The Brooklyn Theater opened its doors on October 2, in 1871, and was easily accessed via ferries from Manhattan, and by Brooklyn residents alike. It was located just north of where the Brooklyn Supreme Court building is now located, on Cadman Plaza.
On the night of the fire, the theater was presenting The Two Orphans, an adaptation of the French play, Les Deux Orphelines, by Adolphe d'Ennery and Eugène Cormon. The managers of the theater, Albert M. Palmer, and Sheridan Shook, were known for their adaptations of French plays, which they also presented at the Union Square Theatre.
Approximately 400 people had been admitted to the Family circle (the cheap seats), 360 people had purchased tickets for the dress circle, and another 250 people had tickets for the parquet and the parquet circle, making a rough total of over 1000 people in attendance.
The play went without a snag, although patrons heard what sounded like a brawl behind the curtain during the intermission between the fourth and fifth act a little after 11:00 PM. As preparations for the final act were underway, around 11:20, the stage manager, J. W. Thorpe, noticed a small flame on the left side of the stage. It appeared that a drop hanging above the stage had partially detached and was ignited by a border lamp. The usual fire abatement equipment was present, but was not readily available, with scenery in front of the fire hose.
In the meantime, the final act opened, and the actors continued their performance. Eventually, flaming debris started to fall, spreading the fire backstage. Smoke started to be seen by the audience, and flames started to appear. Eventually smoldering debris started to fall on the stage, and the performance effectively ended as actors fell out of character.
The actors attempted to minimize the fire to the audience, and urged an orderly exit, but to no avail, the audience panicked.
The Family circle had it the worst. There was apparently only one staircase out of the family circle, and high temperatures and smoke quickly overcame the occupants of those seats.
In the end, the coroner reported 283 fatalities, though the exact number has never been determined, with numbers as high as 300 and the memorial in Greenwood Cemetery indicating 278. The Cemetery is the location of the interment of 103 unidentified victims of a common grave marked by an obelisk near the 5th avenue entrance. Other identified victims were interred individually.
The Brooklyn Theatre Fire is the third most fatal fire occurring in theaters or other public assembly buildings.