Dad's Ghost Story
"Dad, could you tell me a ghosts story?" I was in 4th grade and my homework was to get a scary story from someone. Mom suggested my dad, I didn't know who I would ask if he didn't have one.
"Well, let's see Philip, I do remember something that happened a long time ago, it might be considered a ghost story..."
I sat down and listened.
"My sister Gwendolyn and my father had gone to see a play. I stayed at home with Mother and Ena and Leon, my other sister and brother. After I was put to bed and fell asleep, I woke up for some reason and heard the clock in the hallway getting ready to strike. It sort of growled as the gears wound up and prepared to ring. I counted the chimes as they rang, one, two, three ... ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen. Wait, that was wrong, the clock only goes up to twelve! Maybe I was still asleep. I pinched myself, no, I was awake. That sure was unusual, I had never heard that happen before. What could that mean? Being tired, I gave in and once again, fell back to sleep. The next morning, I woke up to a nightmare. It seems that there was a fire in town and my Dad and sister wouldn't be coming back home. Maybe I did hear that clock after all..."
Well, that story was more than I expected. I wrote down my 4th grade version of it and took it to school and then forgot about it. So I thought. The story would come back and revisit me numerous times in my life. As I got older and family took on a more important role, I kept returning to it.
The fire actually did happen, my grandfather Charles Mayer and my aunt Gwendolyn Mayer, his 18 year old daughter, were both killed in a fire. A horrendous fire, one that took numerous people from the small town in which they lived. Over the years, I learned more and more.
It was early in the year 1908, the small Pennsylvania Dutch community of Boyertown had about 2000 people living in it. The town, located in the south east section of the state isn't far from Philadelphia. As the town newspaper stated a year before, "We have newly paved roads, the deaths are down and the births are up, our future is looking good."
St. John's Lutheran Church was getting ready to have a visiting performance of "The Scottish Reformation", complete with the latest in slide projection technology. Sixty members of the community would be helping out in the performance. It was scheduled for 2 nights, the 13th and 14th of January.
It was going to be held at the Rhoads Opera House. The auditorium, on the second floor of the building was the venue, a stage where vaudeville shows and temperance lectures had been held in the past. Even though it's name would suggest it, no operas had ever been performed there.
Monday January thirteenth was a normal day, but the town was abuzz with talk about the play that was going to be performed that night. As the curtain time neared, horses filled the streets outside the opera house. Over three hundred people held tickets and they slowly filled the hall. The performance started on time and everyone enjoyed it. In between acts, the slide show entertained them.
The slides were lit by mixing compressed oxygen and illuminating gases, one of which was hydrogen, to create a bright light. The projectionist was fairly new at running it and when one of the lamps died, and loud hissing noise ensued. He tried to quiet it by putting his thumb over the hose, but that didn't work. The noise continued and the crowd started to get nervous. One of the actors peeked between the stage curtain to see what the problem was and in doing so, knocked over one of the kerosene footlights and a small fire started. This could have easily been put out, but the crowd started to move away from the flames. Before long, the curtain had caught on fire and a real panic ensued. Some tried to calm the crowd, but they were ignored. "Common sense" told everyone to get out.
Two of the cast members tried to toss the tank of kerosene, which lit the footlights out a window, but spilled it, setting themselves on fire and soon a bright explosion shook the room. People crowded against the one exit, ignoring the two fire escapes which weren't even marked. The doors of the exit opened inward and as the crowd piling against them it prevented them from opening. People started jumping out of windows and soon, people were being pushed out, before they even had a chance to jump.
When they finally managed to get the doors open the stairs were only six feet wide and then narrowed down as they approached the ticket booth at the bottom. Once again, the crowd forced themselves into a bunch that couldn't get past the door.
The building had a brick exterior, but the floors and ceilings were all wood. The fire raced on, uncontrolled.
The fire station was just a few blocks away and since it was so close, the firemen decided to save time and not hook up the horses. They would push the hose cart themselves. Unfortunately, the newly paved streets would cause problems with this decision. There was a hill and the cart lost control and crashed, fatally injuring one of the firemen. The cart was rendered unusable. Once the firemen arrived at the scene, they couldn't do much more than help the survivors and watch.
Word spread quickly, doctors and firemen from neighboring towns came, but it was too late. 170 people died in the fire. A school and a furniture store were used as temporary morgues. The next morning, towns people lined the streets, wanting to find their missing families. Unclaimed horses, still hitched to carts stood in the streets, waiting for their owners that would never come back.
Almost a tenth of the town was killed in the fire. One of the pastors was burnt so badly, he was bedridden, he couldn't do the funeral services. Neighboring priests and ministers stepped in to help. The cemetery's grave stone carver died in the fire, his son quickly took over. The Boyertown Casket Company worked overtime to provide caskets for its own community. The road crews were assigned to digging graves, helped by volunteers from the town folk.
Twenty five people remained unidentified, having been burnt too badly to name. They were eventually buried together and a large memorial was placed at the grave site. Most of the victims of the fire are buried in the same section of the cemetery. I know, since my father and his family are buried just a few feet away. My Dad and his siblings lost their father, along with 11 other children of the town. 21 children lost their mothers and 15 were orphaned that horrible night.
Charles and Gwendolyn Mayer, father & daughter
The building has been rebuilt, there is no longer an auditorium in it. It now houses apartments and retail stores. A brass plaque is mounted on the front telling about the terrible tragedy. There have been stories about the building possibly being haunted. Some people can smell smoke when they visit and there is a story that is often told about a young boy and his mother. While in one of the stores, the boy became frantic, scared because of all the people he saw, scared because of the crowd.
Two years after the fire, the PA Legislature passed new laws that required, among other things, all doors on public buildings to open outward and that there be more than one exit. Explosive materials for lighting was also outlawed.
So, looking back at the facts, my father who was born in 1905, would have been only 2 1/2 years old when the Rhoads Opera House Fire happened. Hardly old enough to count to thirteen, let alone realize the significance of that number. Perhaps he had been told the story by someone else. The story of the fire is one that anyone who grew up in Boyertown was familiar with. Maybe it was his way of telling me about his own personal tragedy.
Whatever the case, I've always thought "What does truth have to do with a good story?"
I also sometimes wonder, when I'm awake late at night and the grandfathers clock in the hallway is chiming...
Should I count the strikes?
Interior of the Rhodes Opera House
Exterior of the building
Inside one of the "morges"