Florida Ex-Governor Thomas Brown; Eyewitness to the 1811 Richmond Theater Fire

In 1863, Florida Ex-Governor Thomas Brown wrote down his memoirs in Bel Air, Florida. Brown was an eye-witness to the tragic 1811 Richmond Fire and this description probably approximates the version told to Goodrich on July 17, 1860. Brown’s memoirs remain unpublished and are used here, in part, through the permission of a descendant of the former Governor.

I continued in the post office until my health was destroyed and until the old doctor, although he regretted to part with me, told me, and so did his son, Doc Jack Fouscher, that if I did not quit the post office I could not live six months. It is probable that my state of health saved me from the horrible fate of many who perished in the burning of the Richmond Theater.

I had gone to the theater a night or two before to hear two suites and to give my wife an opportunity of going. The doctor forbid my going again and told my wife she must not allow of it. Of course she would not go, and I would not go without her.

The Theater Fire on Shockoe Hill in Richmond, VA, 26 December 1811

It occurred at about eleven-o-clock on the night of the 26th of December 1811. My room was in the third story in the back of the building overlooking the theater so that everything could be distinctly seen and the screams heard. Hundreds of pens have tried to describe the horrors of that night. I cannot now relate the horror of what I saw and heard without attempting any description. I saw them as they tumbled over each other out of the windows, and as the last came out they were in flames. Ladies in a light blaze, and some, as they touched the ground, in their agonies, continued to run until their clothes were entirely burnt off, but the agonizing scene was only for a few minutes. In five minutes the roof fell in with an awful crash, and all was in the silence of death indeed. But the streets were a bedlam throughout that long and ever to be remembered night. No one knew who were the sufferers. The streets were filled with all classes ages and conditions, mothers calling for their children, wives for their husbands, children for their parents, sisters for their brothers. Half dressed ladies of the first standing might be seen running and tearing their hair and swooning in the streets and no one caring for them, for they were all suffering under this same calamity.

These scenes continued the livelong night. Early the next morning I went to the place and saw taken from the smoldering ruin the bodies—or rather the blackened trunks of seventy-two of the visitors, which were taken to the Baptist Church nearby. The extremities of all were burnt off to the knees and elbows, and many higher up, or nearer to the body. Only two had their heads or skulls remain to the body; the rest were burnt off, leaving stumps of the neck. Of course none could be known by feature or form, nor was anything found about them by which they could be identified, except the body of Governor Smith under which was found his gold watch with his name on it run down about 1 o-clock pm and, when wound up, worked as usual. On the stump of the neck of a very small body hung a gold chain on which was inscribed “from my grandmother” which was known to be Miss Whitlock’s, a most lovely girl about fourteen years old.

The most horrible scenes which I had witnessed had shrunk my heart into a piece of callous flesh. It had no feeling, no sympathy. I looked on the scene with a most cold indifference, as if the blackened trunks exhumed from the vaults of the theater had been the ends of unconsumed timber only, and yet I knew that many of them were the remains of my most intimate friends and daily associates. I now so fully realize the force of the wish put into Nero’s mouth by the poet. “When I am dead and in my urn, may earth and sea together burn. Yea! Whilst I live I would desire to see the universe on fire”. Such was my state of mind that I could have imagined such a calamity without moving my eyes, and it was many days before my heart recovered its natural sensibility and a sympathy moistened my eyelids. Then I could realize the extent of the calamity which had wrapped a whole people in mourning.

It was determined by the city authorities that all the victims to the devouring flames in the theater should be interred in its vault and a monumental church erected over them. All the bodies that were taken out of the ruins were put in large mahogany boxes, and all who died at their homes or other places or that were carried away should be put in separate coffins and the procession with horses to go by the house and take the body. Such was the length of the procession that it was two hours after the front arrived at the place of interment before the rear got there. They were placed in the vaults and the solemnities performed and the vaults securely closed. It was ascertained that one hundred and twenty nine (129) lives had been lost by the conflagration of the Richmond Theater.  Of these some were among the most distinguished people of the state: Governor Smith, Venable, President of the Bank of Virginia, Botts, a distinguished lawyer and his lady, members of the legislature, judges, officers of the navy and army, the wife of the mayor of the city, and twenty-two young ladies from 14 to 20 years old, the beauty and flowers of the city.

There were many accounts of dreams, which seem to be well unified and of heartrending circumstances and thrilling incidents more than Adams could portray. I will only mention one related to me by an intimate friend named Tiffin. He found himself so jammed up in the rush to get out that he could not move and, at the same time, saw ladies whom he knew, a little way off, calling on him by name to save them when the flames of their dresses behind were curling over their heads and licking off the locks of hair on their cheeks. The sight was so horrible and the death before him so certain that he determined to cut his throat and took out his knife for the purpose, but he could not get his hands together to open it. At this time he felt a sense of falling a long distance and lost his consciousness. When he came to himself he was lying at the foot of a Lombardy poplar about forty feet from the burning building, which had fallen in, and the flames were ascending gently to heaven and reflecting against the throng that was looking on in silence caused them to appear as white as snow. The conviction rushed on his mind that he was dead and in the spirit land. I leave his feelings to be imagined.

This was a winter of fear and trembling, especially with the superstitious and weak minded. A large comet had appeared in the fall accompanied by a long season of warm dry and sultry weather, and many speculations were made in the paper about it, some contending that it was approaching the earth and might come near enough to destroy it. There were some severe shocks of earthquakes, the severest ever experienced in Virginia. In Richmond some houses rocked and chimneys fell. The house I lived in so sensibly moved that I sprung out of bed not suspecting the cause. To complete the whole, a crazy man or a knave, wrote a prophecy published in pamphlets that the world would be destroyed on a certain day and many believed it.  Some actually died of imagination and fear.

One response to “Florida Ex-Governor Thomas Brown; Eyewitness to the 1811 Richmond Theater Fire

  • Larissa Fergeson

    Hi — I am an Associate Professor of History at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, and have recently come across an edited manuscript version of Governor Brown’s memoir. I’d like to get in contact with his descendant to understand more about the origins of the manuscript. Would you be so generous as to share the descendant’s contact information with me? Thanks so much.

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