Theater went up in flames. One of the gaslights above the stage set the drop curtain of the stage on fire. Although the actors saw the blaze, they continued the performance of the melodrama The Two Orphans until someone in the auditorium cried out, “Fire!” The performers gathered by the footlights, imploring the crowd not to panic. Then someone opened the stage doors to allow an exit. A draft blew in and flames billowed. Screaming people struggled to exit, falling over the balcony, sliding down the stairs, piling on top of one another. At least 278 people perished. The fire marshal ordered a random sample of autopsies, all of which revealed death by suffocation. The head usher, Thomas Rochford, said that he’d previously seen the room empty in seven minutes easily. The building’s architect, G.L. Morse, insisted that people should have been able to evacuate in three.

On New Year’s Eve 1903, Chicago’s Iroquois Theater was set ablaze in similar circumstances. During a matinee performance of Mr. Bluebeard, largely attended by women and children, the fuse of a spotlight burst, setting fire to the muslin “fly border” of the stage. For a few minutes, the stagehands fought to put it out—stage electrician John E. Farrell climbed up to the top of the curtain and attempted to douse the fire with his bare hands—but it quickly grew beyond all reckoning. Farrell then hurried down to the stage door, opened it, and began to evacuate everyone backstage. When other workers attempted to slide open the large backstage freight doors, they released a draft that forced the fire into the theater auditorium. Described as a “wall of fire” and a “cyclonic blast” by various witnesses, the blaze billowed into the audience, blocking many of the fire exits. Other escape routes either were not labeled, locked, or difficult to operate. Eddie Foy, the headlining comedian at the performance, ran to the front of the stage and began to try to direct people safely out of the theater. But the loft above him caved in and brought the flames to the stage, forcing him to make his own way out. At this point, the lights went out.....