The Ghosts of the Brooklyn Theater

The Brooklyn Theatre Fire

The Brooklyn Theater Fire

At the Brooklyn Theatre, on the 5th of December 1876, at the beginning of the final act of a melodrama called “The Two Orphans,” a portion of the scenery was ignited by a lamp. The fire spread quickly and while patrons in the lower part of the theatre got out, those in the gallery were trapped by suffocating smoke and a too-narrow stairway. In less than half an hour from the time the first flame was seen, part of the building collapsed and the flames devoured the building. The police officers and fire officials on the scene had not seen anyone in the theatre, nor had anyone responded to their calls. It was assumed that there had been no fatalities. The next day, when the building was inspected further, the cellar, which looked like it was full of the usual debris from a fire—was found to be choked with burned human bodies. Given the state of the remains, no accurate body count could be made and estimates range from 278 to over 300. 103 victims were buried in a mass grave in Greenwood Cemetery.

By all the rules (“Depend on it—there are rules, but we do not know what they are….”) such a disaster should have generated multiple ghosts. This first article, giving the history of the Theatre, describes how, oddly, the ghosts seem to have come before the fire.

BROOKLYN THEATER

An Interesting History of the House that Ended in Horror.

It was Not all a History of Comfort and Fair Sailing

SOME MATTERS OF HISTORY

The Brooklyn Theater, says the New York Herald, of Dec. 10, was built about five years ago, for Mr. and Mrs. F.B. Conway, by a company, of whom the ruling spirits and principal shareholders were: William C. Kingsley, the Hon. Henry C. Murphy and Thomas Kinsella, proprietor of the Brooklyn Eagle. Mr. and Mrs. Conway had been very successful in their management of the Old Park Theater in Brooklyn, and had amassed some seventy or eighty thousand dollars. They had, indeed, become so popular and firmly established that capitalists, such as Kingsley and Murphy, thought it an excellent speculation to put up the house for them. The spot selected for the building was the old site of St. John’s church and burying ground, the pioneer Anglican church of the city. The church was torn down, and all who had friends buried in the cemetery, and possessed the necessary funds, had their bodies removed, but there were many buried there whose families had become extinct or moved away; and even some who were too poor to stand the expense of disinterment and reburial; hence, a great many bodies were left in the ground and the theater was built over them.

From the very moment the location was decided upon, Mrs. Conway was impressed with forebodings of troubles and sorrow. She insisted that the contemplated enterprise was a desecration of holy grounds, and that nothing would succeed there. Although her husband did not entirely share her feelings at the time, still he also expressed great dissatisfaction at the site chosen for the theater.

MRS. CONWAY’S FEARS REALIZED.

The theater was built, despite the fears of those interested, and was one of the most elegant and costly structures of the kind anywhere about the metropolis. When completed, it is said to have cost considerably over $200,000. The Conways leased it, and soon sunk every dollar they had made at their old establishment. The dressing rooms were situated directly over a number of scantily covered graves, and, in damp weather, the exhalations from these were not only disagreeable, but so noisome as to cause serious illness among the members of the company. An expression got abroad, before a great while, that the house was haunted, and there was at least this much ground for the rumor. The theater might be shut up, every door and window closed at night, every possibility of a draught provided against, and yet, just as soon as the lights were extinguished, even before, the flies and scenery on the stage would flap, swing, strain and creak, as if a terrific gale were blowing up through them, and all this time without a breath of air stirring. Mrs. Conway, who ascribed all their bad fortune to influences, other than human, could not be persuaded, upon any consideration, to enter the house after the lights were turned off. It may be imagined that the poor lady’s life was not a pleasant one, with this horror constantly upon her mind, to supplement the mortification of continual pecuniary loss, which she and her husband were suffering; but her real sorrows had not yet commenced.

DEATHS OF THE CONWAYS

They had been in this ill-fated theater about two years, when Mr. Conway, one night, fell on the stage, stricken with the disease from which he died a few weeks later. Before his death, he expressed the belief that he might have lived to a good old age if he had left the haunted and cursed Brooklyn Theater alone. He died, leaving his widow and children in such a pecuniary condition that there was no alternative for them but to carry on the theatre. This Mrs. Conway did, but with no better success than formerly, and her opinion about the certainty of disaster impending over the concern, became more and more fixed.

Just two years from the death of her husband she herself was brought low, and died in her private apartments over the theater. When in her last moments, she insisted that all her losses, her bereavement, and everything unfortunate which had happened to her and hers, was directly a punishment for the desecration of St. John’s graveyard, and that God would ever visit with His displeasure all who thus disregarded sacred things. On the night of Mrs. Conway’s death, moans and shrieks were heard in the theater, after the lights were put out, which so terrified the stage-carpenters, scene-shifters and property men, that they all tumbled over each other down stairs and rushed into the street with blanched faces and teeth chattering with fear. All these men claimed that they had seen manifestations of a frightful character, but as their testimony may be questionable, owing to the abject state of terror to which they were certainly reduced by some cause or other, we refrain from repeating their stories.

SWINDLING THE ORPHANS

At the time of her demise Mrs. Conway owed about $12,000 rent on the building, and there were no assets with which to meet it. The daughters, Misses Minnie and Lilly Conway, felt that, with the prestige of the family name, they might still retrieve the fortunes of the concern if they could once get a start. Messrs. Kingsley, Kinsella and Murphy promised them that if they could raise $5,000 of the amount due, they could have the theater. Their friends accordingly planned a benefit for them at the Broadway Academy of Music, at which place they gave an afternoon and evening performance, both playing the sadly appropriate drama of  “The Two Orphans.” The object of the benefit had been noised abroad, and all Brooklyn felt so great an interest in these young girls, struggling against every obstacle for a livelihood, that there was a general determination that the $5,000 should be raised if a huge audience would do it. Accordingly, the Academy was packed at both performances and $6,000 realized; $5,000 of this amount was at once paid over by the young ladies to Kingsley, Murphy and Kinsella, and they then proceeded to organize a company for the next season. Just before the season opened, and in open violation of their agreement, the company owning the theater, composed principally of the same Kinsley, Murphy and Kinsella, stepped in and took everything the Misses Conway had in the world; sold them out and leased the theater to Shook & Palmer, who were running it at the time of its destruction.

Quincy [IL] Whig 13 December 1876: p. 2

It seems as though one particular spirit was seen more often than others.

Mr. Thorpe, the stage manager, told the writer that when he first moved into his quarters in the theatre, those originally occupied by the Conways, he was told that he would surely see

A WANDERING SPIRIT IN THE FORM OF A WOMAN

Mr. Thorpe, however, appears to be a man who takes but little stock in ghosts, and he stoutly asserts that the spirit of the dead female never troubled him, nor was he disturbed by any other than natural voices. The school life of his clever little daughter Hattie, who is well-known to New York and Brooklyn audiences, was made very uncomfortable by the ghost story. Her school companions constantly rallied her upon it, and the poor child actually thought there must be a ghost so often was she told of it, and so firm were her companions that such an uncomfortable wraith must have some more tangible existence than in mere rumor.

Messrs. E. Lamb and H.B. Phillips, two comedians, when questioned on the subject, state that although they had been connected with the Brooklyn Theatre for some time, they had heard no noises nor seen any trepidation among any of the employees. Mr. Lamb, though, said he had been told that the house had been built on ground formerly occupied by a church and cemetery, but could give no definitive information.

At this moment, Mike, who had been janitor of the building since its occupancy by the Conways, made his appearance, and related the experience of himself and friends on the night of Mrs. Conway’s death. On being asked if he knew whether the theatre had been built on the site of the church, he replied: “Why, of course it was. The other day, when we were digging out the bodies, I found

AN OLD GRAVESTONE,

And I should think that ought to be proof enough.” He strictly refused to be interviewed further, and made a precipitate retreat when pressed to tell more of the strange sounds and sights that had been heard and seen. The establishment of the fact that there was a partly-filled graveyard where the theater stood suggests, however,

A STARTLING THEORY

It is just possible, even more than probable, that some of the unsightly and disfigured remains discovered amidst the ruins of the fire were those of bodies that had been laid away in the old churchyard. It is a well-known fact that bodies will sometimes lie in the ground for many years, retaining the flesh and the bones, resisting the action of the elements. The disagreeable exhalations experienced in the dressing rooms in damp weather would seem to point to the fact that there were such bodies here, and among the unrecognized dead who were heaped into that ghastly trench at Greenwood last Saturday, who knows but what there may be some who years ago were buried in the old St. John churchyard by loving hands, surrounded by all that friendship and tenderness could suggest, to rob the grave of its terror and its gloom. Whether this were so will probably never be known, but the finding the gravestone proves that such bodies there must have been among the remains of the wretched ones who, on the night of that fatal 5th of December, met their death amidst fire and smoke. The burning of the theatre itself, the ill fortune that attended it before its ruin and the unexplained noises heard within its walls, are all curious coincidences in the history of theaters built upon consecrated grounds and the results that have followed what is looked upon by so many as a desecration.

Morning Telegraph [New York, NY] 17 December 1876: p. 4

Ruins of the Brooklyn Theater after the fire.

Ruins of the Brooklyn Theater after the fire.

A new theatre was built on the site in 1879, but was razed in 1890 when the Brooklyn Daily Eagle offices were erected—a somewhat ironic choice of site since the Eagle specialized in sensational and lurid new stories and always included tales of ghosts and the supernatural whenever possible. It wasn’t until the theatre was about to be torn down that we find that the ghosts of the victims were haunting the site of their untimely deaths.

A HAUNTED HOUSE

The Appalling Disaster at the Brooklyn Theater

IT WAS FIFTEEN YEARS AGO

But it is Recalled Now When the Beautiful New Theater Erected on the Site of the Old Building Must Be Torn Away Because it is Tenanted by Ghosts.

Special to the Journal.

New York, April 26. A house is to be demolished in Brooklyn, because it is believed to be haunted. It is a large and handsome theater, but its reputation for ghosts is such that no profit can be made out of it for amusement purposes, so the owners have decided to tear it down. An auction sale of its interior fittings will be held next week. Immediately afterwards the walls will be razed and during the summer a commercial building will be erected on the site. This is a delayed and curious consequence of a memorial disaster. About fifteen years ago, the Brooklyn Theatre was burned with a loss of over eight hundred lives [The death estimates are highly exaggerated, but perhaps someone misread an “8” for a “3;’ it is generally thought that about 278 people died..]That event can hardly have faded from the minds of American newspaper readers anywhere, but to Brooklyn people, so many of whom were bereaved by the loss of relatives, and all of whom are horrified by the catastrophe, it remains a vivid recollection.  [there follows the description of the catastrophe.]

The theater has been owned by a stock company, composed of half a dozen of Brooklyn politicians and office holders, and, strangely enough, they decided to build another play house on the same ground. Against this course they were advised by those who believed that, under the awful circumstances, the site was not any longer suitable for a theater, and that, on business as well as sentimental grounds, the enterprise was ill-advised. The dominant man in the company was the late Judge McCue, a rich and vigorous man, who would not be convinced of any impropriety in rebuilding the theater. So it was done. Although the second structure was entirely different in looks from its predecessors and had its entrance on another street, it occupied the same space. It was a very handsome house at first, luxuriously fitted up, and valued altogether at $300,000. At that time its only rival in Brooklyn was the shabby and old theater long identified with the late Conways, most famous in American theatricals, and personages of considerable consequence in Brooklyn. There was no reason—other than the holocaust—why the new Brooklyn theater should not gain a fashionable and prosperous vogue. But it did not. Every effort to sustain it as an elegant resort failed. The finest performances did not draw paying audiences. People disliked to go for diversion to the place where the great tragedy had occurred. Next, the house was devoted to a somewhat lower grade of theatricals and the management endeavoured to popularize it; but here the same difficulty was encountered, and besides, stories of ghosts got afloat. It was told that the spirits of the burned eight hundred haunted the premises, and these tales were sufficient to keep folks away. Two years ago, as a last and desperate recourse, the theatre was turned into a ten-to-fifty house. That is, its prices were cheapened to the lowest extent, and it catered to the cheap multitude. The failure has been as decisive as before, and now a demolition as described, has been decided upon by the owners.

All through the unfortunate career of the rebuilt theatre, the ghost stories concerning it have increased in number and positiveness. At first they indefinitely narrated that spooks frequented the auditorium at night after the performances were over, and there were folks who declared that they saw phosphorescent lights through the windows. A little later a janitor gave up his job because, as he averred, he had encountered several of the dead members of the company which had performed there on the night of the fire. On one occasion, so he said, he entered the house after the departure of the audience, and saw the stage occupied by these ghostly actors, who were going through with a scene of “The Two Orphans.” The man was a drunkard, however, and a liar even when sober; so his acquaintances attributed his yarns jointly to alcohol and invention. But they got into circulation nevertheless, and are now a part and parcel of Brooklyn tradition. But 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 of the seat from sitting in it; but the ten-centers were not less sensitive than the dollar-and-a-half folks had been, and they found they really could not enjoy themselves seated in a chair compositely with a ghost. Thus it came about that the dime parts of the house so much depended upon in cheap priced theaters had been very sparsely occupied. That dealt the final blow to the Brooklyn theatre and will cause its destruction.

Daily Journal and Journal and Tribune [Knoxville, TX] 27 April 1890: p. 8

The site is now Cadman Plaza, Brooklyn. Are there any modern ghost stories from the area? Lower the asbestos curtain before sending to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com.

 

 

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