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Building on site of Rhoads Opera House at S Washington St and E Philadelphia Ave in Boyertown.
|Date||January 13, 1908|
|Venue||Rhoads Opera House|
|Location||Boyertown, Pennsylvania, United States|
|Cause||Knocked over lamp|
The Rhoads Opera House Fire occurred on Monday evening, January 13, 1908 in Boyertown, Pennsylvania. The opera house caught fire during a stage play sponsored by nearby St. John's Lutheran Church. The fire started when a kerosene lamp being used for stage lighting was knocked over starting a fire on the stage. In short order the spreading fire ignited a mixture of lighting gas & oxygen from a malfunctioning stereopticon machine being used to present a magic lantern show at intermission. Audience members waited for the fire to be extinguished by theatre personnel, wasting the precious minutes they needed to escape safely.
The stage and auditorium were located on the 2nd floor and the few emergency exits available were either unmarked or blocked. Two fire escapes were available but were only accessible through latched windows whose sills were located 3 & 1/2 feet above the floor. Of the approximately 400 men, women, and children either in attendance or associated with the performance of the play 171 perished in various ways as they tried to escape the conflagration. In the panic to escape many were crushed in the narrow main entrance stairway as well as against the jambed main exit swinging doors of the 2nd floor auditorium. In a few instances entire families were wiped out. One firefighter John Graver, was also killed while responding to the incident.
The play being performed on this Monday night was "The Scottish Reformation", authored by Mrs. Harriet Earhart Monroe. Mrs. Monroe, a resident of Washington, D.C., was a traveling producer of religious stage plays. She provided the scripts, the stage props and the costumes used in her plays. The sponsor, in this case St. John's Lutheran Church, supplied the performance venue, the actors and the stage hands. Mrs Monroe and her sister, Mrs. Della Mayers, reheased the production's singers and actors, and directed the play. The profits from the ticket sales were divided between Mrs. Monroe and the sponsor. A slide (magic lantern) show and accompanying lecture was included at the intermission periods to provide historical background for the stage play. Mrs. Monroe had authored "The Scottish Reformation" sometime prior to 1894. It had been performed a few dozen times at venues in the northeastern states before its final, tragic 1908 performance in Boyertown.
Approximately sixty persons were involved in the performance of "The Scottish Reformation", some of these served non-acting support functions. All actors were either St John's parishioners or Boyertown residents. There were no professional actors in the performance. The play was to be performed twice in Boyertown, once on Monday night and again on Tuesday night. 312 seat tickets were sold for the Monday night performance. The exact number of audience members is unknown because no official entry count was taken. According to a number of written accounts there were also a large number of standing patrons. However, the figure of 312 is generally used as an approximation of patron attendance in the various renditions of the events of that Monday night. Mrs. Monroe was not present for the fateful Monday night performance. Her sister Della perished in the catastrophe.
Mrs. Monroe was subpoenaed to appear before an official inquest which was held a few weeks after the fire to determine its cause and assess blame. She refused to appear. Although accused of employing an inadequately trained young man to operate the steriopticon slide projector, the inquest's jury found her innocent of any wrongdoing. Private lawsuits were brought against Mrs. Monroe by the families of several victims. The result of these lawsuits is unclear from the surviving historical records.
Mrs Monroe's, and her sister Della's, maiden name was Earhart. They were the paternal aunts of famed aviator Amelia Earhart. Della Earhart Mayers is buried in Boyertown's Fairview Cemetery. Mrs. Monroe died on 16 July 1927 in Washington, DC and is buried in the Mount Vernon Cemetery, Atchison, Kansas.
The "Rhoads Opera House" was not a structure normally described as an opera house. It was a three-story commercial brick building which contained a hardware store and bank on its first floor, an auditorium ( the "opera house" ) and offices on its second floor, and several meeting rooms and offices on its third floor. The auditorium was a rental facility made available for public and private events such as business meetings, lectures, school graduations and public entertainment events. The auditorium included a small stage located at the back end of the auditorium. It is doubtful that any opera was ever performed on this stage.
The present day building occupying the same site as the original Rhoads Building on the corner of Washington Street and Philadelphia Avenue is somewhat similar in overall appearance to the original Rhoads Building. The main difference is in the overall height of the building and its second floor windows. In the new building these are approximately six feet tall, in the original building they were closer to eight feet tall. The original auditorium was approximately 12 feet in height thus accommodating the taller windows. The present day building does not house an auditorium at all, the second floor is consequentially of a lesser height as are its windows. Additionally, the present day building is not equipped with fire escapes. The original building had three: one on its front facade, one on the Washington Street facade, and one on the opposite side facade. In many other major characteristics the present day building is similar to the original except for certain architectural and decorative details. The present day building was constructed approximately two years after the tragic fire using fire insurance proceeds the building's owner and prominent Boyertown citizen, Dr. Thomas Rhoads, received as a result of the complete destruction of the original building.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, Philadelphians contributed relief funds of $18,000. Three morgues were set up and approximately fifteen thousand people attended funerals on a single day. One hundred and five new graves were dug in Boyertown's Fairview Cemetery.
In the days following the fire, Dr. Daniel Kohler, Burgess of Boyertown, appointed a relief committee, to whom the people were asked to report the names of missing persons, and who would arrange a proper and speedy burial of the dead. The Relief Committee would act in tandem with the National Bank of Boyertown (now known as National Penn Bank), to receive and distribute all contributions received from all sources. The Committee met three times a day the first weeks following the fire, once a day the next month and once a week for the next year. Irwin Ehst served as chairman, James Stauffer as secretary. On April 10, 1909, the Berks County Democrat, the newspaper published in Boyertown, PA, printed a detailed report of the income and expenditures of the Relief Committee. Total contributions received equaled $22,075.89. A total of $21,636.44 was expended. The largest contributors noted were Calvin Fegley, Treasurer of Pottstown ($2,000); Eishenlor Brothers Cigar Factory ($1,000) and Boyertown Burial Casket ($600).
The incident spurred the Pennsylvania legislature into passing new legislative standards for doors, landings, lighting, curtains, fire extinguishers, aisles, and marked exits. All doors were required to open outward and remain unlocked. Pennsylvania governor Edwin Stuart signed Pennsylvania’s first fire law on May 3, 1909.
The building of apartments and stores has now been built on the former opera house's site with a plaque commemorating the tragedy.
Schneider, Mary Jane. (1991) Midwinter Mourning: The Boyertown Opera House Fire. MJS Publications.
Schneider, Mary Jane. (1992) A Town in Tragedy: The Boyertown Opera House Fire Volume II. MJS Publications.
Claussen, W. Edmunds. (1973) The Boyertown of Editor Charles Spatz. Gilbert Printing Co.
The Rhoads Opera House Fire; The Legacy of a Tragedy, Documentary DVD 2008. WFMZ TV Documentary Unit. Winner PAB Best Documentary 2008.