Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania’s most disastrous fire broke out one hundred years ago, on Monday, January 13, 1908, killing 170 people in the Rhoads Opera House, a second-floor auditorium on East Philadelphia Avenue in the small Berks County community of Boyertown. The World Almanac records the disaster as one of the five worst fires in the United States of the twentieth century. No family in the community of twenty-five hundred residents escaped without losing a relative, a friend, or a neighbor. The story is a poignant chronicle of how a small town coped with such overwhelming loss. It’s also a glimpse at the way the state legislature responded to the unparalleled disaster.

News of the fire attracted newspaper reporters and photographers from New York. London’s newspapers reported it. On behalf of his countrymen, France’s President Armand Fallières sent condolences to President Theodore Roosevelt. More important, though, as the result of the fire, the General Assembly of Pennsylvania passed the Commonwealth’s first fire safety measures in 1909, Act 206 and Act 233.

Only a few details of that terrible night have been corroborated. It’s known that fire suddenly erupted in the crowded theater and within thirty minutes, 165 people trapped in the building suffocated. The inferno raged unchecked, burning victims so badly that it took days for grieving relatives to identify the grisly remains. Twenty-five charred corpses were never identified.

The complete and accurate story of what caused the fire and why so many people perished so quickly remains even now, a century later, one of history’s mysteries. The details are buried within conflicting testimony at the inquest. Charles B. Spatz (1865–1929), former state legislator and editor and publisher of Boyertown’s newspaper, the Berks County Democrat, and one of the last persons to leave the building alive, recalled a “sudden flash, intense heat, and tremendous fire.” On stage as an actor, the second generation newspaper editor remembered “the slight flames seemed to ignite a gas and the whole room was lighted in a flash.” although he escaped the inferno, Spatz was seriously injured in a fall and unable to appear at the inquest to testify. His remarks appeared only in his newspaper.

Spatz’s observations pointed to a lethal combination. a small fire started by kerosene footlights on stage ignited gas escaping from a calcium light projector causing a sudden flash of flame. Many in the audience, in panic, were trapped at the main doors of the auditorium and suffocated. Because the hall’s doors opened inward, the crush of the crowd against the doors created a fiery prison from which they could not escape.

More than three hundred people crammed the theater that Monday evening for a historical play, The Scottish Reformation, brought to town by a traveling company managed by Harriett E. Monroe, of Washington, D.C., and augmented by a cast of sixty local residents. Monroe was not feeling well and traveled, instead, to Wilkes-Barre to arrange a performance at a Lutheran church and her younger sister, Della E. Mayers, of Ouray, Colorado, filled in as lecturer. Mayers perished in the blaze. The performance, benefiting St. John’s Lutheran Church Sunday School, was to run two evenings, beginning at eight o’clock. Reserved seats had been available for thirty-five cents each, and general admission cost twenty-five cents. Both evenings were sold out, and chairs for the overflow were set up in open spaces in the auditorium.

The Scottish Reformation was one in a series written by Monroe, a seventy-year-old widow of a Lutheran minister. Produced in local churches or under church auspices, the historical presentations involved tableaux, music, and lantern slides. Monroe provided the script, costumes, lantern slides, projectionist, and lecturer. The church supplied the cast. Profits went to both, with the impresario receiving 85 percent of the gross. She was no stranger to Boyertown—four years earlier, in February 1904, St. John’s Lutheran Church had successfully presented one of her plays at the Rhoads Opera House.

Many in the audience were friends or relatives of cast members. A series of slides of the Holy Land projected by a calcium light projector was being shown between acts by Harry Fisher of Carlisle, Cumberland County. Just before the opening of the fourth act, one of the tubes in the projector loosened, emitting a loud, hissing sound. The audience in the darkened theater grew anxious. While checking on the noise, an actor backstage opened the stage curtain and knocked over the kerosene footlights, which caused a small fire onstage. The alarmed theater-goers saw the flames and panicked. Many rushed to the stairway in the rear of the hall. Some were able to get down the stairs safely, but the pressure of people jammed against the doors forced them to close inward, and they were trapped as smoke and flames spread through the auditorium.

The Tuesday, January 14, 1908, edition of the Pottsville Republican gave readers a sensational look at the catastrophe with an article that included segments titled “Audience in Panic,” “Bodies Burned to a Crisp,” “Trampled to Death,” and “Burned to Death at Exit.” According to “Burned to Death at Exit,” the “flames spread quickly and many of the spectators were caught and overcome before they could reach the fire escapes on the building. The frenzied spectators fought with each other to reach the front entrance, the principal means of exit from the building, and a struggling mass of humanity was quickly piled up at the doors that led to the stairs opening on Philadelphia Ave. Here the flames soon overtook them and they were burned to death almost in sight of liberty from the seething furnace that surrounded them.”

About two hundred people, including most of the actors, had pushed their way out of the building before the “sudden flash.” Some raced down the main stairway, while others escaped to safety down a stairway next to the stage. Some climbed through broken windows to reach one of two fire escapes or jumped out of second-story windows.

Dr. Thomas J. B. Rhoads (1837–1919), former manager of the theater and owner of the Rhoads Block, the commercial building which housed the theater, had been described in 1898 as “a gentleman of culture and inherited wealth, a graduate of Jefferson Medical College, and a descendant of a prominent German family of the Palatinate. His name has been prominent in the county for many years, and is associated with all that is best in the borough, while his services as a physician have been freely given alike to rich and poor. He is large-hearted and liberal and merits the name so freely accorded him, of public benefactor.” In addition to his medical practice, Rhoads owned a drug store, organized the National Bank of Boyertown in 1874 and served as its president until 1882. In 1883, he established the Farmers National Bank of Boyertown and served as its president for more than twenty-five years. From 1870 to 1875, Rhoads served as chief burgess of Boyertown. He was a director and treasurer of the Boyertown Mutual Fire Insurance Company, trustee of the Fairview Cemetery Association, president of the Boyertown Board of Health, and treasurer of the Friendship Hook and Ladder Company. In 1885, he erected the commodious brick building at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Washington Street which housed the theater, the Farmers National Bank, and the offices of the Boyertown Mutual Fire Insurance Company. His name does not appear on the rolls of the relief committee or the roster of the benefactors who aided the community after the disaster, but his reputation was singed by a state deputy factory inspector who claimed Rhoads had steadfastly refused to comply with safety requirements.

The size and intensity of the conflagration rendered Boyertown’s two volunteer fire companies helpless. The first to respond, the Keystone Steam Fire Engine Company Number 1, incorporated in 1873, suffered a freak accident on its way to the scene. The company’s heavy hose cart careened out of control and pinned twenty-year-old volunteer fireman John A. Graver against a tree in front of the Rhoads residence, less than two blocks from the fire. Graver, employed as a packer at Eisenlohr Cigar Manufacturing Company, died two hours later in Dr. Rhoads’s office, leaving a young widow and two small boys. Graver’s unmarried twenty-five-year-old sister Lottie, a cigar maker at the factory, was thrown from an opera house window and later died from her injuries. A double funeral was conducted for the Gravers.

By the time the second company, the Friendship Hook and Ladder Company Number 1, arrived, the building was burning out of control. An engine sent by the Good Will Fire Company of Pottstown, Montgomery County, five miles south of Boyertown, arrived by train. Firefighters prevented the flames from igniting nearby buildings but could do nothing to save the second and third floors of the Rhoads Block, which by dawn had been reduced to a burned-out shell. Their ladders were used the next day to carry down the dead from the smoldering ruins. Realizing the shortcomings of its fire equipment during the burning of the opera house, the Friendship Hook and Ladder Company purchased a sixty-gallon chemical tank wagon in August 1909. The confusion and panic during the conflagration also spawned the creation of Boyertown’s fire police force in 1910.

Boyertown’s chief burgess, Daniel R. Kohler, a forty-year-old veterinarian, called for help. Trolleys on the Oley Valley Railway Company’s line brought members of the Pennsylvania State Police, Troop C, stationed at Reading, to maintain order. Dr. Robert E. Strasser, Berks County coroner, arrived by automobile in the black of night to take charge of the search and recovery efforts.

The catastrophe grabbed the headlines and front pages of daily newspapers across the nation the following morning with stories of harrowing escapes and overwhelming loss. Reporters and photographers raced to Boyertown and mingled among the grieving families and the morbidly curious. The harsh light of Tuesday morning revealed horror and heartache. Scores of residents were missing, presumed by authorities and loved ones to be among the burned bodies being retrieved from the acrid cinders. Five members of one family died — mother, father, two children, and an aunt — all attending the performance because two other children were in the cast. Couples died together. Children lost parents, parents lost children. Six cousins of the Moyer family of nearby New Berlinville — young women between the ages of ten and twenty-eight — died and were buried together. Three teachers, along with twenty-six school children, died, many of them attending the play to see their teachers perform. St. John’s Lutheran Church, of which Dr. Rhoads was a member, lost seventy-eight members of its congregation. The Reverend Adam M. Weber, pastor of St. John’s, was injured in the fire and could not officiate at any of the funerals. Services were conducted by the Reverend Melvin A. Kurtz, a Lutheran pastor in Niantic, a small community northeast of Boyertown, in Montgomery County, who was hastily summoned to help. He conducted twenty-five funerals in three days.

Doctors and undertakers volunteered their services and hurried to Boyertown. Many theatergoers escaped unharmed and did not require medical attention. The undertakers were welcomed, though, as the local funeral directors’ modest facilities were overwhelmed. A school near the opera house was turned into a makeshift morgue.

Identification of the charred corpses proved tedious and time-consuming. Officials identified most of the dead by a scrap of clothing, a brooch, a pocket watch, or a wedding band. Lines of anguished relatives waited for hours to file into makeshift morgues because the coroner limited the number of visitors in the morgues at one time. For four days, grief-stricken families searched for their loved ones. By Saturday, twenty-five bodies remained to be identified.

As parents, siblings, and children claimed the bodies of loved ones, a steady stream of carriages proceeded to the Fairview Cemetery on the western edge of town, in Colebrookdale Township, where one hundred residents had volunteered to dig graves.

A few families had services in their homes. Only two church services were conducted, one for the six Moyer cousins and a second for seventy-three- year-old Frank R. Brunner, of Esbach, just north of Boyertown, a prominent physician, politician, and writer. Most of the victims were interred with simple graveside services. Fairview Cemetery alone received 110 fire victims for burial.

Out of the imponderable sadness grew community support. Thrown into the midst of the disaster from the sounding of the first alarm, Kohler emerged as Boyertown’s spokesman, briefing newspaper reporters and correspondents, as well as many individuals and organizations wishing to help the community. He also served as liaison with the coroner.

Dr. Kohler enlisted twelve citizens to help him as members of a relief committee, of which Irwin T. Ehst, a prosperous book and job printer, served as chairman. (Ehst also served as a member of the coroner’s inquest committee.) The relief committee’s first task was to determine who was missing. Committee members divided Boyertown into quadrants and canvassed every house. With Kohler handling the press and the staggering number of inquiries, committee members could address a pressing problem — arranging the burial of the unidentified. They acquired a large plot in the Fairview Cemetery, enlisted members of fraternal and patriotic lodges to serve as pallbearers, and conducted a dignified ceremony, with special honors for each victim. Representatives of the community’s churches helped conduct the ceremony.

The service for the unidentified took place on Sunday, January 19, and attracted fifteen thousand out-of-towners, who converged on Boyertown by train, trolley, horse and buggy, automobile, bicycle, and on foot. They included newspaper reporters, grieving relatives, curious sightseers, even pickpockets and thieves. White-gloved pallbearers accompanied the first group of one dozen hearses from the schoolhouse morgue to the cemetery. Following the burial service, the hearses returned to the school for the next group of caskets. The service ended by noon and the community’s visitors began leaving the way they had arrived. Even the most jaded of large city newspaper reporters were struck by the sadness that descended on Boyertown. “Then as the sun set and darkness fell upon this little town,” opined a writer for a Philadelphia newspaper, “you knew that there was no night that could bring a heavier darkness than that which this day had brought, no midnight stillness that could be deeper than this through which throbbed the broken hearts of Rachel mourning for her children and refusing to be comforted.”

One week after the fire, the world outside of Boyertown began turning its attention to other current events, including the Ford Motor Company’s roll out of its first Model T automobile in September, the crowning of Jack Johnson as the first black world heavyweight boxing champion, and an earthquake that killed 150,000 people in southern Calabria and Sicily in late December. In Boyertown, lives needed to be rebuilt and homes reestablished. The relief committee met three times daily during the first few weeks, once a day for the following month, and once a week until its work was finished. The committee worked in tandem with the National Bank of Boyertown to collect, distribute, and record contributions. Its final act was to establish a trust fund for the fifty underage children who had lost one or both parents in the fire. These minors regularly received disbursements until they reached twenty-one years of age.

A final legal matter, establishing responsibility for the disaster through the coroner’s inquest, loomed large. The testimony of fifty witnesses was muddled and at times completely contradictory. The tanks for the calcium light projector, considered key evidence, had been stolen from the scene of the fire. They were returned, but it was unclear whether they had been tampered with or not. Spatz, a key witness, was still recovering from his injuries and could not attend. While recovering, his sixteen-year-old son, Carl Andrew Spaatz (1891–1974), hastened home from the Perkiomen Academy, a preparatory school founded in 1875 in Pennsburg, to run the newspaper. He did not return to school but entered the United States Military Academy at West Point two years later. He served as a fighter pilot in World War I and was named commander of Army Air Forces Combat Command one month after the attack on Pearl Harbor. After the creation of the independent United States Air Force, President Harry S. Truman appointed him its first chief of staff in 1947. Retiring from the military at the rank of general in 1948, Spaatz worked for Newsweek as military affairs editor until 1961. Carl A. Spaatz Field, Reading’s regional airport, home of the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum, was named in his honor. (He changed his name to Spaatz in 1937 at the request of his wife and daughters to clarify the pronunciation of the name, which many incorrectly pronounced as ‘spats.” The addition of the second “a” drew it out to sound like “ah,” as in “father,” for the correct pronunciation as “Spahtz.”)

Although the county coroner found two incidents of criminal negligence, Berks County District Attorney Harry D. Schaeffer indicted no one. Strasser, who concluded the victims perished “by stupefaction, suffocation and fire,” in his one-page statement dated January 29, 1908, determined “the primary cause thereof to have been the employment by Mrs. Harriet E. Monroe of an inexperienced and incompetent operator of the calcium light in the person of Henry Fisher, and the laxity of the Deputy Factory Inspector of this District and the Department of Factory Inspection of the State of Pennsylvania in its failure to enforce proper and adequate fire escapes and fire appliances as well as its failure to enforce existing laws ensuring public safety.” Strasser also requested “the prosecuting attorney of Berks County to arrest and if possible convict Mrs. Harriett E. Monroe, and Harry Mc. Bechtel, the Deputy Factory Inspector of this district, on the charge of criminal negligence.”

A resident of Pottstown, Harry Mc. Bechtel joined the Commonwealth’s Department of Factory Inspection in 1903 under John C. Delaney, appointed Factory Inspector in February 1903, early in Governor Samuel W. Pennypacker’s administration. Delaney served until January 1913, but Governor Edwin S. Stuart fired Bechtel after the tragedy. Prompted by the Rhoads Opera House fire, Delaney wrote in his official report of 1910, “Moving picture shows, by reason of their novelty and the low price of admission had had a phenomenal growth. Not only were they a part of a regular theatre entertainment but they were given in the most incongruous and dangerous of places. Abandoned store rooms and small halls, fire and panic traps . . . by the hundreds, converted into tinselled and stuccoed palaces of death-inviting entertainment.”

Bechtel testified at the coroner’s hearing, held in the second floor auditorium of the Friendship Hook and Ladder Company’s building, claiming a reluctant Rhoads installed fire escapes only after constant prodding. He insisted the fire escapes were installed outside the windows, but at floor height, so that evacuees needed to climb over a three-foot high sill to flee the building. He alleged he had also advised Rhoads on many occasions to install exit signs, but the doctor stalwartly refused. Bechtel further claimed he lacked official authority to force Rhoads to comply.

The hearing took a twist as William Young, a Pottstown attorney hired as personal counsel by Strasser, accused Bechtel of advising Dr. Rhoads that he could purchase the fire escape from only one firm, the only one with ties to the Republican Party in an otherwise largely Democratic county. The manufacturer defended Bechtel, testifying the inspector “got no graft out of any work I ever did.” Bechtel hotly countered charges that he had neglected his duties, citing the fact that he had responsibility for inspecting a large district, comprised of parts of three counties, and placed more emphasis on inspecting factories that employed as many as eighteen hundred workers, usually women and children. He stated he examined places such as the opera house every three years. When questioned about this point, the exasperated Bechtel exploded, “I have more important places to visit than a measly place like Boyertown!” His outburst provoked many of the three hundred people attending the hearing to rise in anger, but Coroner William E. Strasser and a constable calmed them.

Despite the public rancor, Delaney supported Bechtel. He believed his deputy factory inspector was not negligent and had actually exceeded his legal authority in some ways. “No, indeed, I am not going to fire him,” he emphasized. Bechtel’s remark about Boyertown reached Governor Stuart, who personally dismissed him.

Officially, the matter was closed. However, the fire was not forgotten by fire marshals throughout the Commonwealth. Safety inspections of Philadelphia theaters began two days after the fire. Inspections also took place in Reading, Pottstown, York, and Conshohocken. The year before the Rhoads Opera House fire, Philadelphia Fire Marshal John Lattimer had urged the state legislature to enact fire safety laws, but his warning went unheeded. The six-member coroner’s inquest jury asked that the state legislature adopt safety precautions for public buildings and license stereopticon and motion picture machine operators. Legislation passed the following year.

Act 206, signed into law by Governor Edwin S. Stuart on May 1, 1909, stipulated “regulating, requiring, and defining certain general specifications for the use and construction of permanent booths or enclosures for operating there – in moving picture machines.” The act specified the building materials, size, flooring, ventilation, shelving, and wiring of projection booths, in addition to defining the duties of the state Department of Factory Inspection. Individuals who failed to comply with the requirements of Act 206 “shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and, on conviction, shall be punished by a fine of not less than twenty-five dollars and not more than five hundred dollars, or an imprisonment in the county jail for a term of not less than ten days nor more than ninety days, within the discretion of the court, for each and every such violation.” Prosecution of such cases was assigned to the Commonwealth’s chief factory inspector.

Two days later, on May 3, Governor Stuart signed Act 233, “for the safety of persons from fire or panic in certain buildings, not in cities of the first and second classes, by providing proper exits, fire-escapes, fire-extinguishers, and other preventives of fire; by vesting jurisdiction for the enforcement of this act in the Department of Factory Inspection; and by providing proper penalties for any violation of the same.”

Too late for the theatergoers of Boyertown, the legislation — introduced not by eastern Pennsylvania lawmakers but by Representative Andrew Baird Dunsmore of Tioga County — dealt with theaters, public halls, and lodge rooms with more than two stories and theaters with galleries above the first floor. Act 233 required that doors must open outward in any building occupied by more than fifty people and remain unlocked during a performance; second floors must have more than one exit and a landing of at least four feet between the outside entrance and the adjoining stairway; and exterior doorways must be properly lighted, unobstructed, and provide egress from the stage and dressing rooms. The act also mandated that fire escapes and exits be easily accessible, kept in good repair, free from obstructions, and always ready for use; fire escapes must be marked with “Exit to Fire Escape” and painted once a year; stage curtains and scenery must be of noncombustible materials; fire extinguishers must be placed on stage; auditoriums must have a center aisle with two side aisles at least four feet wide; and builders of new theaters must submit designs and plans to state factory inspectors for approval. The Keystone State’s legislators and governor had finally taken the matter of public safety to heart.

And what of the community of Boyertown?

The crowds returned home. School reopened, but with twenty-six empty desks. Workers returned to their workbenches beside empty places. Dwellings and farmsteads were sold. Orphans moved in with relatives. Townspeople picked up the shattered pieces of their lives and moved on. Beneath the surface, in spite of outward activity resembling a modicum of normalcy, grief gripped survivors and townsfolk. In the years that followed the fire, residents grieved privately, behind tightly closed doors. Some individuals never talked about the fire again. The community wrapped its greatest disaster in an impenetrable shroud of silence.

Now, after a full century of anguish and angst, the Boyertown Area Historical Society will commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the fire with special events in January 2008. The society will host a reception for descendants on Friday, January 11, and conduct a community-wide ecumenical memorial service on Sunday, January 13. The organization’s members, some of them descendants of victims and survivors, know the importance of not forgetting. For them, it’s important to go back in time, to imagine the horror of the moment, to attempt to comprehend the enormity of loss, and to find solace in the legacy of courageous residents—among them the very old and the very young—who quietly mended their shattered, broken lives. To go back and not forget is what history teaches them.


Travel Tips

Firehouses — also called fire stations and hose houses (or “hosies” in some areas) — play a social role in the community on an equal footing with schools, churches, fraternal organizations, civic clubs, and taverns. They’re important as polling locations for elections, sponsors of athletic leagues, hosts of charitable fundraisers, informal meeting places for the exchange of news, and facilities to hold public meetings, dances, community dinners, and wedding receptions. It’s not surprising that most Pennsylvania communities honor their brave volunteer firefighters and that many have established firefighting museums to preserve their history.

The Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles in Berks County houses an extensive transportation collection. Many of its vintage vehicles were built in southeastern Pennsylvania, including dozens of fire engines, horse-drawn vehicles, and rare trucks, motorcycles, and automobiles manufactured in the region.

Fifteen miles west of Boyertown, the Reading Area Firefighters Museum offers exhibits of firefighting memorabilia, antique furnishings, and a room designed by department store magnate John Wanamaker (1838–1922). The building the museum occupies, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, dates to 1876, Reading’s oldest operating station. One of Berks County’s best preserved landmarks, it is home to Liberty Fire Company, founded in 1854.

The Pennsylvania National Fire Museum in Harrisburg, Dauphin County, occupies a vintage 1899 firehouse, the former Reily Hose Company. The building’s Victorian-style architecture and church-like bell tower dominate the neighborhood just one mile north of Pennsylvania’s State Capitol. The museum’s artifacts include hand-drawn equipment of yesterday, both vintage and modern firefighting tools, and an 1867 parade carriage, the “Jennie Cameron,” awarded to the Hope Steam Engine Company 2 for raising the most money for a Civil War monument. In addition to antique and vintage uniforms and equipment, the museum boasts an extensive collection of stovepipe parade hats dating to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Housed in a restored 1902 firehouse, Fireman’s Hall Museum in the Old City section of Philadelphia preserves the history of firefighting in the city.

Nearby is the Philadelphia Contributionship, the oldest property insurance company in America. Its founding in 1752 was led by Benjamin Franklin who had organized the city’s first fire brigade in 1736. The company’s building, designed by Thomas Ustick Walter (1804–1887), architect of the U.S. Capitol, and erected in 1836, houses a small but compelling museum. The museum, open by appointment only, displays fire memorabilia, antique furniture, and surveys of Carpenter’s Hall and the homes of Franklin and John Penn.

A number of other communities possess fire museums, including Bensalem, Bucks County; Bethlehem, Northampton County; Carlisle, Cumberland County; Chambersburg, Franklin County; Coatsville, Chester County; Derry and Greensburg, Westmoreland County; Erie, Erie County; Gettysburg, Adams County; Hanover and York, York County; Hershey, Dauphin County; Honesdale, Wayne County; Macungie, Lehigh County; Manheim, Lancaster County; Pittsburgh, Allegheny County; Shenandoah, Schuylkill County; Susquehanna, Susquehanna County; and Upland, Delaware County.


For Further Reading

Blackwell, Patricia A. Stompf. Images of America: Along the Route 100 Corridor. Charleston, S. C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2004.

Claussen, W. Edmunds. The Boyertown of Editor Charles Spatz. Boyertown, Pa.: Gilbert Printing Company, 1973.

Cupper, Dan. Working in Pennsylvania: A History of the Department of Labor and Industry. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2000.

Ditzel, Paul C. Fire Engines, Fire Fighters: The Men, Equipment, and Machines, from the Colonial Days to the Present. New York: Crown Publishers, 1976.

Gurka, Andrew G. Hot Stuff! Firefighting Collectibles: An Illustrated Reference and Buyers Guide. Gas City, Ind.: L-W Books Sales, 1995.

Holton, James L. Berks County, The Green Diamond of Pennsylvania: An Illustrated History. Chatsworth, Calif.: Windsor Publications, 1993.

Montgomery, Morton L., ed. Historical and Biographical Annals of Berks County, Pennsylvania. 2 Volumes. Chicago: J. H. Beers and Company, 1909.

Schneider, Mary Jane. A Town in Tragedy: The Boyertown Opera House Fire. Boyertown, Pa.: MJS Publications, 1992.

____. Midwinter Mourning: The Boyertown Opera House Fire. Boyertown, Pa.: MJS Publications, 1991.


Mary Jane Schneider, a resident of Boyertown, Berks County, served for twenty-three years as the award-winning editor of the Boyertown Area Times, a weekly community newspaper. With the newspaper, she recorded the life of the community and sought to preserve and interpret its history, including the opera house fire of 1908. During her career, she was a member of the board of directors of the Pennsylvania Society of Newspaper Editors and served as president of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. She was an adjunct professor of journalism at Temple University and taught creative writing in the adult education program of the Boyertown Area School District. As a retirement project, the author wrote two books devoted to the catastrophe, Midwinter Mourning: The Boyertown Opera House Fire (1991) and A Town in Tragedy: The Boyertown Opera House Fire (1992). A member of the Boyertown Area Historical Society and its planning committee for the commemoration of the centennial of the fire, she designed a remembrance walk, a self-guided tour of thirty sites associated with the 1908 tragedy. In 2006, she wrote and published a historical novel, Wilderness Path, set in the 1740s as German immigrants begin arriving in Pennsylvania and the Lenape move west. Formerly an avid Appalachian Trail hiker, she now enjoys kayaking in the Poconos, where she shares a summer house with her husband Paul A. Lentz.