It was going to be a bleak Christmas, that one in 1889. The effects of the devastating flood that had struck the city just seven months earlier were still being felt, not to mention the anger that was now replacing the sorrow; anger at the men who had allowed a dam at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club to reach the condition that contributed to its failure.
That failure had taken the lives of more than 2,200 of their fellow citizens.
Those who survived were still trying to pick up the pieces, both physically and emotionally. Entire families had been wiped out, homes and businesses lost. The lucky survivors who still had their homes, those who were fortunate enough to live on the high ground, had taken in many survivors who had nothing. Other survivors found themselves cramped into Oklahoma Houses, tiny structures that had originally been built for homesteaders in the Oklahoma Territory.
Many found themselves living in tents, dreading the winter months that were just beginning. Of course, they weren’t really tents; they were scraps of mud-stained linens and blankets, anything they could find in the rubble. Many others had cobbled together crude huts from the wood they had been able to pull from the debris that still, seven months later, filled the city.
And so it was a welcome diversion for those who could afford to go to the Opera House on Main Street, itself a flood survivor. Standing three stories tall and only reopened a short time earlier, the hundreds in attendance were anxious to see how the theater had been cleaned up. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was the play and it was supposed to provide some relief, even if only temporary, to those in the audience. But it wasn’t to be.
At some point during the play someone, nobody knows who or why, yelled “Fire!”
Such a cry would strike fear into anyone, but it was especially scary for an audience whose nerves were still raw from what they had experienced, and in many cases were still experiencing, just a few months earlier. Terrified members of the audience screamed in panic and adopted an attitude of “Every man for himself.”
Men who would be described as mild mannered under normal conditions pushed and shoved, forcing their way through the crowd to gain access to the single exit. They showed no regard for who they had to move out of the way, or of the means they had to employ to do it. Punches were thrown and women were knocked down, as the strongest of the crowd took advantage of the weak.
Those who couldn’t remain on their feet risked being trampled to death in the chaos, and a dozen were. Their bodies would not be recovered until nearly 2 a.m. By that time, 35 more found themselves badly injured, but thankful that they were still alive. Officials feared the casualty count would go even higher, since no search of the building had yet been undertaken.
A local fire engine that had been brought to the scene before it was realized that there really was no fire, was called on to use its fire hoses to force the crowds back from the doors so the dead and injured could be brought out.
The next day the names of the dead were posted. Crowds milled around the posters seeking information on the names of the unfortunate victims. Those closest to the information called out the names for those farther away: Clara Burns, Mrs. Nester, George Horner, Charles Fiant, Mrs. Lister, John Miller, A. Weiss, John Wyman, Richard Worthington, Isaac Tolar, John Carr, and an unidentified woman.
A national disaster had been followed up by a lesser, but nonetheless, just as painful, tragedy. “How much more could one city bear?” people wondered.
The city eventually would recover, but it would be many years before those at the Opera House that chilly December night would forget the unidentified voice whose cry of “Fire!” had triggered the pandemonium.