January 14, 1908: The Morning After: Burgess Kohler Brings Order to Chaos


By Margaret Leidy Harner from her book One Day at a Time: A Social History of Boyertown, PA.

January 14, 1908: The gray light of dawn revealed the ghastly, blackened shell of the former majestic Rhoads Opera House, the ruins of its tangled mass of burned beams, twisted iron and the charred bodies of the dead piled in huge heaps five foot deep on the theater floor by the exit doors that were silhouetted by the morning light coming into the roofless building.

Boyertown Burgess Daniel R Kohler was thrown into the spotlight as the head of a borough in disaster, and he performed that onerous task with great skill, sympathy and diplomacy; he brought order out of the chaos that threatened to overwhelm the town.

It had been a sleepless night for Dr. Kohler, who immediately took charge. There were numerous decisions to make. Crowd control was first priority. He had summoned the State Constabulary barracks in Reading for reinforcements. Seven state policemen arrived by train and established order by roping off the fire scene and keeping the mobs back from the building.; it was feared that the walls might collapse at any moment. The next step was to summon the Berks County Coroner Dr. Robert Strasser to take charge of the removal of the dead.

Kohler was physically exhausted and emotionally drained after a night at the scene of the fire, but there was no time to rest. With hundreds of visitors pouring into town to gape at the ruins, Dr. Kohler closed all of the saloons to ensure peace and order. He responded to hundreds of telephone calls and telegraphs from all over the state, nation and around the world. Reporters with thousands of questions managed to find him wherever he went.

The stairway leading to the second-floor theatre had burned away and a fireman’s ladder, covered with planks, was placed in the hallway to bring the bodies out. The Coroner was the first up the ladder to the second story and he wept at the gruesome sight. He had braces placed under the floor of the auditorium before any work of removal of the bodies could be done.

Dozens of stretchers were brought to the scene, as well as blankets and quilts to cover the dead. When rescuers ran out of coverings, housewives pulled drapes from their windows to be used as shrouds. The removal of dead started around 10 AM.

Many of the victims on the bottom of the piles were only burned at the head and upper chest; the lower portion shielded by those on tope, remained intact. Some were too tightly wedged together that pick axes had to be sued to gently separate them. Some were only scattered ashes.

Working non-stop until dark, every few minutes a body wrapped in blankets and tied to a board cam sliding down the stairs, 24 an hour. A narrow lane was formed from the Opera House to Brown’s morgue cattycornered across the street to carry the remains away from the building The work had just begun.

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