The death roll from the Dec. 26, 1811, Richmond Theater Fire made a grim list of more than 70 names, beginning with John B. Allcock, "a youth."
Benjamin Botts, an attorney who defended Vice President Aaron Burr in his treason trial. Gov. George W. Smith, who'd taken office a month earlier when James Monroe became president. Abraham B. Venable, former U.S. senator and then head of the Bank of Virginia.
Also on the list were slaves and freedmen, Jews and gentiles, women, children, rich and poor.
On the following Sunday, a procession of coffins led to a mass grave where the orchestra pit had been. Only a few people received individual coffins; the rest of the remains were held in two large mahogany boxes.
Even today, a tragedy that killed 72 people would shake Richmond, but in 1811, this was a small town of 9,735 — a number that would not make a sold-out show at the Richmond Coliseum. If you didn't at least know of a theater fire victim, you probably knew someone who did.
Families attended shows together in the early 19th century, and as the death roll indicates, people of all social classes went. The quality of the play mattered not as much as seeing your friends and being seen by others.
The night of the fire, a touring company, Alexandre Placide, provided the evening's entertainment. The theater had suffered the loss of actress Elizabeth Arnold Poe earlier in the month, likely from tuberculosis. A busy, admired actress, she also was the mother of three children: infant Rosalie, 5-year-old Henry and 3-year-old Edgar.
The Placide company performed The Fathers, or Family Feuds, followed by a demonstration of singing and dance. The afterpiece, a French one-act called Raymond and Agnes: The Bleeding Nun, involved star-crossed lovers, swordplay, robbery, murder and mistaken identities. Hué Girardin, who ran an academy in Richmond, translated the piece. His wife and son died in the fire.
A change of backdrops during Raymond and Agnes caused the fire. A chandelier was supposed to be lowered, but it got stuck; when a carpenter jerked the rope, the chandelier swayed, and it ignited the scenery.
At first, the audience took the blaze for an effect, but an actor — a Mr. West — ran onto the stage shouting, "The house is on fire!"
Within 10 minutes the entire building was engulfed.
A single exit, which doubled as the entrance, was meant to serve the 643 audience members. Blacks, restricted to a gallery, had their own entrance and stairs, and the actors and musicians dashed out the stage door. The upper gallery collapsed.
Monumental Church was built on top of the charred ground of the theater. It served both as a measure of the city's grief and another church to remove pressure from the overcrowded St. John's Episcopal on Church Hill. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall directed the fundraising, and Robert Mills, Thomas Jefferson's only architectural pupil, was the builder.
The aesthetic impact of Mills' design was the positive to the negative of the disaster. Its survival to the present day is due to its use as a house of worship until 1965. From that time, the Medical College of Virginia (now VCU School of Medicine) and, since 1983, the Historic Richmond Foundation have used the building.
Architectural historian Robert Winthrop, who systematically studied downtown's built heritage, once remarked that when Monumental was completed, "It must've seemed like a UFO had landed," because of its striking difference from anything else in town. Yet few city buildings are as compelling and eloquent.
The foundation has made steady improvements to Monumental Church, including the replication of the urn etched with the names of the dead. Today, members are raising money for re-plastering walls, freshening the faux-marble finish on columns by the pulpit and landscaping.
The church at 1224 E. Broad St. will be open Dec. 11 for the Court End neighborhood tour, which includes readings by Meredith Baker from her book, The Fire: The Untold Story of Early America's Great Disaster, and a presentation by Harry Kollatz Jr. Call 643-7407 for information.