The Farnam Street Theater Fire

12:02 PM

If there are two words that have a long history of tragic pairings, it is “theater” and “fire.” The Brooklyn Theater was consumed in 1876, killing perhaps 300. The Iroquois Theatre in Chicago burned in 1903, and perhaps 605 perished in flames. The Garrick in Hereford, England, became an inferno in 1916, taking eight children with it.

So it goes, through history, performance venues going up like tinderboxes, their deadliness entirely dependent on whether or not there was a show at the moment of incineration. I worked with a theater in Omaha, the Blue Barn, that was part of a fire in 1999. I was then managing editor of The Reader newsweekly, and found myself in the unique situation of reporting on the event; I don't know if there was ever another playwright who reported on the burning of the theater that produced him. Thankfully, there were no fatalities, and the venue was up and running again within a year.

The same could not be said of Omaha’s finest Opera House, Boyd’s. Built in 1881 by one of the city’s founding fathers, James E. Boyd, who would become both Mayor of Omaha and Governor of Nebraska, it was a palatial structure. Located at 1621 Harney, the structure could seat 1,700; it lasted 10 years, was renamed the Farnam Street Theater, and then burned to the ground.

The date was October 3, 1893, and here are the essentials of the story: The Opera House was to show a play called “The Waifs of New York.” Instead, it caught fire, thoughtfully doing so before any audience members arrived. Theater staffers saved whatever valuables they could gather, and the fire department showed. They fought the fire, but the building, in sections, collapsed, damaging nearby businesses, including crushing two saloons. Firefighters entered the building, and the floor collapsed beneath one, Alfred C. “Alf” Gjerum, who was killed. By morning, the building was destroyed, and Gjerum’s body was recovered.

This is Omaha, however, and the barest essentials leave so much of the story untold. There were the crushed saloons, for example: The Drum and Ed Wittig’s. The Drum Saloon was divey and a hangout for miscreants, but that made it a fairly typical OImaha bar of the era. The Bee tells an 1891 story of a group of confidence men who duped a man into withdrawing another man’s money from his bank account. They made off with almost $300, and headed directly to the Drum, where they got drunk and were quickly located and arrested. The Drum also makes news for cashing forged checks and acting as the meeting place for burglars. Weirdly, it also seems to have been a hangout for cops, and was the location for a notable fistfight between the heads of the city’s detective agencies. (It feels like this last story deserves more detail, but the Bee sadly reports that “the particulars … would require more than the skill of either of the contestants to make public.”)

Ed Wittig’s, in the meanwhile, seems to have been a joint favored by amateur firemen, including Wittig’s son, who enjoyed his job so much he once fell off his shed’s roof while demonstrating firefighting techniques and dislocated his shoulder. The bar was also the location of an argument over the ashes of one Edward Kuehl, a shoemaker and fortune teller, dead of a morphine overdose, who may or may not have asked that his remains be kept at the bar. I can’t discover whether his ashes were kept there. If so, they burned up twice.

It’s hard not to imagine that, as the theater collapsed onto these two saloons, both the firemen and the officers surrounding it let out an audible groan. And perhaps so did some of the bystanders, which likely included confidence men, burglars, detectives, and perhaps fortune tellers.

Let’s talk about the bystanders. An immense crowd, covering several blocks, gathered to watch. It took thirty five patrolmen to contain the gathered masses. Some were injured when the walls collapsed, including “Professor” J.E. Gaynore, an eccentric local dance instructor who had an undeniable talent for being at precisely the wrong place at the wrong time, including having been one of the only witnesses to the hatchet murder of Ada Swanson, a domestic servant who took the wrong man to a basement in 1915. At the time of the fire, Gaynore was struck by falling bricks, and was moved to a nearby candy store, badly bruised and injured internally.

Other bystanders decided this was an opportune moment for some petty larceny. There was a boy named Harry Martin, as an example, who ran into the Snow, Lunc & Co pharmacy, which would be nearly destroyed in the blaze, and made off with soaps and toiletries.

There are also unconfirmed reports that pickpockets worked the crowd watching  the fire, but we can safely assume these reports to be true. Pickpockets worked every assembled crowd in Omaha in those days. In the same year as the theater fire, newspapers advertised a pickpocket-proof pocket watch bow called “Non-Pull-Out,” a pair of pickpockets were spotted craftily going through women’s purses among the holiday crowd in downtown stores, and the police raided a house, recovering $700 worth of goods stolen from a tailor, but also discovered it to be the home of a pickpocketing ring. There are dozens of other, similar stories.

Finally, I would like to take a moment to discuss the play that nearly went up that evening, when the theater went up instead. It was immensely popular, and the audience that night would have been standing-room-only, which would have been catastrophic had the fire started when 1,700 patrons were in attendance.

So what sort of plays could attract such attention? “The Waifs of New York” was a touring melodrama starring Katie Emmett, an accomplished soubrette and theatrical producer who owned the rights to the play and toured with it relentlessly. The script was by Thaddeus W. Meighan, a playwright and journalist and therefore a man after my own heart. It is almost impossible to get a sense of the plot of the play, thanks to a maddening refusal on the part of the critics of the day to even discuss such thing. But it was a melodrama, so we know it probably was episodic, contained music, and a series of fraught situations. The would be spectacular scenes of jeopardy and escape, and we know of one in which the heroes hung from a trestle while a train passed overhead. We also know what the play was about: poverty and homelessness in Gotham.

The play was so inspirational that in 1888, three boys from Philadelphia saw the play and decided they might also like to be New York tramps, so hopped a train for New York and immediately turned themselves in to the police, exhausted, cold, and hungry. They were sent home with a stern lecture.

The play had productions from about 1874 to 1896, most of the men starring Katie Emmett. She came to a rather sad end in 1927 at the age of 68. Infirm and broke, she requested aid from the Actor’s Home, writing pitifully that “I am old and alone now, and I am afraid I lack the courage I once had. I’ve worked hard, and with it had many knocks. Although I still have this little home, I’ve reached the stage where I cannot ask help from my friends any more.”

She didn’t give the Home enough time to get back to her. Shortly after writing the letter, she took an overdose of sleeping powder and ended her life.

About the author

Max Sparber is a playwright and historian who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.