Monument to the Victims
of the Richmond Theater Fire
The Church for which Bishop Moore served as Rector during his tenure as Bishop was the Monumental Church which was located on the north side of Broad Street between Twelth and College St. It was so named because it was raised as a monument to the victims of a tragic fire on December 26, 1811 at the old Richmond Theatre which occupied that site. Seventy two people were killed in that fire. Among them were the Governor of Virginia and many other prominent citizens. Below are contemporary reports of the event and the raising of the Monumental Church.
Newspaper Reports of the Fire
The editor of the Richmond Enquirer, who was present when the alarm was given, writes thus, after ushering in the dreadful disaster, to his readers:
"Let us collect our ideas as well as we can. On Thursday night a new play and a new after-piece were played, for the benefit of Mr. Placide. Crowds swarmed to the Theatre; it was the fullest house this season; there were not less than six hundred present. The play went off; the pantomime began; the first act was over; the whole scene was before us, and all around us was mirth and festivity. Oh God! What a horrible revolution; the second act of the pantomime; the curtain rose again in full chorus, and Mr. West came on to open the scene, when sparks of fire began to fall on the back part of the stage, and Mr. Robertson came out in unutterable distress, waved his hand to the ceiling, and uttered these appalling words: 'The house is on fire.' His hand was immediately stretched forth to the persons in the stage-box to help them on the stage. The cry of 'fire, fire' passed with electric velocity through the house; every one flew from their seats to gain the lobbies and stairs. The scene baffles all description. The most heart-piercing cries pervaded the house. 'Save me, save me.' Wives asking for their husbands; females and children shrieking, while the gathering element came rolling on its curling flames and columns of smoke, threatening to devour every human being in the building. Many were trod under foot; several were thrown back from the windows, which they were struggling to leap. The stair-ways were immediately blocked up; the throng was so great that many were raised several feet over the heads of the rest; the smoke threatened an instant suffocation. We cannot dwell on the picture. We saw-we felt it-like others, we gave ourselves up for lost; we cannot depict it. Many leaped from the windows of the first story, and were saved; children and females, and men of all descriptions were seen to precipitate themselves on the ground below, with broken legs and thighs, and hideous contusions. Most, if not all, who were in the pit escaped. Mr. Taylor, the last of the musicians who quitted the orchestra, finding his retreat bye the back way cut off, leaped into the pit, whence he entered the semicircular avenue which leads to the door of the Theatre, and found it nearly empty. He was the last to escape from the pit. How melancholy that many who were in the boxes did not also jump into the pit, and fly in the same direction. But those who were in the boxes, above and below, pushed for the lobbies-many, as has been said, escaped through the windows; but most of them had no other resource than to descend the stairs; many escaped in the way, but so great was the pressure that they retarded each other, until the devouring element approached to sweep them into eternity. Several who even emerged from the building were so much scorched that they have since perished; some even jumped from the second windows; some others have been dreadfully burnt.
"The fire flew with a rapidity almost beyond example. Within ten minutes after it caught the whole house was wrapped in flames. The colored people in the gallery, most of them, escaped through the stairs cut off from the rest of the house; some have no doubt fallen victims. The pit and boxes had but one common avenue, through which the whole crowd escaped, save those who leaped from the windows. But the scene which ensued it is impossible to paint. Women with disheveled hair; fathers and mothers shrieking out for their children; husbands for their wives; brothers for their sisters, filled the whole area on the outside of the building. A few who had escaped plunged again into the flames to save some dear object of their regard, and they perished. The Governor perhaps shared this melancholy fate. Others were frantic, and would have rushed to destruction but for the hand of a friend. The bells tolled; almost the whole town rushed to the fatal spot. The flames must have caught the scenery from some light behind. Robertson saw it when it was no larger than his hand; Young saw it on the roof when it first burst through. Every article of the Theatre was consumed, as well as the dwelling house next to it. But what is wealth in comparison to the valuable lives which have gone for ever! The whole town is shrouded in woe. Heads of families extinguished for ever; many and many is the house in which a chasm has been made, that can never be filled up. We cannot dwell upon this picture; but look at the catalogue of the victims, and then conceive the calamity which ahs fallen upon us. We must drop the pan."
A further extract from the American Standard says:
"The editor of this paper was in the house when the ever-to-be-remembered deplorable accident occurred. He is informed that the scenery took fire in the back part of the house, by the raising of a chandelier; that the boy who was ordered by one of the players to raise it stated that if he did so the scenery would take fire, when he was commanded in a peremptory manner to hoist it. The boy obeyed, and the fire was instantly communicated to the scenery. He gave the alarm in the rear of the stage, and requested some of the attendants to cut the cords by which these combustible materials were suspended. The person whose duty it was to perform this business became panic-struck, and sought his own safety. This unfortunately happened at a time when one of the performers was playing near the orchestra, and the greatest part of the stage, with is horrid danger, was obscured from the audience by a curtain. The flames spread with almost the rapidity of lightning; and the fire falling from the ceiling upon the performer was the first notice which the people had of their danger. Even then many supposed it to be a part of the play, and were for a little while restrained from flight by a cry from the stage that there was no danger. The performers and their attendants in vain endeavored to tear down the scenery. The fire flashed into every part of the house with a rapidity horrible and astonishing; and alas! Gushing tears and unspeakable anguish deprive me of utterance. No tongue can tell-no pen or pencil can describe-the woeful catastrophe. No person, who was not present, can form any idea of the unexampled scene of human distress. The editor, having none of his family with him , and being not far from the door, was among the first who escaped. The editor went to the different windows, which were not very high, and implored his fellow-creatures to save their lives by jumping out of them. Those nearest to the windows, ignorant of their great danger, were afraid to leap down, while those behind them were seen catching fire, and writhing in the greatest agonies of pain and distress. The editor, with the assistance of others, caught several of those whom he had begged to leap from the windows. One lady jumped out when all her clothes were on fire. He tore them, burning, from her, stripped her of her last rags, and protecting her nakedness with his coat, carried her from the fire."
A list of the dead in the three wards of the city was accurately made out the day after the fire, and names are upon the monument now standing in the front portico of the church, and they accord with those published in the Virginia Argus of the 30th December, 1811.
Ordinances Concerning the Monument
The tragic theater fire of December 26, 1811 left more than just physical scars upon Richmond and the entire Commonwealth. Amidst the shock and grief the process of finding a suitable memorial to the victims was somewhat complicated and resulted in many meetings, resolutions and ordinances before the final appropriate monument was designed and built. One of the first decisions to be made concerned the burial of the victims. The Ordinance directly below was passed the day after the fire.
"WHEREAS, the fire which took place in the Theatre on the twenty-sixth instant, has brought upon our city a calamity unknown in the annals of our country, from a similar cause depriving society of many of its most esteemed and valuable members, and inflicting upon its survivors pangs the most poignant and afflicting; and the Common Hall, participating in those feelings, and being desirous of manifesting their respect for the remains which have been preserved from the conflagration, and to sooth and allay as much as in them lies the grief of the friends and relations of the deceased:
"1. Be it therefore ordained by the President and Common Council of the city of Richmond, in Common hall assembled, and it is herby ordained by the authority of the same, that Dr. Adams, Mr. Wm Hay, Mr. Ralston, and Mr. Gamble be, and they are hereby authorized and empowered to cause to be collected and deposited in such urns, coffins, or other suitable enclosures as they may approve, all the remains of persons who have suffered, which shall not be claimed by the relatives, and cause the same to be removed to the public burying ground, with all proper respect and solemnity, giving to the citizens of Richmond and town of Manchester notice of the time of such interment, and providing the necessary refreshments; and they shall have further authority to cause to be erected over such remains such tomb or tombs as they may approve, with such inscriptions as to them may appear best calculated to record the melancholy and afflicting event.
"2. And to be it further ordained by the authority of the same, that the constable of the city be authorized to communicate to the citizen, that is earnestly recommended that they will abstain from all business, keeping their shops, stores, counting houses, and offices shut for forty-eight hours from the passing of this ordinance.
"3. And be it further ordained, that no person or persons shall be permitted for and during the term of four months from the passage hereof to exhibit any public show or spectacle, or open any public dancing assembly within the city, under the penalty of six dollars and sixty-six cents for every hour the same shall be exhibited.
"4. The commissioners appointed by this ordinance shall have authority to draw upon the Chamberlain for the amount of any expenses by them incurred in executing the same.
"Passed at eleven o' clock, on Friday, the twenty-seventh day of December, eighteen hundred and eleven, at a called meeting of the Common Council for the city of Richmond, held at the capitol in the said city.
"In testimony whereof, the president hath caused the seal of the said city to be hereto affixed, and hath subscribed the same with his name.
Wm. C. Williams
The above Ordinance was ammended
as the decision to use the theater site was occasioned by facts first
stated in a Common Council resolution of December 28th:
"Whereas, it is represented to the President and Common Council of the city of Richmond, in Common Hall assembled, that the remains of their unfortunate fellow-citizens who perished in the conflagration of the Theatre, on the night of the twenty-sixth instant, cannot with convenience be removed from the spot on which they were found, and some of them were so far consumed as to fall to ashes, and that it would be more satisfactory to their relations that they should be interred on the spot where they perished, and that the site of the Theatre should be consecrated as the sacred deposit of their bones and ashes..."
After several months the city leaders finally decided to build a church as a monument to the dead on the exact spot where the tragic fire took place. Below is the ordinance outlining that decision.
"To amend the several ordinances concerning the conflagration of the Theatre in the city of Richmond:
"WHEREAS, It has been represented to this Hall by the committee appointed to superintend the erection of a monument on the site of the late Theatre, that an arrangement, pleasing to them and conducive to the object contemplated by the Hall, may be made with the 'Association for building a church on Shockoe Hill' in this city, whereby it is proposed to unite all sums of money which were intended to be applied to the erection of a monument with the funds of the aforesaid Association, which aggregate sum shall be applied to the purpose of purchasing the whole lot of ground whereon the Theatre lately stood, and of erecting thereon a monmental[sic] church, under the direction and control of the persons who have been made known to this Hall as being acceptable to all the parties;
"1. Be it therefore ordained, by the president and Common Council of the city of Richmond, in Common Hall assembled, and it is hereby ordained by authority of the same, that Dr. John Brockenbrough, Michael W. Hancock, and John G. Gamble, be, and they, or a majority of them, are hereby authorized and empowered to draw upon the Chamberlain of this city for a sum or sums not exceeding five thousand dollars, and the Chamberlain is hereby required to pay the same out of any funds in his hands at the time such drafts shall be presented which have not otherwise been appropriated.
"2. The aforesaid sum, when united with all sums which have been or may hereafter be subscribed for the purpose of erecting a monument on the site of the late Theatre, together with the funds of the 'Association for building a church on Shockoe Hill,' shall, by the aforesaid commissioners, be applied first to the purchase of so much of the theatre lot, or any of the adjoining lots as to them may seem necessary, and secondly to the erection on said ground of such building or edifice as may in their opinion be best calculated to commemorate the melancholy and ever-to?be?lamented event which occurred thereon on the twenty?sixth day of December, eighteen hundred and eleven.
"3. And be it further ordained that when such building shall be completed, the commissioners hereinbefore named shall have full power, and are hereby required, to transfer all the ground purchased under this ordinance, together with all the buildings which may be erected thereon, to the before named 'Association for building a church on Shockoe Hill,' in this city, to be by them and their successors for ever kept sacred for the purposes of Divine worship, and for no other purpose, subject alone to the regulations which may be formed and established by such Association and their successors.
"4. All ordinances contrary to the provisions of this ordinance shall be, and the same are, hereby repealed.
" 5. This ordinance shall commence and be in force from and after the passing thereof. Passed at a called meeting of the Common Council for the city of Richmond, held at their public chamber in said city, on Saturday, the seventh day of March, one thousand eight hundred and twelve.
"In testimony whereof, the president pro tem, hath caused the seal of the said city to be hereunto affixed, and hath subscribed the same with his hand.
John G. Gamble,
President, pro tem."
The names inscribed on the monument, (which is of white marble and enclosed by a substantial wrought-iron railing, in the middle of the front or main porch to the church,) are the following:
On the South Side or Face of monument:
Benjamin Botts, William Brown, George Dixon, Robert Ferril, Thomas Frayser, James
Gibbon, Edwin J. Harvie, Joseph Jacobs, Thomas Lacroix, Almarine Marshall,
----Nuttal,----Pleasant, John B. Rizi, John Schaub, George Wm. Smith, William
Southgate, Abraham B. Venable, James Walden, Edward Wanton, John Welch.
On the East Side or Face of the Monument:
Adeline Bausman, Sarah C. Conyers, Margaret Copland, Elvira Coutts, Ann Craig, Judith
Elliott, Fanny Graff, Patsy Griffin, Julia Harvie, Arianna Hunter, Eliza
Jacobs, ---- Littlepage, Maria Nelson , Mary Page, Charlotte Raphael, Eliza
Stevenson, Cicilia Trouin, Sophia Trouin, Jane Wade.
On the North Side or Face of the Monument:
Mary Bosher, Jane Botts, Anna F. Braxton, Josephine Convert and child, Rebecca Cook
and child, Mary Davis, Mary Gallego, Mary Geradine and child, Eleanor Gibson,
Ann Greenhow, Sarah Herron, ---- Jerrod, Betsy Johnson, ---- La forest, Ann
Leslie, Zipporah Marks, ---- Moss, Elizabeth Page, Elizabeth Patterson, ----
Pickett, ---- Scott. Lucinda C. Wilson.
On the West Side or Face of the
Margaret Anderson, Mary Clay, Sally Gatewood, Ann Morton Green, Lucy Gwathmey, Judith
Judah, Louisa Mayo, Nancy Patterson, Mary Gabriella Whitlock.
All ordinances and newspaper accounts quoted from: History and Reminiscences of the Monumental Church, Richmond, VA., From 1814 to 1878; by Geo. D. Fisher; Richmond, Whittet & Shepperson, 1880. The drawing of the Theater fire is from History of Virginia by Royall Bascom Smithey; American Book Company, New York, 1898.
Restoration & Reconstruction
The original marble monument
bearing the names of the fire victims by 2004 was crumbling due to
pollution eating away the marble. The Historic Richmond Foundation
began a project to preserve the Church which was in need of repair and
to recreate a monument exactly like the original but better able to
withstand the elements. On October 7, 2005, the Foundation which had
just merged with the local chapter of the Association for the
Preservation of Virginia Antiquities unveiled the newly recreated
monument. Below are some photographs showing parts of the
monument. Unfortunately, the names do not show up well in the
Above is the top of the monument with the urn featuring
two faces of "Mourning" resting on a pedastal with winged corners.
View from below showing the symbol of winged eternity
supporting the urn.
Closeup of the urn showing the symbols of eternity and the two faces of "Mourning." The urn is topped by the symbol of an eternal flame.