Gilbert Hunt was born as a slave around 1780 in King William County, Virginia.
When his master’s daughter was married, Gilbert was taken to Richmond, Virginia and given to her family as a slave in her new household.
During this time, Gilbert learned carriage making and worked in his master’s blacksmith shop on H Street in Richmond.
“The Theatre Square”
The Richmond Theatre Square was originally known as the first Academy of Fine Arts and Sciences in America. Chevalier Quesnay de Beaurepaire, a French officer who served in the American Revolutionary War, had developed the idea for the academy but the plan was abandoned when the war broke out.
The building then became Richmond’s first theatre when it opened its doors on October 10, 1786 with a performance of “School for Scandal.”
This barn-like building subsequently was the location of the Virginia Ratifying Convention beginning on June 3, 1788. For three weeks attendees such as James Madison, John Marshall, James Monroe, Edmund Pendleton, George Mason and Patrick Henry convened there.
Then in 1810, a new multi-story brick theatre was erected on what was at the time the north side of H Street (now Broad Street).
There was an orchestra section, a first balcony, as well as upper balconies with narrow doorways.
Then on the evening of December 26, 1811, the Richmond Theatre was hosting a benefit for Alexander Placide and his daughter.
The program was a double billing: first, a play entitled The Father, or Family Feuds, followed by a pantomime entitled Raymond and Agness, or The Bleeding Nun.
The benefit originally had been scheduled for December 23, but was postponed due to the death of English-born actress Mrs. Elizabeth Poe, the mother of American author Edgar Allan Poe. The following couple of days also brought illness to Alexander Placide and foul weather but it was Christmas time and the last performance of the season, so the family went ahead with the benefit on December 26th.
The theatre was packed with an excited audience of some 598 people consisting of 518 adults and 80 children, many of whom were the upper echelons of Richmond society and members of the “First Families of Virginia.”
Gilbert Hunt was working at his master’s blacksmith shop on H Street when a fire suddenly broke out in the theatre.
The Richmond Theatre Fire started after the curtain fell following the first act, when a chandelier was lifted toward the ceiling with the flame still lit. The lamp became entangled in the cords used to lift the chandelier and it touched one of the items used in the front scenes, which caught fire.
As soon as the boy worker who was operating the cords saw the flames, he fled the building. The flames rose up the scenery and spread from one hanging scene to the other; there were 35 such hanging scenes which could be lowered. There were, in addition to the hangings, the borders that provided the outline of the building, the skies and so forth.
All of these sequentially caught on fire.
Pine planks (with shingles over them) fixed over rafters with no plastering and ceiling spread the flames, which fell from the ceiling and spread extremely rapidly.
The impact of the fire was worsened because the stage curtain hid the initial flames from the audience.
The Richmond Theatre had multiple exits: a little known side-door was used by those in the orchestra and back stage while an upper balcony exit was a clear way out.
However, in the panic of the fire, many people were pushed and fell, and they were unable to escape.
Many people began jumping out of the windows of the theatre.
Others who were assembled near the window were afraid to jump out.
The editor of the Richmond Standard, present at the scene, urged people to jump out.
Then Dr. James McCaw, a physician who was attending the theatre that evening, began lowering people from the burning second story.
Gilbert Hunt had raced to the scene and began catching people as Dr. McCaw lowered them, or as some jumped into his arms.
Slave Gilbert Hunt was credited with heroically saving close to a dozen people that tragic night.
Gilbert also saved Dr. McCaw, who jumped just as a burning section of wall was about to fall on him.
The 1811 Richmond Theatre fire killed 54 women and 18 men including many government officials, and became the worst urban disaster in American history at the time. Six of the known victims were black, and at least one was enslaved.
On December 27, 1811, the Common Council commissioned a Committee of Investigation, which absolved the Placide & Green Theater Company of responsibility and blamed the inferior design and construction of the theater for the great loss of life.
Among the 72 victims who died in the fire were Virginia’s sitting governor, George William Smith, and former senator Abraham B. Venable; the governor had purportedly tried to save his child from the burning fire.
Also killed were Benjamin Botts, of Dumfries, and his wife; Botts had made a name for himself as a member of the defense in Aaron Burr’s 1807 trial for treason.
Dr. Robert Greenhow, later the husband of noted spy Rose Greenhow, survived the fire along with his father; however his mother was killed in the blaze.
Another survivor was former representative John G. Jackson.
George Tucker, who became the University of Virginia’s first Professor of Moral Philosophy, narrowly escaped with his life, after being struck in the head by a timber which left a permanent scar.
During the War of 1812, Gilbert was put to work for the army as a blacksmith helping to build, prepare, and mount cannons.
Monumental Church was built on the site of the Richmond Theatre between 1812 and 1814 as a memorial to the disaster and to commemorate the 72 people who had died in the Richmond Theatre fire.
The building consists of two parts: a crypt and a church. The crypt is located beneath the sanctuary and contains the remains of those claimed by the fire. The church is an octagonal construction of brick and Aquia sandstone with a stucco coat.
Monumental Church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is a National Historic Landmark.
Today, Gilbert Hunt is memorialized by a historical marker on the site.
In 1823, Gilbert Hunt signed on with the Richmond volunteer fire brigade and was present at another major fire, this one at the State Penitentiary. He helped break the bars to rescue 224 prisoners trapped inside. Ironically many of the prisoners wore the shackles Gilbert Hunt had made in his blacksmith shop.
By December, 1829 , Gilbert had saved enough money to purchase his own freedom for approximately $800.
Independent and relatively well-off, Gilbert Hunt joined a colonization movement among free blacks. Soon after he bought his freedom, he boarded the schooner Harriet and sailed for Liberia, established to be a free black republic on Africa’s western coast.
Gilbert Hunt returned to Richmond within a year and began advising free blacks against going to Liberia. For that, he was criticized as “a complete croaker” who was “doing his utmost to prejudice the minds of the col’d free among us,” by Benjamin Brand, a white publicist for efforts to colonize Liberia.
Gilbert remained in Richmond for the rest of his life, becoming more active in the church, establishing his own business and acquiring property.
According to one source he came to own two slaves. Since Virginia law the only slaves free blacks could purchase were family members, Hunt’s slaves may have been his own children.
Gilbert Hunt, The City Blacksmith
Then in 1859, Philip Barrett compiled the book “Gilbert Hunt, The City Blacksmith” as a tribute and financial aide to Gilbert, who was elderly at the time of publication. Barrett interviewed Gilbert for the article and reported that the highlight of his life was an eight-month visit to Africa. After chronicling Gilbert’s contributions to Richmond, Barrett closed his work with a poem entitled “The Blacksmith’s Night,” by Rev. R. Hoyt.
Gilbert Hunt died a free man in 1863.
Now WE know em