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[Detail] Illustration of the shield of Virginia, from the eighteenth century

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Views on the Richmond Theater Fire

A local event that is covered in a number of documents in the collection is a theater fire in Richmond in 1811. Documents include accounts of the fire as well as responses to it. The following excerpt is from a document titled "A Voice from Richmond." Read this excerpt and consider the questions that follow:

I have a message from God unto you. Shun the theatre: avoid the haunts of Satan, the destroyer of your souls. Seek for real pleasure. Do not pursue the phantom of imaginary happiness, which will at last deceive you. It may seem to be delightful, it appeared the same to me, but I now find that I have been fatally mistaken. My sun went down while it was yet day. How awful the change! From the meridian splendour of a noonday sun, to be suddenly enveloped in midnight darkness! Yes, with the blackness of darkness forever! Five weeks ago, I was in life, blooming, healthy and gay. I thought, like many others, that there was no harm in attending on the amusements of the theatre, and from persuasion and example I was confirmed in my opinion. That very afternoon, I laughed at a young lady for saying that 'the theatre was a very improper place; that many had been ruined, body and soul, by attending at such places of amusement.' Ah, my young friends, I wish I had felt the force of her observation. I went. I expected pleasure, and for a short time I joined the laugh of those around me, and mingled my smiles with their shouts of applause. The whole scene was before us; all around was mirth and pleasure; but in two minutes after, I was surrounded with cries of anguish and despair. Suffocated with smoke, I fainted and fell, blazing, into the pit, and was crushed and covered with the burning ruins. I was unprepared for death, and hurried unexpectedly into eternity. My state is now unalterably fixed forever.

(Pages 16 and 17, "LECTURE I. A Voice from Richmond," in "A Voice from Richmond, and Other Addresses to Children and Youth." By the Late Rev. Robert May)

  • What kind of event is being described?
  • Since the person was killed in the fire, he/she is obviously not really speaking. Who is speaking in the voice of someone killed in the fire? Why?

Conduct a search to find as many documents as possible about the fire. Using the documents, attempt to compile as many verifiable facts about the fire as you can, as well as a list of responses to the fire. What do the responses indicate about the social climate of the time?