Photo of the Week: Brooklyn Theatre Fire

Johnson St. as it appeared after the fire, 1876, V1972.1.923; Early Brooklyn and Long Island photograph collection, ARC.201; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Johnson St. as it appeared after the fire, 1876, V1972.1.923; Early Brooklyn and Long Island photograph collection, ARC.201; Brooklyn Historical Society.

The Brooklyn Theatre Fire—one of the deadliest theatre fires in history—occurred 141 years ago, on December 5, 1876. The tragic event occurred during the final act of the play “The Two Orphans.” The fire started when a gaslight ignited part of the show’s scenery. Acclaimed actress, Kate Claxton, who performed that night, reported to the New York Times in 1885 that she and her fellow actors continued the show in hopes of preventing a stampede. “We thought we were acting for the best in continuing the play as we did,” she stated, “with the hope that the fire would be put out without difficulty, or that the audience would leave gradually and quietly. But the result proved that it was not the right course.” The result was the death of nearly 300 people and the complete destruction of the theatre in less than an hour.

The photo of the week depicts the damage from the fire, as seen from Johnson Street in what is now the Downtown Brooklyn neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1876. The New York Supreme Court Building and a park now take up the space where the Theatre stood.  If you’re interested in learning more about the fire and its historical legacy, be sure to check out this recent episode of BHS’s podcast Flatbush + Main.. And don’t forget to rate and subscribe to the podcast!

The photo above comes from the Early Brooklyn and Long Island photograph collection comprised of roughly 1,400 black-and-white photographs taken by various photographers from 1860 to 1920. The collection includes views of locations on Long island, which is comprised of Brooklyn and Queens, Nassau County, and Suffolk County. The majority of the photographs depict views of Brooklyn and Suffolk County, as well as many views of Coney Island and Prospect Park. To view more photographs from this collection, check out this gallery.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our Brooklyn Visual Heritage website here. To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. library@brooklynhistory.org

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