Puppet Show Calamity
September 8, 1727: A traveling puppet show turns into disaster. Burwell is a small village near Cambridge, England. The name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for fort (burh) located near a spring (well). The first record of the name was from 1060. The village was included in the Domesday Book with a variety of spellings: Burewelle, Burwella, and Burwelle. The spring flows near the remains of a the 12th century Burwell Castle. Today, there are about 6,000 people living there. It is about ten miles northeast of Cambridge and about 57 miles southwest of London. There is evidence showing the region has been inhabited since prehistory times.
On this day, a traveling puppet show visited the village. They set up to entertain people in a local barn on what is today called Cuckolds Row. It was near the center of the village. Not only locals, but people from the surrounding villages were present for this treat. The barn filled with eager children and adults. After they were seated, the barn doors were nailed shut to prevent nonpaying customers from getting in. Someone who did not make the cut was left outside with a candle lantern. Peeking in with the help of the lantern worked until the lantern fell into the barn. There, the candle ignited the hay and fire spread. There were 78 people trapped inside the barn as the fire spread. They all died, 51 of them were children.
The Ipswich Journal reported on February 26, 1774 about an old man who had recently died. It was his claim that he had set the fire deliberately because he did not like puppeteer. There was no substantiating evidence regarding this claim nearly fifty years later. The deceased were buried in the churchyard at St. Marys parish church with a gravestone depicting a blazing heart with angel wings. On September 8, 2005, a plaque was unveiled at the site where the barn had stood.
Tragically, this was not the last fire where locked doors trapped the unwary inside while the fire spread. Today, doors are much safer, especially in public buildings. Even so, there are hundreds of thousands of accidents yearly caused by doors. In the US alone, the National Safety Council says there are 300,000 door injuries per year. Most are minor, but there are some cases of serious injuries caused by doors. A closing door can exert up to 40 tons of pressure per square inch between the hinges. Special construction can mitigate injuries from this source and as more lawsuits are filed, more of them are being put into use. Today, a fire door doesn’t trap people inside burning buildings, but instead it is specially built to help stop the spread of flames.
I used to do puppet theatre and also mime and musical theatre in Florida for competitions and festivals, which was great. I was very much involved in theatre when I was in college. – Wesley Snipes
When I was a kid, I never saw a puppet show. I never played with puppets or had any interest in them. Jim Henson
I don’t see anyone walking around with a puppet on his hand in real life. Puppet therapy is very common for children. It’s not something that adults take on. – Jodie Foster
I am drawn to writing and directing as it is most like the feeling I had when I was a teenager with my puppet theatre. You are more in control of everything and involved in every aspect of production, so more challenged and fulfilled. – Richard E. Grant
Also on this day: Something in the Water – In 1854, Dr. John Snow saved London from an outbreak of cholera.
There She Is – In 1921, Margaret Gorman became the first Miss America.
David Revealed – In 1504, Michelangelo’s statue was unveiled.
Flags – In 1892, the Pledge of Allegiance appeared in print for the first time.