The Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876

I’ve been doing a lot of family history work lately…I’ve dabbled in genealogy research for decades, and I’m constantly amazed at some of the discoveries that I make even to this day…long-lost stories of people, places, and events that I knew no connection to until my research found one.

Brooklyn Theater Fire

As many as 300 people perished in the blaze on December 5, 1876 in Brooklyn.

One of those stories centers around one of the great American tragedies of the 1800s, the Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876. I learned a bit about it years ago reading my great-grandfather’s unfinished memoir, in which he tells the story of his own mother’s experience at the time of the fire.

It turns out I had four family members who perished in that fire, which occurred during a highly-anticipated performance that had a packed house. My great-great grandmother, who turned 30 just two weeks before the event, had a ticket as well and only missed the show because she got stuck at work while her four brothers (two brothers and two half-brothers) attended…and all four died. Had she made it to the show, I wouldn’t exist, as she undoubtedly would have perished as well and my lineage would have stopped right then and there in 1876. 

Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood Cemetery, site of a mass burial for unidentified victims of the fire, including my 2x great grand uncles.

According to my great grandfather’s memoir, she wore black every day the rest of her life.

A couple days ago I ran across a story that was written almost a year ago, on the anniversary of the fire (December 5). The Brooklyn Theater Fire may be a little-known story today, but back in 1876 it was a true tragedy of epic proportions. This Bowery Boys post recounts it quite well:  New York City History: A Wretched Anniversary: The Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876.

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8 thoughts on “The Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876

  1. Wow! These kinds of stories I love to read. It’s always humbling to hear stories of our ancestors and see how our own fate could have changed if things didn’t happen. For you, if she wouldn’t have been stuck at work.. you may very well not even be here to read this comment. Such a mind-blowing thought. Congrats on this find! Hope to read more. 🙂

    • Thanks Kiki – yeah this story (condensed here) is still stunning to me…such a twist of fate that so easily could have gone the other way. I’m hoping to visit the memorial site in Brooklyn sometime soon, as well as the address where my great-great grandmother lived when this happened. I feel like there’s more to learn about the family and the impact this tragic event had on those who lived through it…

      • I’m so there with some aspects of my own journey. Lots of places I hope to visit soon. I just recently found the villages my great grandparents came from in Western Ukraine so that’s first on my list (since I live in Europe now). I have friends who have offered to help with photos and research stateside for other places. Farrar’s Island, VA is one of them.

  2. I too discovered the Brooklyn Fire while doing family tree research. My great great grandfather, allegedly died in the fire, but we have never been able to find his name on the list of dead or missing. My great great grandmother, claimed that he died that night. The family seems to think that he (or his wife) used the fire as an excuse to disappear and possibly live another life. We found a record of a man with the same name that died in 1906 in NJ but we still have not been able to connect the dots ! It is truly a family history/mystery.

    • Wow Susan that’s quite a story…and quite a mystery too! Sadly the ones who perished in my family were indeed on the lists that appeared after. Two are buried in the mass memorial site in Brooklyn, another (whose body was identified) in the family’s traditional cemetery, also in Brooklyn.

      I’m hoping to visit Brooklyn sometime to see both the cemeteries and the site of the theatre. What a tragedy that was.

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