The Boyertown Opera House Fire was a devastating historical event that took place in Boyertown, Berks County on January 13, 1908. The Rhodes Opera House was destroyed by a fire started by a kerosene lantern. Almost half the audience died in the inferno, 176 people. Sadly, 24 people were burned beyond recognition and share a mass grave in town.
The 2500 citizens of Boyertown heroically tried to save as many people as they could. First, they rushed to rescue the families inside the theater. Then, every home within several blocks acted as a emergency hospital to care for the victims. Fire companies from both Reading and Pottstown came to assist.
The audience was trapped inside due to doors being locked from outside and a lack of alternative exit stairs. The owner of the theater, Dr. Cecil Rhodes, was friends with the county District Attorney and avoided criminal charges. The citizens of Boyertown rallied together and conducted a citizen’s arrest of Dr. Rhodes. He eventually stood trial for his negligence.
The Boyertown Opera House Fire is the deadliest theater fire in Pennsylvania history. The tragedy has been remembered annually by the community throughout the years with a ceremony at the grave of the unidentified victims.
As family historians we can research if our ancestors were not just victims of events like these, but also participants in medical care, fire fighting, or conducting a citizen’s arrest. Over half of all theaters burned down within 10 years of opening, so it’s very likely there is a similar story (hopefully not as tragic!) in your ancestors hometown.
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