January 28, 1908: Coroner's Jury Investigates Cause of Opera House Fire


January 28, 1908: A Coroner’s Jury has been convened by Robert Strasser to examine the evidence in the Rhoads Opera House fire to determine who was responsible for the 170 deaths.

Six state policemen were stationed at the entrance to the Hookies Fire House on South Reading Avenue to keep curious gawkers away. Strasser subpoenaed 50 witnesses and much of their testimony was contradictory, so it was difficult to sift through it to get to the truth.

The one witness who solidified everyone in town against him was Harry Bechtel, the deputy state factory inspector from Pottstown. He admitted under intense questioning that he had not inspected the Rhoads Theater since 1904 because he had “more important places to go than a measly little place like Boyertown.” It was only the presence of the state police that kept Bechtel from being lynched.

The author and producer of the play, Harriet Monroe, was accused of complicity in the disaster because the projectionist she had hired had no experience for the job, and it was the hissing from his machine that had started the panic. The jury heard the contents of a letter she had written to one of the witnesses, Charles Sharadin, who had worked as a projectionist for her: “I trust you will drop no word that would indicate that Fisher [projectionist] was not a thorough operator. Make it known that he was an operator for eight years.” The January 13 show was actually Harry Fisher’s first (and last) show.

The prosecuting attorney was in tears as he completed his closing statement, and the case went to the jury. After four hours, they reached a verdict, at 1 AM on January 30. They requested the Berks County District Attorney to arrest Monroe and Bechtel on the charge of criminal negligence and recommended that the State Legislature adopt much needed safety precautions for public buildings.

No one was ever arrested but the Pennsylvania legislature did pass a number of fire safety regulations in 1909 as a result of the Boyertown fire.

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