On Tuesday 18th January 1887 an “appalling disaster” occurred at the Hebrew Dramatic Club – situated at the back of number 3 Prince’s-street (which is today called Princelet Street), Spitalfields – when the raising of a false alarm of fire in a closely-packed audience, that numbered between 500 and 600 persons, resulted in the loss of 17 lives, 16 of the deaths being caused by suffocation.
BUILT FOR JACOB ADLER
The building, in fact, operated as a club, for which members paid an annual subscription of one shilling.
The club catered exclusively to the neighbourhood’s Jewish community, and, although it boasted a reading room, a bar and a games room, it was to the performances given by Adler and his fellow actors that the enthusiastic audiences came witness.
Years later Adler would look back with fond memories of the Yiddish audiences at 3 Princes Street:-
“High in the gallery, holding to the sides of his seat, the young patriot sat, and high was his enthusiasm…The poor boy, by day a baster, a machinist, a puller for a tailor was the king, the soul of our theatre. Without binoculars he saw the stage better than any critic…When we played well, how broad and free was his happiness, his triumph! And we, the actors, felt it, felt his love, a warm wave from the gallery to the stage, and because of this we had courage to go on, to strive higher…The love of the gallery was our life. …”
THE THEATRE IN PRINCES STREET
A report in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, on Sunday 23rd January 1887, gave a detailed description of the interior of the building:-
“One part of the club comprises a hall, fitted up in the modern music-hall style, with stage, having footlights, curtain, proscenium, stalls, pit, and gallery.
The length of the hall, in rough measurement, is about 50ft, and the width about 30ft. Near the door is a bar, and the hall leads to a vestibule about 10ft in length, the entrance into this vestibule being at least 5ft in width, ample for all purposes of egress.
The gallery steps lead into this vestibule, and thus the upper and lower sections of the audience meet here. It was in this comparatively confined space that the struggle occurred which caused the loss of 17 lives.
By means of a swinging door, opening outwards, another vestibule is reached, where two wide doors open into the street.
In addition to these two doors there is a third door from the hall through the house part of the club, where the billiard and smoking rooms are situated.”
THREATENED BY A LOCAL GANG
Abraham Smith, the son of the theatre’s owner, David Smith, acted as honorary comptroller of the club, in which capacity, he later stated, his duties were to ensure that subscriptions were paid, no bad language was used and that audiences were properly seated.
He had, he later testified, had problems with a local gang who had threatened to force their way into the club, as a result of which he had taken the precaution of hiring a constable to ensure that this did not happen.
As a result, he said, one member of the gang had threatened to set the club alight and to do it as much “mischief” as he could, although he [Smith] swore that he didn’t know the man’s reasons for making such a threat. There had, he said, been no prosecution between him and this gang member and, as far as he was concerned, the threat was an idle one and he had not anticipated any trouble on the night of the 18th January 1887.
THE NIGHT OF THE TRAGEDY
On Tuesday 18th January 1887, the troupe took to the stage to give a performance of The Spanish Gipsy Girl. This was a benefit performance to raise money for a club member who was “in reduced circumstances.” It was a full house and the theatre’s gallery was packed.
The evening passed peaceably, and the audience were enjoying the show when, at some stage between 11.15 pm and 11.30 pm, a gas pipe in the gallery was broken.
There were conflicting reports as to who was responsible for breaking the pipe.
One report claimed that a group of youths in the gallery, wishing to get a better view of the stage, had climbed up one of the gas pipes affixed to the wall and, in so doing, had managed to break it in half.
However, according to Morris Gilberg, who was sitting nearby, an audience member had left his seat and, in seeking to regain it, had taken hold of the gas pipe in order to support himself and, in so doing had bent it. In trying to bend it back he had, in fact, broken it.
Gilberg promptly ran over and placed his handkerchief over the broken pipe in order to stop the gas from escaping.
He had succeeded in stemming the flow, when other members of the audience smelt the gas and shouted that there was going to be an explosion. They began to panic and proceeded to leave their seats, whereupon Gilberg was carried away on the surge of people and the gas started to escape again,
With the gas now escaping unchecked, somebody shouted out “Turn off the meter.”
This was done – by whom was never established – and the hall was suddenly plunged into partial darkness.
A CRY OF “FIRE!”
According to Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, no sooner had the lights gone out than somebody, again it was never ascertained who had done so, cried out “Fire!”
This, in turn led to panic amongst the members of the audience and there was a sudden rush from both the pit and the gallery as people jostled and pushed to escape from the perceived threat.
The managers tried desperately to calm the terror-stricken audience, but to no avail and, under the intense push of people, the bannisters of the stairs from the gallery gave way and soon carnage and pandemonium had taken hold and loss of life became inevitable.
PANIC TAKES HOLD
Reporting on the ensuing carnage Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reported that:-
“Whatever the cry was, or from whence it came, it threw nearly the whole of the assembly into an abject state of fright and panic, and with one accord they rushed for the doors.
The semi-darkness added to the confusion, and the frenzied women and children shrieked aloud in the most heart-rending fashion in their extreme terror. Added to this were the voices of men shouting out contradictory orders and exhortations to the people to be calm, in German, English, Hebrew, and occasionally in Low Russian.
This babel of sound continued for some seconds, during which the occupants of the body of the hall rushed in a mass to the door, at the same time that those from the right-hand gallery came tearing down the stone steps for the same destination.
A collision was the result, only one or two escaping from the fore-front of the mass, and the remainder becoming immovably interlocked at the junction of the staircase and the hall entrances.
Speedily the whole height of the staircase became packed with struggling human beings, who poured down the steps regardless of the fate of those who had fallen to the bottom, and a terrible scene ensued.
BREATH CRUSHED OUT OF VICTIMS
The women, being weakest, were the first to go down before the pressure of the excited crowd, and after them the young children, unable to keep their feet were pressed down. The unfortunate victims were literally trampled to death by those who fell on them or essayed to gain safely by treading on their prostrate bodies. The breath was crushed out of all who were unfortunate enough to be nearest the floor, and not one of these, so far as can be ascertained, escaped alive.
THE ALARM IS RAISED
A boy who scrambled over the heads of the packed mass was the first to convey the alarm to the street, and a policeman on patrol nearby at once ran up, and springing his rattle, summoned several of his comrades and the neighbours, who at once used their endeavours to clear the passage by shouting over the heads of the surging mass to those in the rear to cease their frantic struggles to escape and go back.
A fresh difficulty was placed in the way of the police at this juncture, for many of the men who had worked themselves free insisted on returning to the back of the hall to rescue their friends, and thus made the confusion worse.
They literally fought with the police in their efforts to scramble back over the barrier of the dead and dying wretches that blocked the way, and many had to be removed by force.
BEYOND REACH OF RESTORATIVES
Then the work of freeing the imprisoned people was commenced, those who showed the most signs of life being lifted rapidly out and an attempt made to restore them, while the inanimate women and children, who all bore the evidence of having struggled violently for existence, were taken out and laid in an ante-room.
All these were beyond the reach of restoratives, while those who escaped alive suffered little or no injury when able to breathe freely again.
One by one the victims were taken up from the floor of the passage and the gallery steps.
The last of the victims removed was a little girl named Eva Marks, aged nine years, who was found to be almost at the bottom of the heap of human bodies at the foot of the staircase, her clothes torn almost completely away, while near her was picked up Jacob Levy, who was 70 years and who was the only man to die, [he had apparently suffered a heart attack] as he was assisting his wife to escape from the lower part of the hall. By him his wife was also found, quite dead.
The clothes of many of the women were torn and disarranged in the struggle, and hung in tatters on their lower limbs, their stockings being even torn and the boots of several being half off.
Two men living in the same house each lost his wife, neither of the husbands having been present at the club, and the circumstances of these cases were aggravated by the fact that each woman would shortly have become a mother. Both women were of the same age, 24 years.
The two sons of another couple were killed.
It may be mentioned with regard to the statements of some of those present that the hall was plunged in total darkness, that the brackets at the sides of the hall were not extinguished, being served from a separate meter to that which supplied the central and stage lights.
The exits appear to have been sufficient for ordinary purposes.
There were two doors at the street entrance, one being a double door secured with a bar and the other an ordinary house door; but there is a conflict of testimony as to whether both these doors, or only one, were open.
The catastrophe does not seem to have been caused by any want of accommodation in the matter of exits – supposing they were all open – but by the fact that two excited streams of people rushing together came into collision at a right angle where the hall and gallery passages joined.
The fact of the staircase being at an angle also aggravated the catastrophe, for had it opened straight on to the entrance hall the two streams might have flowed concurrently along a 10ft wide passage to the street doors.
The force and weight of the crowd which surged down the staircase are demonstrated by the fact that a wooden partition which separated one side of the lower angle of the staircase from the passage was broken down and splintered to matchwood.”
WAS IT A PLANNED JOB?
Over the coming days, as people attempted to come to terms with the awful tragedy that had occurred in their midst, rumours began to circulate that it may not have been an accident.
Morris Gilberg, who had initially tried to stem the gas flow using his handkerchief, – and who later learnt that his wife, Millie, and son, Isaac, had died in the tragedy – told a reporter that “as some of us were robbed, I think it must have been a planned job. Several people, to my knowledge, had things stolen from them inside and out of the club. My brother-in-law was robbed in the street.”
Interestingly, this appears to have not been enquired into at the subsequent inquest, suggesting that the authorities looked into it and the dismissed it as a line of enquiry.
THE POLICE MISHANDLED THE SITUATION
According to survivor Mrs. Leah Silverman, the first police officers to arrive at the scene had hindered, rather than helped, the situation since, according to Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper:-
“The horror of the unfortunate audience was turned into a perfect frenzy when the lights were all put out, for simultaneously the police, according to Mrs. Silverman, had closed the door, the only exit there was from the building.
Those nearest to the door attacked the police, who, knowing that the alarm was a false one, had considered this the best means of allaying the apprehension. Their policy was attended with a diametrically opposite effect, for in the struggle (in which Mrs. Silverman alleges that one constable used his truncheon) some of those nearest to the door got suffocated, and were trampled under foot.”
In the days that followed survivors began telling journalists about the horrific scenes that they had witnessed in the moments leading up to and in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.
The aforementioned Mrs Leah Silverman recalled how, just before the gas was turned out, some woman in the audience, dreading the danger of fire to her infant, threw it on to the stage to an actor named Shangle. The man missed it, and the child was killed before the eyes of the whole audience.
She also described how, being one of the last to leave the building, she had been forced to make her escape by climbing over broken forms and chairs and by trampling upon the bodies of the people that she could feel, but could not see, beneath her feet.
One of the most pathetic incidents in connection with the calamity was related to a reporter by one of those who assisted to clear the hall:-
“When it was thought everybody had been removed, a baby was found under one of the seats in a very exhausted condition. After restoratives had been applied the child recovered, and the only word she could pronounce was “Mamma!”, and this she repeated, sobbing continuously. The little one’s mother was found amongst the dead.”
THE VIEW FROM THE STAGE
One of the more harrowing, accounts of the night’s events came from a member of the orchestra who told a reporter how he had been on the stage at the time:-
“I was to play a trumpet-call, announcing the entrance of the King, a character in the play. The curtain went up, and I was on the stage blowing the trumpet-call amongst the players, and everything was, as far as I could see, quiet and orderly.
Suddenly the gas went out and almost the entire audience began shrieking and crying out in the greatest terror and alarm, I could not tell at first what had caused the uproar, for I did not hear any cry of “Fire!” possibly because the sound of the instrument drowned the noise.
In an instant all, or nearly all, of the audience in the body of the theatre rose en masse and began to push and crush their way to the rear where the doors were. The cries of the women and children as they were being knocked down and trampled on will never leave my memory. Some say there were only about 500 people in the place. I say there must have been no fewer than 700 or 800 at least, for the place was packed both in the pit and gallery.
The darkness of the place made the rush, and the outcries seem more terrible to me than any one but an eye witness can imagine or describe. The people jumped from the gallery on to the heads of the people below, which caused fatal injuries to more than one, I have no doubt, as there are two or three that I know who are lying at home in bed in a dangerous state. I do not know where the gas-meter lies in the hall, but I am inclined to believe that when the alarm of “Fire !” was given some one belonging to the place foolishly turned the gas off at the meter, fearing an explosion.
I, being on the stage, knew that there was no fire there, and waited calmly until some candles were brought from the bar at the back of the hall; but I remember that even in the darkness before the candles were brought (which was not many minutes afterwards) the actors on the stage appealed to the audience to sit still, as there was no danger.
When the place was again illuminated there was still a large mass of struggling people in the hall, some of them in front fighting like devils. The police then arrived, I believe, and cleared the doorways, which were jammed with dead bodies, and I got out of the place as quickly as possible.”
AWFUL CRIES AND LAMENTATIONS
One witness, who was simply described as “a resident of Princes-street”, later recalled how he had left the theatre earlier in the evening to have a drink with some friends in a nearby pub, leaving his wife and children at the theatre.
Returning to the theatre, at a little after 11pm, he passed through the ante-room into the passage, whereupon, according to his later account:-
“…there came a rush of people in a state of fright down the balcony stairs. I was astounded, but I got hold of the first man and said, “Where are you running?” He replied, “There is an escape of gas,” and before I could say any more the people came downstairs in a mass – men, women, and children fell in a heap.
At the same time the audience in the body of the hall, hearing the commotion, rushed out too, and made matters twice as bad as they were before. I could see that the men who fell mostly scrambled to their feet again, but the poor women and children, not being so strong and active, suffered as they generally do.
There was an awful outcry, shrieks of pain and terror, and men shouting. I rushed to help those who were struggling on the floor, but just then the gas went out, being turned off probably, and the crowd, who had trampled over the fallen, surged out along the passage and bore me back six yards into the ante-room.
The fearful shrieks and lamentations still continued, and though the performers came on to the stage with candles in their hands, and tried to stop the panic by shouting out as loud as they could that there was no danger, it did not seem to have any effect. I did my best to get the people out, being all the while in great alarm about my wife and children…”
As it transpired, his wife and children survived, but the emotion of what he had seen and heard was still raw when he spoke to a newspaper reporter later that day:-
” It was a fearful crush when the two crowds came together at the foot of the steps, but I only got a glimpse of it as the gas went out. All the horrible crushing and smothering of the unhappy people who are killed took place in the dark, amid such awful cries and lamentations as I never want to hear again. The scene outside was very painful, too, for the news of the disaster soon spread, and the friends of the people who had been present at the performance crowded to the spot to learn the worst.
I think police were on the scene within three minutes of the alarm, but the whole thing did not last more than five minutes. The front entrance to the hall is by swing doors, and they offered no obstruction to people coming out. I unbolted one of the street door entrances after the gas was out, to get the people out as soon as possible.”
A MOURNFUL AND DISTRESSING SCENE
By the Wednesday morning the scene of the calamity in Prince’s Street was, according to Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, “…most mournful and distressing to witness…”
The newspaper went on to report on the appearance of the scene of the tragedy:-
“The street itself was closed in so far as the general public was concerned, and the distressed people who had lost friends were the more marked by the crowds gathered at each end of the thoroughfare.
In the hall itself, near the vestibule, in addition to the signs of the struggle shown in torn pieces from women’s dresses, battered hats, and the broken balusters of the stairs, there was a heap of garments, said to be the property of the people who had rushed pell-mell into the street on the first cry of alarm.
With the exception of the breakage of the balusters from the stairs and the breakage of the little glass office below the stairs, there is no damage to the building.
Some chairs were piled on one another to admit of a gangway from the front seats or stalls, and some forms were overturned at the end near the vestibule. There was no breakage of any kind in the way out, and the whole appearance of the place gives support to the statement of the manager and others, that if the crowd had been intent on going one way the hall could have been emptied safely and quickly.
The calamity occurred, as far as can be seen, from the endeavours of some who were outside struggling to reach those they had left within.
As there were men’s amusements going on in the billiard and smoking rooms, it is not unlikely that, in addition to those who rushed out first at the early alarm and went back in search of friends, some men who were in the billiard and smoking rooms, having left the young members of their families to enjoy the amusements in the hall, hearing an alarm, rushed into the outcoming crowd in search of those they had left in the theatre.”
THOSE WHO DIED
In the days that followed, the names of those who had died in the tragedy were released to the public.
Isaac Levy, aged 70, retired tailor, who lived at 270, Brunswick-buildings, whose death occurred apparently from excitement.
Gertrude Levy, aged 47, wife of the first-named, of the same address.
Solomon and Lewis Krotofsky, aged respectively 15 and 3 years, who lived at 41, Pelham-street.
Rachel Levy, 22 years of age, who lived at 18, Myrtle-street, Commercial-road.
Reigna Moncadam, aged 45, who Lived at 1, Catherine Wheel-yard, Whitechapel.
Pesi Cohen, aged 15, who lived at 2, Corbett’s-court,
Esther Ellis, 20 years of age, of 4, Colchester-street.
Isaac Gilberg, aged 12, and Millie Gilberg, aged 38, supposed to be mother and son of 3, Chicksand-street.
Elizabeth Aizan, aged 24, of 143, Hanbury-street.
Eva Marks, aged nine, of 35, Spital-street.
Jane Goldstein, aged 24, of 24, Hanbury-street, Mile-end Old Town.
Esther Rosenfeld, 21 years of age, of 5, Regal-place, Old Montague-street, Whitechapel.
Katie Silverman, 22 years of age, of 27, Heneage-street, Mite-end.
Kate Baun, aged 19, of 57, Christian-street, Commercial-road, Whitechapel.
Sarah Rinalds, aged 20, of 6, Booth-street-buildings, Spitalfields.
THE INQUEST AND BURIALS
On Wednesday 19th January 1887, the inquest into the deaths of those who had died in the tragedy was opened in the Theatre’s main hall and was presided over by the local Coroner, Wynne Baxter.
The police were represented by Superintendent Arnold, Chief Inspector West and Detective Inspector Abberline.
The Coroner informed the jury that their duties would be limited for the day to taking evidence of identification, to enable him to give certificates for burial.
They were, therefore, conducted to the ante-room, where the bodies lay, passing on their way – so the Daily News reported – “a pile of plain deal coffins, ready to receive the corpses”.
Once the identifications had been completed, the bodies were removed for burial and seven of the victims were interred in the West Ham Jewish cemetery that night. The remaining ten bodies were taken to the houses of their relatives and were buried in the same cemetery the next day.
Poignantly, the Daily News reported how:-
“Pending the removal of the bodies, women who had lost their children, and men who had lost their wives, were walking, weeping and lamenting, through the crowd, and refused to be comforted.”
A substantial reward was offered for information that might lead to the identification of the person who had cried “Fire!” – but no one either came forward or was identified.
Inspector Abberline told the inquest that he “could not ascertain who had turned off the gas.” He said that he believed that this had been done “for a good motive, but that, awed by the prospect of legal proceedings, the person concerned hesitated to come forward.”
In his summing up at the resumed inquest in Shoreditch Town Hall ,on the 11th February 1887, Coroner Baxter was critical that, despite the fact it had been emphatically stated that the person responsible for switching off the gas had done so with the best of intentions, he was surprised that that person had not shown “the moral courage to acknowledge the act.”
Coroner Baxter also ruled out the suggestion that a gang had been behind the events which led to the tragedy.
The Jury returned a verdict of “Accidental Death” on each of the victims and the inquest was concluded.
THE END OF THE THEATRE
For many days after the tragedy the blinds of almost every house in Whitechapel were drawn as a mark of respect. The front of the nearby Prince’s Street Synagogue was draped in black crepe in mourning for the victims.
David Smith and Jacob Adler were both questioned by police but were exonerated of any guilt. The whole thing, it was deemed, had been a tragic accident.
Later, Adler would express his sorrow for the victims and for their surviving relatives:-
“Poor, lonely, wronged dwellers of the London ghetto. A little pleasure they had wanted, a little make-believe joy and sorrow to help them forget the bleak winter night…”
For the Prince’s Street Theatre the disaster proved to be the last straw. Gripped by superstitious horror at the tragedy that had occurred within its walls, the audiences stayed away.
“Even in the best days the intake had been small,” Adler later recalled, “now it shrank to nothing. No play, no actor, no special announcement could bring the audience back. The theatre stayed dark and forlorn, and so empty you could hear wolves howling in the gallery…”
The theatre soon closed, and Adler and his troupe, left London for America.