|Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, September 28, 1861|
Philadelphia’s Continental Theater on Walnut Street was the site of a handful of deadly fires in the late 1800s, the first of these tragedies being the subject of this entry. At least eight, but possibly nine ballerinas perished in an inferno ignited after one of the dancer’s gauzy green costumes came into contact with flames from a gas tube backstage.
A crowd of fifteen hundred watched William Wheatley’s production of the first act of The Tempest on the evening of September 14, 1861. The show was interrupted by strange lights from behind the scenery, followed shortly by screams, stage carpenters rushing onto the platform and the appearance of a young dancer engulfed in flames. This dancer, Zelia Gale, screamed and waved her arms frantically as her costume and skin melted away. She finally fell beneath the stage where a carpenter covered her in a sea cloth from the set design.
As the curtains dropped the screams of other dancers backstage became more audible. Initially the manager tried to calm the crowd but when the magnitude of the situation became clear he told them that the show would not continue and evacuated the building. Meanwhile, a horrific and chaotic scene continued in the dressing room part of the theater.
Zelia (also called Cecilia) was one of four English-born sisters, all ballerinas. The Sept. 18, 1861 issue of The National Republican reported that as the Gale sisters readied themselves for Act II Zelia (age 18) reached down to adjust her costume near a gas tube. The gauzy material ignited and within seconds the flames also reached her underclothes and leggings. When her sisters came to the rescue their dresses also caught fire, terribly burning their upper bodies. In the panic the dancers, flaming and not, either ran screaming throughout the theater, swatted at the fire where they stood or leaped from the window onto Sansom Street. Clara Clifton, whose clothing didn’t catch on fire jumped from the window and fortunately survived uninjured. Hannah Gale (20), already severely burned, landed on the street below on her back. Anna Nicholas jumped ten-twenty-five feet from a platform to the stage, shattering a plate of glass and lot of mirrors used in the production. The National Republican had little hope for her at the time that article was printed. The injured dancers were initially taken to Greer’s Tavern, nearby homes, or a hotel where they were treated with brandy by druggists and doctors as they continued to scream in agony. Finally the ballerinas made it to Pennsylvania Hospital.
|Harper’s Weekly, 1861|
Other than those already listed the injured included Mrs. Mary Herman, Anna McBride (20), Phoebe Forbes/Norden/Forden (20), Abby Carr, Ruth Gale (15), Adeline (Abeonia) Gale (18), Kate Harris and Anna Phillips. The stage carpenter who wrapped Zelia in the canvas was also burned. (Some of the names vary by accounts. I’ve included what information I could locate in other papers and genealogical records.)
The confirmed dead from the tragedy were the four Gale sisters, Mary Herman, Phoebe, Annie Phillips and Anna McBride. Mr. Wheatley was not held liable for the tragedy and he and his wife held some of the dancers’ funerals from their home and paid for those arrangements. I dug up records from the Brighthurt & Co. Funeral Home itemizing the costs and showing which funerals took place on the same days. I’ve included those, as well as the Gale sisters’ death certificates, below.
The Gales are buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery. Anna McBride was interred at Old Cathedral Cemetery based on the Brighthurt records. Phoebe, who’d been boarding in Philadelphia, was shipped back to Bristol for burial. Presently I don’t have burial information for the other ballerinas.
At the Gale sisters’ graves is a weathered monument which according the New York Clipper was inscribed as follows:
The National Republican, Sept. 18, 1861:
From the Richmond Dispatch, October 1, 1861:
“The recent terrible accident at the Continental Theatre in Philadelphia.
|R.R. Brighthurst & Co. Funeral Records|
Hidden City Philadelphia