Philadelphia, PA Continental Theatre Fire, Sept 1861



An accident of frightful fatality occurred at the Continental Theatre, in Walnut street, on Saturday night. Since the destruction and accompanying casualties of the National Theatre, some years ago, we have had no theatrical matters so terrible to recount; and Rumor, with her thousand tongues has been busy, since the event; spreading far and wide the particulars of the accident.

The Continental was formerly the "National Circus." Its name was changed some time after the decease of General Welch, and since that time it has been used for displays of negro minstrels, ring performances, and occasionally theatrical entertainments. A few weeks ago MR. WILLIAM WHEATLEY, and old and favorite actor and manager, leased and refitted the place. At great expense, he produced the stage edition of Shakespeare's Tempest, and devoted unusual means to perfecting the scenic and mechanical arrangements. The ballet corps was numerous, and many of the dancers beautiful and talented. The rare ingenuity of an English machinist was employed to make gorgeous exhibitions of color and shadow, and the closing scene was said to be unparalleled for munificence and beauty. During the week the houses were excellent, and on Saturday night about fifteen hundred persons were assembled to enjoy the entertainment. The play had proceeded as far as the close of the first act. Prospero had related his misfortunes, and the pretty Ariel had been instructed as to his master's behests; had stirred up the elements, and the lightning and thunder exhibited to the delighted people the tattered shrouds and torn spars of a doomed ship. The waves were rolling, and assumed terror of those on board; the jester Trinculo, (Chapman,) who found time for joking in the pauses of the storm, and Stephano, the drunken butler, who swore and rollicked with seeming death in his face.

All at once, those accustomed to witnessing show pieces saw an unnecessary light glaring over the top of the rear scene. Before they had time to speculate upon it, a number of men in shirt sleeves (stage carpenters) ran upon the stage, and, while the confusion grew momentarily, a sharp scream, that seemed to pierce the heart, rang upon the ears of the people, and a woman in ballet costume, with he dress on fire, emerged from the side scenes, waving her arms above her head. In a moment she fell into the abyss where the ship was riding. At the same time a succession of screams ensued. Trinculo suddenly ceased to joke, and dropped into the waters, while Stephano forgot to be drunk, and became as sober as a judge.

The young woman who had fallen into the waves, suddenly reappeared, and the waves all at once assumed the guise of a bit of green cloth that was folded around the young woman, and while the screams went on faster and faster, the curtain dropped upon the stage and hid the scene from the audience. Some symptoms of alarm had appeared by this time, and one lad in the gallery cried "fire," whereupon he was at once choked by a big fisted man beside him. Two or three women said "O, Lord!" and endeavored to edge their way out of the house, but there slight manifestations were quelled by Manager WHEATLEY, who appeared in front of the curtain and said:
"Ladies and Gentlemen: Be kind enough to remain in your seats, and make no unnecessary disturbance. If anything has gone wrong, I will return in a moment an state the occurrences."

The screams were prolonged and thrilling in the interim, but directly MR. WHEATLEY reappeared and said:
'Ladies and Gentlemen: The performers are somewhat excited, and we cannot go on with the play until we discover the extent of the accident. You will, therefore, go out quietly." {A voice, "Was the young lady whom we saw just now much burned?"} MR. WHEATLEY, "I cannot tell. There is a great deal of confusion behind the curtain. Please go out!"

The people disbanded quietly. Someone described their orderly dismissal as resembling a funeral. But a scene far otherwise went on upon the stage.

The girls were dressing for the ballet. The dressing rooms adjoin Sansom street, and, in a dressing room at the northwest corner of the building, the MISSES GALE - amiable and talented danseuses - were adjusting themselves for the ballet for Act II. MISS ZELIA GALE, one of the sisters, stood upon a settee to reach her dress, and, when in the act of handing it down, the flame of gas from an adjacent tube set it on fire; the flame communicated to her underclothes, and she was all ablaze in an instant. Her sisters rushed up to extinguish the fire, and they, too, were ignited. The fire mounted to their arms and breasts, inflicting terrible burns, and panic-stricken, they ran from the room, through a narrow passage-way, into the next dressing-room filled with ballet ladies. The gauze dresses of these blazed up directly, and, screaming, struggling, wrestling, the poor creatures either turned and leaped from the windows into Sansom street, or ran hither and thither, calling for assistance.

MISS ZELIA GALE, with her clothing on fire and uttering loud screams, ran down stairs and upon the stage, behind the scenes, falling below the stage level, where she was caught in the arms of MR. THOMAS BAYARD, the carpenter of the theatre. MR. BAYARD, in attempting to extinguish the fire with a "sea cloth," was himself burned about the hands and arms.

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