By: The Contemplative Traveler©™
On January 13, 1908, reformation arrived in a small town in Pennsylvania. Wrought by conflagration rather than the enlightening cultural experience intended by church leaders who had planned the special event, the experience left surviving residents with scars – and their descendants with stories of ghost sightings and other unsettling encounters.
Hundreds of men, women and children were in attendance that evening for the opening of a new play – “The Scottish Reformation” – at the Rhoads Opera House in Boyertown, Pennsylvania. Sponsored by St. John’s Lutheran Church, many of the organization’s young members were part of the acting ensemble. Far more would become players, as adults attending the performance, in an all-too-common early 20th century tragedy which unfolded as fire tore through their gathering place.
Roughly one tenth of the entire Boyertown population perished that night – so many that the resulting funerals and burials for the 169 men, women and children went on, and on, and on. Boyertown’s social structure was altered dramatically. Some families were erased entirely.
Most of the victims were women and children. Nearly everyone lost at least one family member, friend or neighbor. A number of the men who died had been employed as craftsmen for the Boyertown Casket Company. One firefighter was also killed.
All because of a careless encounter with kerosene lights and theater goers blinded by smoke, flames and panic, trapped by doors they could not open – or even find. Serendipity, as it does so often in life, helped some – and worked against others. According to a special New York Times report which presented follow-up coverage, “When the lamps exploded many who knew of the small, narrow stairway at one side of the stage turned in that direction, and were confronted with a solid sheet of rearing fire.”
Some managed to flee the inferno only to be trampled to death by the surging crowd behind them. A fair number who survived found egress through windows and down fire escapes. The January 15th headline in The Omaha Daily Bee alerted readers to a resulting “pile of bodies six feet high.”
Legend has it that the dead did not – and still do not – rest easy. The echoes of screams by the dying were reported by passersby at the site well after the last embers had cooled. And even today at the Durango Saloon, located one block away on the site of a former hotel, employees talk of items being moved and doors closing unexpectedly. Some are convinced that those placed in a makeshift morgue in the hotel’s basement prior to burial elsewhere may have established a more permanent connection than their caretakers could ever have imagined.
Police have also been called out over the years to investigate moans and other unsettling sounds emanating from Fairview Cemetery, where many of the victims were finally interred. The bodies of twenty-five, including 44-year-old Sarah Emma Wien, were identified but determined to be in such terrible condition that they could only be interred together and memorialized with a common grave marker. The Times described the impact on Warren Wien, who “went insane … as a result of the tragedy. He knew that his sisters Carrie and Florence were in the burning building. He made efforts to climb the fire escape to get inside. Later he learned that his mother was also among the missing.”
Whether one believes in ghosts or not – and as heartbreaking as this story is, all Americans can silently give thanks for the legacy birthed by the suffering of the Rhoads fire victims. According to the website of The J.K. Boyer Boyertown Community Library, the men, women and children who lost their lives on opening night of “The Scottish Reformation” became the catalyst for a genuine American revolution – their deaths prompting Pennsylvania’s Legislature to enact life-changing legislation in May 1909. Act 233 and the many similar laws it inspired nationwide since that time have ensured the wellbeing of countless visitors to city council chambers, libraries, Broadway theaters, symphony halls, museums, and other public buildings by mandating the installation of safety features “such as doors which open outward, more than one exit from second floors, properly lit exterior doors from backstage areas, easily accessed and visibly marked fire escapes.”
From death came life.