Other Event Detail

Rhodes Opera House Fire
Boyertown, PA

January 13, 1908

January 13, 1908, was a terrible night in Boyertown, Pennsylvania. A play at the Rhodes Opera House on Philadelphia Avenue turned deadly. The Sunday school pupils of St. John's Lutheran Church were putting on a performance of The Scottish Reformation. When the curtain rose at 8 o'clock the opera house was packed with representative citizens. The second part of the play had been reached. The young people taking part had just finished their songs, and incidental to the drama a number of pictures were shown by a moving picture machine. The stereopticon machine had a calcium lamp. The operator of the lamp might have opened the wrong valve. The machine started to make a long and loud hissing noise. This frightened the audience and they started running for the stage, thinking that the theater was on fire. At the same time, someone lifted the curtain from the stage to look out and see what the noise was. Somehow, either by the curtain, stage crew trying to calm the audience, or the audience attempting to get on the stage, a kerosene tank that fed the foot lights got dumped and exploded, igniting the curtain. The curtain and scenery went up in flames, with the fire eventually consuming the building. The people in the front of the audience tried to run to the back of the theater, but were blocked by the people from the back who were trying to run to the front after being scared by the noise at the back. Chaos broke out. People started fighting for the exits, literally beating each other with chairs. Some of the exits were bolted. It was only when the crowd had pressed those against the door forward with tremendous force that the door gave way and those in the front were thrown down the steep steps. The momentum of the crowd carried others over the top of the scrambling, squirming heap at the bottom. At least a dozen were trampled to death in the struggle to regain their footing at the bottom of the steps. The mass of bodies obstructed the stairs and prevented those in the rear from getting out. People would later be found in piles four and five deep where they were trying to escape. Many of the bodies were found with the upper portions burned away and the lower portions below the waist being intact, showing how they were wedged in, with the flames sweeping over them and killing them as they were caught. The building was a large brick structure, three stories high. It was destroyed by the fire. The first floor was occupied by the Farmers' National Bank and a hardware store. The second and third floors were occupied by the opera house and a lodge. In the rear were four large dwelling houses which were a part of the building. These were also burned. The Bank had $75,000 in the vault - it was later found intact. The Boyertown Volunteer Fire Department had water playing on the building five minutes after the alarm was sounded. The Pottstown Fire Department arrived at 11:50 p.m., but all the available water failed to quench the flames. At 5 o'clock a.m. the roof of the building fell in. At 6 o'clock a.m. the fire was under control. The first body was not brought out until 8:30 a.m. 171 of the 400 people attending the show died in the fire. The ratio of women and girls to men and boys, was nearly three to one.

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