On the corner of South Washington Street and East Philadelphia Avenue in Boyertown, Pennsylvania is a red brick building. Three stories tall and largely unadorned, it doesn’t stand out from its neighbors, blending in to blocks of similarly-styled buildings without a second glance. Small shops rotate through the ground floor, while apartment dwellers come and go through its top two tiers. Except for a commemorative plaque hung on the front of the building, one would never know that on this particular site, 171 people died in a single night.
Although the history of deadly disasters in the United States seems to widely overlook this small-town horror, Boyertown itself has never forgotten the shocking tragedy that was the Rhoads Opera House Fire.
The Rhoads Opera House Fire
On the evening of January 13, 1908, over 300 theatergoers and 50 actors gathered at the Rhoads Opera House for the opening night of a production called “The Scottish Reformation.” The term “opera house” was a bit of a misnomer, as the theater only comprised the second floor of the commercial Rhoads building in which it was located. Though the venue was in fact small compared to its grand name, the play was eagerly attended by the hundreds, and featured the latest slide projection technology and dramatic staging effects. Through an unintended tragedy of errors, it was this new technology that served as the catalyst for the catastrophe to come.
While the rapt audience waited for the play’s third act to begin, an inexperienced projectionist with only two days of training mistakenly turned a wrong valve on the projector, which then hissed and startled a few theatergoers seated nearby. Hearing commotion in the audience, several actors raised the curtain to see what was the matter. When they did, they tipped over a kerosene lamp that had been set on the stage for extra lighting. The overturned lamp immediately started a small fire, but theater personnel quickly responded to tamp down the flames. With the fire nearly extinguished, some of the men in the front row decided to move another kerosene tank, kept under the stage, that fueled the theater’s footlights… as a safety precaution. The decision proved deadly when the tank’s framework broke, dumping the tank of kerosene across the stage and igniting the small fire into an inferno.
In seconds, the stage became a virtual tinderbox. Its curtains burst into flames, quickly followed by the wainscoting of the 12-foot ceiling, until the entire auditorium was engulfed in “waves” of fire. Frantic audience members scrambled towards the main exit, only to find themselves trapped inside when the panicked crush of people tried pushing against doors that opened inward. Although the second floor contained two window fire escapes, they were unmarked and located three feet off the ground, nearly unidentifiable amidst the chaos. Chairs, debris, and bodies made the auditorium a maze of obstacles that blocked exits and cost precious time getting to safety. When one of the main exit doors was finally broken open, some victims were trampled to death as the crowd stampeded forward, while others fell to their deaths down the building’s staircase. Still others jumped from windows to the ground below, and not everyone survived the attempt. But most of all, trapped theatergoers burned alive. While many people did manage to escape outside, nearly 200 men, women, and children perished while the fire raged.
Hours later, when the very literal smoke finally cleared, the full scale of the fiery tragedy was revealed. With a death toll of 171 people - 170 who attended the play and one firefighter - the little community of Boyertown had shockingly lost one-tenth of its population. In a few cases, entire families - husbands, wives, children - had died in the opera house blaze. Two-thirds of the dead victims were women and children, leading some to surmise that the men in attendance had abandoned them to fend for safety by themselves. When rescue workers entered the burned-out building, they discovered bodies piled six feet deep at the top of the stairway, where the surging crowd had bottlenecked and trapped themselves inside. Because of the overwhelming number of bodies, three makeshift morgues had to be set up in surrounding buildings, while the remaining town worked to identify the victims and cope with the sudden, shocking loss of life.
In the days that followed the disaster, 15,000 people converged on Boyertown to attend dozens upon dozens of funerals. The renowned Boyertown Burial Casket Company, which was to become one of the largest casket manufacturers in the world, was hard pressed to meet the sudden demand for its products and its gravediggers, and had also lost a few of its own workers who had attended that doomed performance of “The Scottish Reformation.” In an unfunny twist of fate, those workers had unknowingly crafted the coffins they would be buried in. Over 100 new graves were dug in Boyertown’s already large Fairview Cemetery, including a common grave for 25 victims whose remains were so badly charred they could not be individually identified. While the town mourned in earnest, the theater fire made headlines across the country, and spurred new legislation for fire safety laws in Pennsylvania. There seemed to be no one in the town who had not been in some way affected by the Rhoads Opera House Fire.
Even after 111 years, traces of the tragedy have always remained. To many in the local area, Boyertown is considered one of the most haunted small towns in America. Between its historic buildings dating back to the 1700s, the looming specter of the Boyertown Burial Casket Company (which operated until 1988), and the imposing Fairview Cemetery with its approximately 7,000 graves, there is little doubt that the town is home to all kinds of paranormal activity. There is also no doubt that a significant amount of that paranormal activity has been attributed to the horrific theater tragedy that claimed so many lives. From nearly the very night of the deathly fire, the Rhoads Opera House ghost stories began.
Following the fire, while the ruins of the building still smoked, police were called to the scene to remove an elderly man from the wreckage. He told the responding officers that his dead wife’s ghost had called him to that specific spot on the site, to talk to her a final time.
Officers were further called out to the ruins on multiple occasions, for weeks following the event, because residents and passersby claimed they could hear screams and cries coming from inside the building’s hull. A woman who lived nearby also claimed that spirits of the dead victims had taken over her house, though details of her paranormal experiences have not emerged.
The sound of on-site screaming has continued to recur, for years, along with investigations of moaning and strange noises coming from inside Fairview Cemetery. Although the remnants of the Rhoads Opera House building were torn down and rebuilt a few years after the fire, the haunting experiences live on. A present-day resident who lived across the street from the old Opera House shared, “I’ve lived here my entire life and have heard so many ghost stories about the building. One old resident of the apartments there swore that every year around the same time a woman dressed in fine clothes would walk through the apartment, proclaiming to be late for the play.” Still another resident reported that, when the new building housed a dance studio sometime after the fire, the younger girls refused to use one of the dance rooms because it was “full of ghosts.” Even the area surrounding the fire site bears invisible traces of tragedy, with some believing that the victims who were placed in the makeshift morgues never truly left.
The most notoriously haunted of these morgues is probably Durango’s Saloon, a present-day bar located one block from the fire site, in what was formerly the Mansion House Hotel. It was in the basement of the Mansion House Hotel where rescue workers laid out corpses pulled from the Opera House rubble. Today, Durango’s Saloon still seems to be rife with paranormal activity, from shadowy figures glimpsed out the corners of eyes, to items being moved or pushed over, to strange mists appearing in photographs. The bar’s owner once even found himself locked in his walk-in freezer when its large, heavy door inexplicably slammed closed behind him. When local paranormal investigator Scott Wiley conducted his own investigation in Durango’s Saloon, he reportedly captured some compelling EVPs during his three nights in the bar. During one session Wiley asked aloud, “Who’s there?” and says he caught the whispery but distinct reply of “Binder.” Research of the area uncovered that a Henry Binder was in fact the proprietor of the old Mansion House Hotel in the early 1900s - until he was killed in the Rhoads Opera House fire. Binder’s body was buried up the street in Fairview Cemetery, but his spirit, it seems, lingered behind.
With the horror of the Opera House fire impacting so many people, for so many years, there is probably no shortage of those who can share a ghostly story about the theater fire, or about haunted Boyertown itself. I have a few stories of my own.
My haunted Boyertown house
Listeners of The Confessionals may recall the very early Episode 3: “Hatman and Ghostly Interactions”, where I shared with Tony a number of spooky and paranormal occurrences that I experienced while living in several different homes. The home where I had the majority of my eerie experiences was an old Victorian, built in 1900, located on the same road as the Opera House fire site (0.4 miles away to be exact). In even closer proximity was the huge, somber Fairview Cemetery, barely 400 feet away and visible from the house. My elementary school bus stop was actually directly in front of the cemetery entrance... not exactly the most inviting of places to hang around when you are 5-to-10-years old! I remember walking through the cemetery on some occasions and being confounded by the sight of old, ornate gravestones marking the burial places of children who were my own age and even younger - how could they have lost their lives so early?
Though I was too little at the time to be familiar with Boyertown’s history, the ghostly impression that Victorian house left on me has drawn me to learn more about the home, hoping to uncover a possible reason behind what, to me, was its pervading sense of spookiness, punctuated by unexplained events and fearful feelings. One experience in particular, which gives Episode 3 its name, was the very brief but distinct sighting of a hatted shadow figure watching me from a doorway. Though the glimpse was quick, the figure was clear: a featureless shadow man, bearing the silhouette of a tail coat, higher collar, and top hat. He never appeared again, but I have always wondered about what I saw. That wonder has led to my amateur research uncovering a tenuous but tangible connection between my old home and the Rhoads Opera House Fire.
Through archived newspaper articles, I recently discovered that a man named Leon E. Mayer lived in the same house that I did, in at least the late 1930s and early 1940s. Further records revealed that at around 15 years of age, Mr. Mayer lost both his father and his sister in the 1908 disaster. Dr. Charles Eugene Mayer and his 18-year-old daughter Gwendolyn were in attendance at “The Scottish Reformation” when the fire broke out. According to a Reading Eagle article published on the 100th anniversary of the fire, “Mayer fought off smoke and flames to reach his wife and carry her to safety outside the building. Then, he went back in to rescue his daughter. It’s not known whether Mayer found his daughter amid the smoke and flames, but neither made it out.” After their deaths, Dr. Mayer and Gwendolyn were buried in Fairview Cemetery.
As of yet, I haven’t found the key detail that I’d like to know - who lived in my creepy old house at the time of fire? - but this little revelation about the Mayer family is still intriguing. Leon Mayer and his family, like so many families in Boyertown in 1908, suffered a tragic loss that would forever be attached to those left behind with their grief. Did Leon Mayer carry a piece of his grief with him while he resided in the home where I used to live? Did it manifest in the strange activity that I experienced? Was it his likeness that appeared in shadow form in my living room doorway? Or does the figure date back even further - was it is an echo of Dr. Charles Mayer, lost to the Opera House fire just down the road? I can’t say with any certainty whether Leon Mayer moved in to my former home well after the fire, or if it was his family home where he had once also lived with his father and sister; I can only speculate and theorize while I continue to dig into small-town history. But even if my paranormal experiences in the Boyertown house are not at all related to the the former Mayer family residents, there is still the fact that the town lost a tenth of its inhabitants in the Rhoads Opera House Fire, and touched nearly every family with its devastation. There is a strong possibility that whoever did live in my home in 1908 bore their own personal connection to the fire, and, perhaps, left a residual force behind them.
Again - this is pure speculation based on a few thinly related facts. But one other thing that stands out to me now is the appearance of that shadow figure in the doorway. Reports from the night of January 13, 1908 recorded that Boyertown’s theatergoers were “dressed in their Sunday best.” “Sunday best,” for a man in the early 1900s, was unquestionably a tail coat, collar, and top hat… a uncanny match for the shadow man who appeared in my circa 1900 home, only blocks away from the Rhoads Opera House.
With only the few historical facts I’ve found so far and my own experiences to consider, I can’t help but wonder…
THE LEGACY OF THE RHOADS OPERA HOUSE FIRE
While looking into my previous home’s history, I found one other story that caught my attention, not only because it further involves the Mayer family, but because it also reveals how quickly after the Boyertown fire its ghostly legacy seems to have begun. The story comes from Dr. Charles Mayer’s own grandson - not from Leon Mayer, but the child of his younger son - and was published on his blog in 2012. In it he recounts how his father woke on the night of the fire to the sound of the hall clock. Strangely, he says, the clock chimed not 12, but 13 times. The next morning, he was confronted with the terrible truth that his father, Dr. Mayer, and sister Gwendolyn would not be coming home again.
Although details in the full story differ from other records (something to be expected as more and more years separate us from the original inciting event), it is clear that the tragedy of 1908 is still leaving its mark. Generations later, families are still affected by who was lost, and a town is forever different because of what transpired. Today the site of the Rhoads Opera House fire is occupied by offices, apartments, and a cozy secondhand bookshop. The fire and the death it brought are over one hundred years in the past. But for anyone who has heard the echoes of the screams from the Boyertown building on the corner of Philadelphia Avenue and Washington Street, the dead may not be altogether gone.