27 April 2012

The Brooklyn Theatre Fire, Etched in Stone

Perhaps because the location where it happened has been thoroughly sandpapered off the map, the great Brooklyn Theatre Fire of 1876 is little remembered today, except by the most searching of New York history nerds.

The disaster laid waste to the Brooklyn Theatre, which stood at the corner of Washington and Johnson Streets, one block north of what was then City Hall, and is today Borough Hall. Cadman Plaza occupies the area today. On Dec. 5, 1876, a fire broke out on stage during a performance. One thousand people were in attendance; at least 278 died. It remains the third most deadly fire to have occurred in a theatre or public assembly building in the U.S.

The main reminder of this catastrophe stands in Green-Wood Cemetery. It's an obelisk that spells out, in scrupulous detail over the four sides of the monument, what happened at the theatre. The remains of 103 of the victims are buried beneath. The inscription may seem over-explicit at first. But it's a good thing the people who erected it went into such detail. It's a compact history lesson for New Yorkers who today know nothing of the tragedy.

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