Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
Other Sellers on Amazon
+ Free Shipping
+ $3.99 shipping
The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America's First Great Disaster Hardcover – March 14, 2012
|New from||Used from|
The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
"Best study yet of antebellum Richmond...highly recommended." - CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries.
"The theater fire has never been the subject of a book-length study. Baker's well-informed and impressively researched book fills that gap, telling an engaging story in the process...Baker has written a smart and responsible popular history. Readers who want a good story and detailed descriptions will find both here... Exhaustively researched and thoughtfully contextualized, this book is a welcome contribution." -The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
"[Baker's] vivid and dramatic prose allows the reader to smell the smoke in the air and hear the ensuing cries of "Fire!" that filled the theater that evening....Engaging and informative." -The Journal of Southern Religion
Winner of the 2012 Phi Alpha Theta Best First Book Award
Winner of the 2012 Jules and Frances F. Landry Award
On the day after Christmas in 1811, the state of Virginia lost its governor and almost one hundred citizens in a devastating nighttime fire that consumed a Richmond playhouse.The gruesome fire amplified the capital's reputation for vice and led to an upsurge in anti-theater criticism that spread throughout the country and across the Atlantic. In The Richmond Theater Fire, the first book about the event and its aftermath, Meredith Henne Baker explores a forgotten catastrophe and its wide societal impact. The story of transformation comes alive through survivor accounts of slaves, actresses, ministers, and statesmen. Investigating private letters, diaries, and sermons, among other rare or unpublished documents, Baker views the event and its outcomes through the fascinating lenses of early nineteenth-century theater, architecture, and faith, and reveals a rich and vital untold story from America's past.
Top customer reviews
There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.
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.
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 and 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.
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.
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.