Rhoads Opera House
Investigations || HomeBerks County
On January 13, 1908 the Boyertown Opera House in the Rhoads Building on Philadelphia Ave.
was the scene of one of the worst fires in history. The 170 deaths at Boyertown exceeded
the count of 146 who died in the often-cited Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York
City a few years later, on March 25, 1911. A kerosene lantern was accidentally
knocked over starting a fire on the stage and igniting gas from the stereopticon. In the
panic, 170 men, women and children perished when they were unable to escape from the
second floor auditorium. In many cases entire families were completely wiped out. About
half of those who died were crowdeded into a second-floor room to see a church play that
was followed by a series of slides of the Holy Land.
It was later determined that the crowd was unable to find
fire escapes, and that the doors people were trying to exit through could not be opened
and the crush of bodies locked everyone inside the burning building.
At the coroner’s hearing, Deputy Factory Inspector Harry Bechtel of Pottstown testified that
the building’s owner, Dr. Thomas J.B. Rhoads, installed fire escapes only reluctantly and
after much prodding. The fire escapes were located outside windows, but at floor height, so
that people would have to climb over a three-foot-high sill to leave the building.
This fire made national headlines as the smell of burnt flesh lingered in the air in Boyertown.
About 150 gravediggers removed the remains of those who perished in the fire. One hundred and
five new graves were dug in just one of the town’s burial grounds, the Fairview Cemetery.
(Montgomery Ledger, January 2, 1908; Claussen, W. Edmunds, The Boyertown of Editor Charles
Spatz (Boyertown, 1973).)
In the weeks following the fire, many residents reported hearing screams
from the site of the blaze. One woman claimed her home was overrun with spirits from the fire.
An elderly man had to be forcibly
removed from the ruins. He claimed that his wife's ghost told him to come to a certain
spot to talk to her.
The building was rebuilt in the same place.
|The building today