Night of the Flaming Ballerinas

 

The Gale Sisters Catch Flame

The Gale Sisters Catch Flame

In late August, 1861, William Wheatley signed the lease for the Continental Theater in Philadelphia. William Wheately was an old theatrical hand given to tried and true classic performances.  For his first production he announced that the theater would be putting on The Tempest in ballet form. From England, Wheatley imported a special effects expert, as well as four ballet dancing sisters, the beautiful Gales – Ruth, Zela, Hannah, and Adeline. Six other chorus dancers rounded out the ballet troupe. On the night of September 14, 1861, the cast only made it through The Tempest’s first act.

For those unfamiliar with the niceties of Shakespearean ballet, while the seas rage at the end of the first act, the entire ballet company must quickly change into gauzy costumes so as to be ready to welcome Alonso and the rest of shipwreck victims onto Prospero’s Island. At the Continental Theater the dressing rooms were above the stage itself, necessitating a fifty foot climb up a rickety flight of stairs. The chorus received their own dressing room, complete with lighting by means of gas jets close to the mirror, where their light could be reflected and doubled – if you look at the picture above, you’ll see the gas jets off to the top left.

Above the mirror, Ruth Gale had hung her dress for the second act. While on the stage Miranda was falling instantly and madly in love with Ferdinand, Ruth hadn’t even begun her costume change, and climbed on the back of the settee to pull down her dress. The hem touched the gas jet, and instantly Ruth’s clothes were ablaze. Screaming, Ruth ran through the room, setting her sisters’ clothes ablaze like a firebrand. Insane with terror, Ruth ran against a plate glass mirror, shattering it and lacerating herself horribly.

Flaming Ballerinas Plunging to their Deaths (From Frank Leslie's Illustrated News, Sept. 28, 1861)

Flaming Ballerinas Plunging to their Deaths (From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, Sept. 28, 1861)

Panicking, and on fire themselves, Ruth’s sisters plunged out the window and onto the street below, which was filled with pedestrians now under bombardment from flaming, screaming ballerinas who fell to earth with sickening thuds and the crack of broken bones.

The Gale sisters weren’t the only ones ablaze. A Miss McBride, another member of the chorus, came running across the stage with her dress ablaze, with piercing and unholy screams, and fell into the pit where the stage crew simulated the storm that gave its name to the play. Tearing the cloths which represented the waves, they managed to smother the flames. Wheatley ordered the curtain brought down, and asked the audience to leave the theater peacefully. The remaining flaming ballerinas were extinguished.

Over the next four days, the six ballerinas perished of their burns including all the Gale sisters. With no anesthetic or pain killer but brandy, and with physicians having only a rudimentary understanding of burn treatment and infection, their agony must have been severe. Wheatley was exonerated of any wrongdoing, and erected a monument to the perished ballerinas at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia.  The inscription on the stone is barely legible now, but the New York Clipper preserved it. It reads:

 

IN MEMORIAM

Stranger, who through the city of the dead

With thoughtful soul and feeling heart may tread,

Pause here a moment – those who sleep below

With careless ear ne’er heard a tale of woe:

Four sisters fair and young together rest

In saddest slumber on earth’s kindly breast;

Torn out of life in one disastrous hour,

The rose unfolded and the budding flower:

Life did not part them – Death might not divide

They lived – they loved – they perished, side by side.

O’er doom like theatre let gentle pity shed

The softest tears that mourn the early fled,

For whom – lost children of another land!

This marble raised by weeping friendship’s hand

To us, to future time remains to tell

How even in death they loved each other well.

 

 

A Fantastic Fourth from 1916

Happy humanity crowded Atlantic City, New Jersey on July 4, 1916. Many a Philadelphian motored over for the day, motivated either by the weather, or by the new stylish bathing costumes making a debut that year; crisp taffeta with an abbreviated skirt, from which peeped frilled knickerbockers.

Sixty miles south, Cape May played host to the U.S. Navy; three submarines and two surface ships, the U.S.S. Vixen and the U.S.S. Bushnell (side note: the Bushnell would later survive the Pearl Harbor attack), were in the harbor, and the Corinthian Yacht Club did everything in its power to entertain the officers and men. The navy men staged a mock attack for the spectators’ pleasure.

A parade in the afternoon was delayed by a Ford automobile that refused to start until coaxed with repeated crankings by an irate driver; once it got going the parade featured floats depicting George Washington, Uncle Sam, the Goddess of Liberty, and the like. The affair concluded with a reading of the Declaration of Independence, and all joined in to sing Hail Columbia.

Folks in Philadelphia had fun too. 10,000 folks gathered in Independence Square. The State Fencibles, Philadelphia’s militia, paraded down Broad Street, looking magnificent in their bearskin hats.

Mrs. Clara Driscoll Sevior presented Mayor Smith with the Texas state flag, a gift to Philadelphia from the people of the Lone Star State. The mayor gave a rousing speech, followed by Congressmen Scott, who urged preperadness for war; Pancho Villa was causing trouble on the Mexican border, and the U.S. might be drawn into the war raging in Europe. At noon, the crowd grew silent as the bell of the State House rang 48 times, once for each state of the Union. As the last clang rang out, they rose to their feet, gave three cheers, and sang:

My country tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died!
Land of the Pilgrim’s pride!
From every mountain side,
Let freedom ring!

My native country, thee,
Land of the noble free,
Thy name I love.
I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills;
My heart with rapture fills
Like that above.

Let music swell the breeze,
And ring from all the trees
Sweet freedom’s song.
Let mortal tongues awake;
Let all that breathe partake;
Let rocks their silence break,
The sound prolong.

Our father’s God to, Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright
With freedom’s holy light;
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God, our King!

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