- Historic Sites
“New York Is Worth Twenty Richmonds”
October 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 6
Next door, the second act of Julius Caesar was in progress at the Winter Garden Theatre when someone apparently whispered to a companion, “The La Farge is on fire.” Others nearby heard only the last word- “Fire.” Soon it was being repeated throughout the audience. Several women in the dress circle stood up. When they did, almost the entire audience, from parquet to dome, followed their example. Onstage the play stopped. Edwin Booth broke off his lines to race to the wings. He returned to the stage a few minutes later. Standing in the center by the footlights, his arms outstretched, he pleaded for order. But many persons were already at the doors, pushing and shoving to get out.
It was shortly after ten o’clock when the cry of “Fire” ran through the Metropolitan Hotel, on Broadway at Prince Street. At Niblo’s Garden adjoining it two actors were duelling back and forth across the stage in the dramatic last act of The Corsican Brothers . Someone in the gallery suddenly shouted “Fire!” The audience rose as one to its feet. Women began hoisting their skirts and leaping from chair to chair as they made for the doors. Up in the balcony men tried to hold back others from throwing themselves down to the parquet below. Those nearest exits were already rushing through them.
The pattern seemed clear as midnight approached. Hotels, theatres, and docks—uptown, downtown, from the Hudson to the East River—were being set afire en masse. Shock waves of fear fanned the excitement in the streets. Would-be looters in droves from the grim sections that girded the heart of the city swarmed around the scenes of the alarms, so many appearing so quickly that at first the fires were blamed on them. Then another rumor spread along Broadway—a Confederate attack.
As detachments of police struggled to keep order, new alarms rang through the chill night, sending volunteer firemen scurrying to answer the calls for help. A roundsman from the Second Precinct spotted flames in an upper-story window of the United States Hotel at Fulton and Water streets. Ten blocks north, near the heart of the Bowery, the staff of the New England Hotel, alerted to the possibility of trouble, was checking each room; when the door to Number 58 was opened, a sheet of flame shot out.
A half mile away, on Park Row overlooking City Hall, a guest going up to his room on the fourth floor of Lovejoy’s Hotel saw smoke issuing from under the door of Room 121. At the same time, along the Hudson, a police officer and a dozen sailors were pouring water on the flaming bales of hay stacked on a bulkhead opposite North Moore and Beach streets.
The next alarm came from across town—at Fulton Street again, this time just off Broadway at the Belmont Hotel next door to the Herald Building. The source of the acrid smoke was Room 28 on the second floor; the room, the hotel clerk later remembered, had been taken earlier that night by an Army officer.
A few short blocks away the porter and the bookkeeper of French’s Hotel stood transfixed, looking out from the window of the porter’s attic room. Directly across narrow Frankfort Street, which separated French’s from the Tammany Hotel, they could see a man having trouble, so it appeared, starting a fire with matches in the middle of the room. It was Kennedy; fortified by several drinks, he had evidently forgotten to close the shutters and apparently had decided not to let the phosphorus do its work unassisted. The porter and the bookkeeper raced downstairs and into the street. Outside, along Park Row, volunteer firemen of Peterson Engine Company Number 31 were hauling their pumper, “The White Ghost,” back to its post in densely populated Chrystie Street. On hearing the porter’s cries for help they immediately pulled the pumper into Frankfort Street and began laying hose. Frank Mahedy, the foreman, raced ahead into the Tammany Hotel; he soon emerged with a drowsy young girl in his arms. Then he ran back inside again, this time returning with the girl’s mother. Both had been asleep in the room next to the one that the porter and the bookkeeper had seen being set on fire. In the excitement Kennedy slipped away unnoticed.
It was 2:30 in the morning when a house detective opened the door of Room 148 in the Fifth-Avenue Hotel. He was greeted by a rush of smoke. Several miles away on Broadway, in the Howard Hotel at Maiden Lane, the guest in the room next to Number 44 was roused from his sleep when smoke began to fill his room. Meanwhile, the sailors who had put out the fire on the wharf by the Hudson River were out again in the chill night. This time they were fighting a fire aboard the barge Merchant ; it was berthed only a block away from the site of the earlier fire. And as dawn came up, two workmen at a lumberyard at nearby West and Clarkson streets found stacks of wood beams and the hay in adjacent stables smoldering when they came to work.
Almost twelve hours after the first alarm, the last was sounded. At about nine o’clock on Saturday morning, a smoldering fire was discovered in Room 204, on the fourth floor of the Astor House, on Broadway across from Barnum’s Museum, during a room-by-room inspection by hotel personnel.