02/23/2012 04:23 PM
BATON ROUGE – On the day after Christmas in 1811, the state of Virginia lost its governor and almost a hundred citizens in a devastating nighttime fire that consumed a Richmond playhouse. During the second act of a melodramatic tale of bandits, ghosts and murder, a small fire kindled behind the backdrop. Within minutes, it raced to the ceiling timbers and enveloped the audience in flames. The tragic Richmond Theater fire would inspire a national commemoration and become its generation’s defining disaster.
A vibrant and bustling city, Richmond was synonymous with horse races, gambling and
frivolity. The gruesome fire amplified the capital’s reputation for vice and led to
an upsurge in antitheater criticism that spread throughout the country and across
the Atlantic. Clerics in both America and abroad urged national repentance and denounced
the stage, a sentiment that nearly destroyed theatrical entertainment in Richmond
for decades. Local churches, by contrast, experienced a rise in attendance and became
In “The Richmond Theater Fire,” the first book about the event and its aftermath,
Meredith Henne Baker explores a forgotten catastrophe and its wide societal impact.
The story of transformation comes alive through survivor accounts of slaves, actresses,
ministers and statesmen. Investigating private letters, diaries and sermons, among
other rare or unpublished documents, Baker views the event and its outcomes through
the fascinating lenses of early nineteenth-century theater, architecture, and faith,
and reveals a rich and vital untold story from America’s past.
“The Richmond Theater Fire” is being published in March by LSU Press. Baker holds
a graduate degree in American History and a museum studies certificate from the College
of William and Mary. A former boarding school history instructor and urban public
school administrator, she currently writes in Washington, D.C.
Posted on Thursday, February 23, 2012