Richmond Theatre Fire - December 26, 1811
Two Lovers Perished Together in the Burning of Richmond Theatre
Everybody said the place was a fire trap and what would ever happen if a fire would break out while it was full of people. But nobody stayed away from it if the play and company were good.
That Christmas season of 1811 at the Richmond Theatre the company was good. Elizabeth Arnold Poe had been one of the stars and Mr. Placide who headed the company was well enough liked in Richmond to pack the house when he announced a benefit performance for himself on December 26, 1811. He had intended to have it two days before Christmas, but he was sick. Mrs. Poe had died two weeks before. Besides, the weather was bad, and so it was on December 26 that the benefit finally took place.
The house that night would have pleased a more renowned actor than Mr. Placide. It was packed from gallery to pit and the boxes were filled with beautifully dressed ladies and their escorts. Six hundred persons in all, in good humor, and well disposed toward Mr. Placide and his company. The title of the play was "The Father, or Family Feuds." The after-piece, a pantomime was called "Raymond and Agness or the Bleeding Nun."
Everybody was delighted with the play. There was an intermission afterward. Then still laughing, chatting and bowing to acquaintances home for the holiday, the audience reassembled for the pantomime.
The house was in darkness and even the stage could only dimly be seen.
Two oil lights flickered in a chadelier, lighting up the den of the robber, Baptist.
"The curtain rose on the second act of the panomime with the orchestra in full chorus," wrote a newspaper editor who was there and who reported it for his paper.
None of the 600 persons ever knew how the second act ended, for almost as soon as the curtain went up, sparks of fire began to fall on the back part of the stage "and Mr. Robertson came out in unutterable distress waving his hand to the ceiling, and uttered these appalling words: 'The house is on fire!'
"His hand was immediately stretched forth to persons on the boxes--to help them on the stage and aid their retreat in that direction.
"This is all that we caught of the stage--the cry of fire, passed with electric velocity through the house. Every one flew from their seats. . ."
Flew to the narrow steps that wound down to the lobby; or jumped from boxes and balcony into the pit. The pine boards of the roof had resin on them and the place was like a bonfire. The shrieks of those who were dying or had lost husbands, wives or children were like a frenzied funeral dirge. In less than 10 minutes after those few sparks fell on the stage, the whole building was on fire. In front of the house, which was of brick, was a bull's-eye window. It became a furnace when the flames rushed from the stage along the roof and out of this window.
Seventy-two Persons Perished in Fire
Seventy-two persons died that night. Whether the more cumbersome dresses of the women were the cause of it or whether most men forgot to say "Women and children first," the fact remains that of the 72 persons, 54 were women and 18 were men, among them Governor George W. Smith who had plunged back into the burning building to rescue his child.
There were investigations, of course. That chandelier that had lighted the home of the robber, did more mischief than 20 robbers do in a lifetime. One of its lamps was still burning when a boy, under orders, after the first act, drew it up out of sight of the audience, into the scenery above. The boy had remonstrated, but he was told emphatically to pull the chandelier up. The pulley did not work well and instead of going up vertically, the chandelier tipped to one side. "Put the chandelier out," a stage carpenter yelled to some one. But before the order could be obeyed there was a tiny burst of flame high in the scenery and the carpenter had to run for his life.
The heroism of a Negro blacksmith on that December night will always be remembered. His name was Gilbert Hunt and he was like a giant. He and Dr. James McCaw saved many lives by working together until the heat and flames drove them away, Dr. McCaw standing at a window and dropping woman after woman into the arms of Gilbert. Just before the walls fell Dr. McCaw jumped from the window himself; but gilbert was not there to catch him, and he was lame the rest of his life. When the penitentiary caught fire some years later it was Gilbert Hunt who made a ladder of himself and assisted in rescuing the prisoners.
Two Lovers' Names Set Apart
Of those who died in the Richmond Theatre there are two whose names will always be set apart--two lovers who perished together.
The sister of one of these lovers, Lieutenant James Gibbon, U.S.N., has told the story of this tragic romance in her diary. It has been preserved by her great-granddaughter Mrs. Louis Minigerode of Richmond.
Lieutenant Gibbon was the son of Major James Gibbon whose fine home stood on the Northeast corner of Main Street at 5th. When Richmond established a Customs Port in 1800 President John Tyler appointed Major Gibbon collector of the port. He held this office during the administrations of eight presidents. A soldier in the Revolution, he had led "a forlorn hope against Stony Point, for which he received through Congress the thanks of a grateful country."
Just across the streets from Major Gibbon at the southeast corner of Main and Fifth Streets lived Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Gallego, the mill owner, and her niece, Miss Sallie Conyers of South Carolina.
Lieutenant James Gibbon met Miss Conyers at a party given November, 1811 at the home of Colonel Gamble on Gamble's Hill. Chief Justice John Marshall was there, too, and Bushrod Washington, George Washington's nephew (his friends called him 'Bushy') who was in love with Miss Conyers. Besides these there were Colonel Archibald Cary of Ampthill, Colonel Thomas Fairfax, and Peggy O'Neil who was married to Purser Timberlake. (This Peggy O'Neil Richmonders had a chance to see portrayed in the moving picture "The Gorgeous Huzzy."
Miss Conyers and Lieutenant Gibbon danced many times together at the party, Mary Carter Gibbon, his sister, observed in her diary, and John Marshall was heard to remark that they were an exceedingly handsome couple. By Christmas time they were engaged to be married when orders came to James to report to his ship. He urged that the marriage take place at once but Mrs. Gallego said they were so young--there would be plenty of time.
"Christmas day was gay, everybody kept open house" reads the diary "some of the young people dressed up as old time mummers and fortune tellers. They wanted to tell Sallie Conyers' fortune but she shrank from it with an almost superstitious dread, saying she had always had a horror of having her fortune told even in jest.
On December 26th the Gibbon family were invited to dine at "The Hermitage" the home of Colonel Mayo which stood on the site of Broad Street Station.
"At breakfast that morning James Gibbon remarked that he would not be able to go to the dinner at Colonel Mayo's as he had some business to look after. He appeared restless and uneasy and his mother asked him if he was well.
Horrible Dream Depressed Him
"He answered, 'You will all laugh at me I know, but I have had such a horrible dream that it has depressed me. I dreamt I was standing before a closed door about to enter, but conscious of some nameless horror something told me to keep back. The door slowly opened and I went in and found myself in a large hall dark and empty. After a few steps I saw a man's face standing out of the darkness, illumined by a lurid light.
"All else was dark, the man's eyes were fixed on me and I was seized with a horror and a depression I could not shake off."
That evening Miss Gibbon ran over to Mrs. Gallego's with a message from her mother. James saw her on the porch with Miss Conyers and came over, and all of them went into the greenhouse to gather flowers for the great night at the theatre and the theatre party which was to precede it. James asked Miss Conyers not to go to the party. It was to be his last evening at home, he said, but she seemed provoked with him and made no promises.
At Colonel Mayo's that night there was a dinner in honor of Colonel Hamilton, British Consul at Norfolk and a young English Nobleman who was much attracted to Miss Conyers and with whom she went to the theatre.
"When the ladies left the dining room at Colonel Mayo's they were much surprised to find James in the drawing room; he begged Sallie not to go to the theatre, but she was still piqued with him and told him that she had promised to go with the young Englishman."
They left the Mayo's in time to dress for the theatre. After dressing for the evening Miss Gibbon went across the street to see Sallie Conyers. Her maid was dressing her and she looked as if she had been crying. She asked Miss Gibbon if she had seen James and Mrs. Gibbon said: As you have chosen another she will stay at home with father. Then Miss Conyers said in a low voice: 'I wish I had not to go'.
"Just then Mrs. Gallego came into the room and looked at Miss Conyers' costume and said the pearl necklace did not suit the dress, so I suggested that my sister Bessie exchange ornaments with Miss Conyers."
She clasped the jet and gold beads around Sallie's neck and put the bracelets on her arms.
At the theatre that night James Gibbon went into his parents' box then he left the theatre; not, however, before he and Miss Conyers had exchanged smiles; and before he had recongized the face that he had seen in his dream, on the stage.
When the cry "fire, fire the house is on fire" was given, Miss Conyers stood looking for James Gibbon. Mr. Gallego urged Mrs. Gallego to leave the theatre at once, but she wanted to find something she had lost first, she said. She died in the fire.
Sallie Conyers found Lieutenant James Gibbon: he had gone over to the Capitol Square after he had left the theatre, but when the alarm was given, he rushed into the building like a madman.
"How he reached her, no one knows, but the next day in the ruins their bodies were found clasped in each other's arms. He was identified by his naval buttons and she by the necklace, which I, her lover's sister, had clasped on her beautiful neck."