Haunted Brooklyn: The Great Theatre Fire of 1876

Aftermath of the fire

The chilly evening air was no deterrent for hundreds of New Yorkers on December 5, 1876, who flocked to the Brooklyn Theatre, on the corner of Washington and Johnson streets, to watch the incomparable Kate Claxton perform in The Two Orphans. After all, it was her portrayal of Kate in this adaptation of the French play which earned her worldwide fame and cemented her reputation as one of America's leading actresses. Some would say that it was the hottest ticket in town.

They had no idea how right they were about that.

Just before the play's final act, a stage manager saw flames coming from stage left, the result of a canvas backdrop resting against a bright spotlight. Two stagehands attempted to beat out the small conflagration with broomsticks. The actors went back on stage for the final act. Kate Claxton whispered to the other actors, imploring them to leave the stage, but they refused. The show must go on. Surely the theatre staff would get the small blaze under control before anyone in the audience smelled the smoke.

And the actors continued to deliver their lines, even as the stagehands inadvertently knocked down the burning canvas, spreading the fire to the rigging loft, hot embers floating down like dandelion spores backstage. Kate Claxton urged the audience to stay calm, announcing: "There is no danger. The flames are a part of the play." And then a burning timber fell at her feet, and the crowd-- numbering nearly one thousand-- realized that all hell was about to break loose.

A cabinet card featuring Kate Claxton

When the flames finally died, at around three o'clock in the morning, no fewer than 278 people had lost their lives. To this day, the exact number of dead has never been determined. Burned beyond recognition, 103 victims could not be identified. Most would be buried in a mass grave at Green-Wood Cemetery. Two dozen additional unidentified victims would be buried at the Cemetery of the Evergreens. Kate Claxton was one of the few hundred lucky ones who survived the tragedy, which still stands as the third deadliest theatre fire in American history.

Unidentified burials at Green-Wood Cemetery

A Spectre in Every Seat

The owners of the theatre company decided to rebuild on the same spot. Even though many were opposed to the idea, one of the owners, Judge McCue, was adamant. He didn't think it was an act of disrespect, but one of utmost respect. It was the New York way; to build something bigger and better, to show the world the resilience of New Yorkers, to prove that the victims had not died in vain. And so the new playhouse was built, at the astronomical cost of $300,000. Re-christened as Haverly's Theatre, the new structure was majestic; no other theatre in Brooklyn could match it.

But McCue and the other owners were dumbfounded by the new theatre's dismal attendance figures. And they were even more dumbfounded to learn of the reason for the playhouse's lack of success; it was haunted.
As a last resort, the owners turned the theatre into a "ten-to-fifty" house, cheapening prices to unprofitable levels and offering low-grade and risque theatricals, in an attempt to appeal to those other than the highbrowed socialites who patronized the old Brooklyn Theatre. But even the middle and lower classes shunned the building; they, too, knew all about the ghosts.

Victims pf the fire at the morgue.

Local residents declared that they saw ghostly phosphorescent lights through the windows at night, while one janitor quit his job after seeing several dead actors performing on stage in the late hours of night. On one occasion, the janitor claimed, he entered the theatre after the departure of the audience. He was confused, because the play still appeared to be taking place. He could clearly see three actors on the stage. He could hear their lines. The janitor didn't care much for theatre, but when he told employees of the theatre company about what he had witnessed, they were awestruck. The lines described by the janitor belonged to the play The Two Orphans.

During the winter of 1889, numerous theatre employees came forward with similar stories. On April 27, 1890, the Pittsburgh Dispatch ran an article about the haunted theatre, stating:

...the crushing and final ruinous belief engendered by superstitious dread arose during the past winter. It was declared, nobody knows by whom at first, but by a great many later on, that every gallery seat was nightly occupied by the ghost of the person whose life had been lost there in the fire... These disembodied spirits, according to this conceit, were usually impalpable alike to sight and touch, and did not hinder the living purchaser from sitting in it; but the ten-centers were not less sensitive than the dollar-and-a-half folks had been, and they found that they really could not enjoy themselves seated in a chair composedly with a ghost... That dealt the final blow to the Brooklyn Theatre, and will cause its destruction.

Days later, Haverly's Theatre-- just eleven years old-- would be torn down. The site later housed the offices of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle until the early 20th century. In 1935, Cadman Plaza would be built on the site, where the Brooklyn World War II Memorial currently stands.