[N.p., but likely Richmond]: Printed for the Public, January 12, 1812. 72pp. 16mo. Original half sheep and plain paper over birch boards. Spine rubbed and fraying at extremities, paper peeling from rear board, lower inch of front board perished. Tanned, a few fox marks, crossed-out ownership inscriptions on front free endpaper, rear endpaper lacking. In all a good, internally sound copy in its original binding. Item #WRCAM57728
A very rare collection of letters, newspaper articles, and other documents relating to the devastating Richmond Theatre Fire of December 1811, at that point the largest urban disaster in American history. Anonymously compiled and hastily published only two weeks after the cataclysm, this volume provides information and answers to a public hungry for news about the tragedy. The collected documents form a narrative of events, present lists of dead and missing persons, and relay the preliminary reports of the investigation committee. The final page includes a brief list of notable urban disasters dating back to the Roman Empire.
The fire of December 26, 1811 occurred during a packed, double-billed show at the Richmond Theatre. The show had already been rescheduled due to the sudden death of one of the troupe’s major players, Elizabeth Poe (mother of Edgar Allan), and the outpouring of sympathy brought a crowd of over 600 to the night’s entertainment. The fire started when a lit chandelier was lifted into one of the curtains. The blaze then spread to the (oil painted) backdrops and grew out of control behind the curtain before becoming obvious to the audience.
The theatre’s design was no match for the panicked crowd, and its narrow, curved hallways became a bottleneck. Several of those who escaped early encouraged those still trapped to jump from the windows, helping them to a safe landing. One man in particular, the recent freedman and blacksmith Gilbert Hunt, worked with physician James McCaw to rescue at least a dozen people. Working together, McCaw lowered people from the second story, and Hunt caught them. Hunt then rescued McCaw, who had to jump just as a burning section of wall started to fall on him. Despite these heroic efforts, seventy-two people died in the fire: among the dead were Virginia's recently elected governor George William Smith, former U.S. Senator Abraham B. Venable, Benjamin Botts, one of the lawyers who represented Aaron Burr in his 1807 trial for treason, and many members of the First Families of Virginia. It was decreed that those who died in the accident should be buried in a new crypt on the site rather than in Richmond’s public cemetery, and the Monumental Church was built atop it, designed by architect Robert Mills.
This work is very scarce in the trade. Rare Book Hub records no copies at auction, and none offered at all since 1974. A rare imprint from the immediate aftermath of an early American tragedy. SWEM 12871. SABIN 71185. JONES, CHECK-LIST 755. AMERICAN IMPRINTS 26191.