James Madison Papers

To James Madison from John G. Jackson, 27 December 1811

From John G. Jackson

Richmond Decr. 27th 1811

My dear Sir.

I have once more escaped from the Jaws of death last night for the first time I went to the Theatre.1 At ½ past eleven it caught on fire 800 persons present & in a few minutes the whole was in flames. I kept back to permit the crowd to precede me until the black warm smoke suffocated all around me, & falling also I made a mighty effort & sprung forward far enough to descend about 12 feet on the level with the pit. But when the jump was made I fell lifeless & recollect nothing more until the current of air revived me I lay then among heaps of dead & dying all in one general flame, & recovered strength enough to rise & carry out a poor Lady Mrs Doufet who clung to me crying for support & begging my assistance but ere I got out I encountered falling fire & brick walls in every direction & had almost been lost because I could not find the door. In every direction Gentlemen Ladies, young & old covered with fire tumbled from the Windows, some in safety & others killed by the fall. 150 or 200 perished in the ruins in a few moments after I got out the roof fell in the Walls tumbled down & the remains of the dead were burnt to cinders. The list of dead has been already made out beyond 100. Among them

Govr Smith
A B Venable Mrs Gibson
Botts & Wife & Neice Herron
Lieut Gibbons Mrs } Cook & 2 Daughters
H Dixon Gwathney
E Wanton Wilson
W Southgate Leslie
J Jacobs & ⟨4?⟩ Children Greenhow & son
A Marshall (of Wythe) Braxton
W Brown Gerardin & Son
Mrs Patterson Convert & Child
Miss Harvie Laforet & niecea
Mrs. Gallego Gerer
Miss Conyers Moss & daughter
do ⟨Gunn?⟩ Page
Louisa Mayo
Miss Nelson
Miss { Coplin No member of assembly perished
tho many badly wounded.
Mrs. Scott wife of the member from
Near Alexa. dangerously injured.
Clay (of M Clay)
2 Troins

I never witnessed such universal distress & alas it does not belong to me to avoid a participation of it. I write agitated & confused to assure you & my dear sisters of my safety. I salute you affectionately

J G Jackson

RC (DLC). Docketed by JM.

1Jackson was describing the fire that occurred in the Richmond theater on the evening of 26 Dec. 1811. The fire broke out when a chandelier onstage was raised after the first act of the performance and set alight the scenery. The fire spread rapidly through the ceiling of the theater and then fell to the stage. The audience was slow to make its escape as many apparently believed that the fire was part of the performance itself. Accounts of the fire and lists of the dead were published in many newspapers, including the National Intelligencer on 31 Dec. 1811.

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