Review: The Richmond Theater Fire
Meredith Henne Baker. The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America's First Great Disaster. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012. 368 pp. ISBN 978-0-8071-4374-2.
On December 26, 1811, the Broad Street Theatre in Richmond, Virginia, caught fire during an evening show. The actors and audience attempted to flee the theater, only to find their egress obstructed by narrow lobbies, winding staircases, and deficient exits. Despite heroic rescue efforts, seventy-two people perished in the blaze, including Governor George W. Smith and other prominent city residents. In The Richmond Theater Fire, Meredith Henne Baker provides a detailed account of the fatal evening’s events and argues that the conflagration served as a catalyst to transform the religious life and landscape of Virginia’s capital city.
Baker begins her chronological narrative by describing the social life of the state capital. Known for its joie de vivre, Richmond was “an isolated spot of urbanity” that attracted affluent people from across the South to its entertainment venues (9). No site was more popular among the gentry—and more criticized by evangelicals—than the city theatre, a rare public space in which a wide array of urbanites socialized openly. Throughout her account of the event, Baker intersperses biographical sketches of several of the theatergoers—white, black, rich, and poor—who attended (and survived) the deadly flames. Her 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.
Using newspaper articles and personal accounts, Baker describes the efforts made by mourning Richmonders to make sense of the aftermath. The local governing board immediately proclaimed a four-month moratorium on public entertainment and appointed John Marshall, a local resident and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to help organize the construction of a memorial monument. The first day of 1812 was set aside as a day of fasting and prayer, providing the city’s religious leaders with an opportunity to preach about the meaning of the fire, namely, that it was a sign of divine disfavor and an opportunity for the city’s residents to repent from the immorality that the theater had epitomized. While the communal ritual hoped to promote religious fervor among Richmonders, it drew attention to the city’s lack of religious resources. The state capital had only four church buildings for its 10,000 inhabitants and boasted of few charitable organizations that could administer aid to fire victims.
Baker focuses on how this disaster particularly affected Richmond’s Protestant Episcopal congregation. Prior to the fire, which took the lives of many of their upper-class congregants, Episcopalians worshipped jointly with the Presbyterians, practicing a “gentle ecumenicalism” (152). By 1812, however, the blaze, along with the election of a new bishop and the ascendancy of evangelical enthusiasm in the area, led congregants to adopt the anti-theater stances and dramatic preaching style prevalent among Baptists and Methodists. This, in turn, led to a change in the public behavior of the influential Richmonders who became members of the new Monumental Church, built over the theater wreckage in order to serve as a memorial site to the fire’s victims and used by local Episcopalians from 1814 to 1965.
The “newly held post-theater fire religious devotion and identity” of Richmond’s Episcopalians lent their consequent civic actions—such as the creation of charitable organizations and the city’s first Sunday school—state-wide and even national importance (178). But while these institutions helped to re-establish the denomination’s socio-cultural preeminence in the Commonwealth, they were not able to stave off a subsequent decline in religious fervor among its residents. Just eight years after the revival-bringing fire, a new theater was built in the city and Richmond soon became known as “the entertainment capital of the upper South” (236). Baker contends, however, that the “evangelical period of Virginia Episcopalianism” made enduring changes to Richmond’s religious life and landscape—changes that would continue to impact the Commonwealth well into the twentieth century (173).
Baker is at her best when describing the myriad social changes that occurred in the wake of the theater fire. Her narrative is replete with interesting minutiae, ranging from architectural innovations to advances in public building safety, developments in American theater, and improvements in medical care. However, the lack of a formal introduction and conclusion makes it difficult to place her account in historiographical context. This is especially noticeable when Baker discusses the development and expansion of evangelicalism, a movement she describes vividly but fails to analyze in-depth. This flaw does not ultimately detract from the book’s engaging and informative nature; Baker ultimately succeeds in bringing attention to an oft-overlooked historic event that served as “a major spiritual turning point for Richmond” (176–77). Those interested in the religious environment of Richmond, evangelical influences on the Episcopal Church, and the rise of evangelicalism in the early republic will find this volume useful.