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View Full Version : terrorism by gaslight - theater fire, late 19th cent.



CWatts
01-27-2015, 09:47 PM
So I have terrorists attacking a crowded theater, mid-1870s. Accidental fires at theaters were commonplace enough (I'm basing their intended results on the 1876 Brooklyn Theater Fire http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/hundreds-die-in-brooklyn-theater-fire) but the bad guys want it to be clearly intentional.

The gas lights could provide the ignition, and they may tamper with them but I am not going for a sudden explosion, but a worse-than-usual fire using accelerants available at the time. I am looking for something that would be difficult to put out once lit, so maybe something like white phosphorus that burns even worse if you fight it with water?

I need for a small group of people to be able to put out the fire before it goes completely out of control. I am thinking this would be happening backstage, etc. where it would not be visible to the audience. I want the fire to go out at the absolute last moment before it would cause a panic.

My characters will have some clue what was used as the bad guys do a test run at a factory in what will appear to be an industrial accident.

Drachen Jager
01-27-2015, 10:22 PM
Sorry, but they sound like juvenile delinquents, rather than terrorists. There were lots of such plots during that period in history, but the actors had access to explosives and simply setting a few gas-soaked rags on fire (which is about the level of sophistication you describe) is extremely amateur. IMO it's never a good idea to undersell your antagonist. Make the threat greater and make your protagonists work harder to thwart it.

Besides, who doesn't love a good bomb-in-the-theatre moment? Lots of drama there.

Here's a good article on 19th century terrorism.

http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/evolution-and-trends-terrorism-tradecraft#axzz3Q2zHwiZ0

CWatts
01-27-2015, 11:01 PM
Sorry, but they sound like juvenile delinquents, rather than terrorists. There were lots of such plots during that period in history, but the actors had access to explosives and simply setting a few gas-soaked rags on fire (which is about the level of sophistication you describe) is extremely amateur. IMO it's never a good idea to undersell your antagonist. Make the threat greater and make your protagonists work harder to thwart it.

Besides, who doesn't love a good bomb-in-the-theatre moment? Lots of drama there.

Here's a good article on 19th century terrorism.

http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/evolution-and-trends-terrorism-tradecraft#axzz3Q2zHwiZ0

An excellent observation.

There are actually 2 levels to this plot:
A) Amateurish anarchist types egged on by an agent provocateur, who don't really know what they are doing and mostly want to scare the bejesus out of people; and
B) Shady powers-that-be who are instigating and bankrolling the plot, who have rigged the place up with enough explosives to blow up the entire block. This includes a politically important building located next door to the theater that is full of a lot of incriminating evidence they need to destroy, plus of course they'll slaughter a lot of their rivals and vilify others. (ThinkLittlefinger in a top hat...)

Drachen Jager
01-27-2015, 11:52 PM
Ahh, that works better.

I so often find that people in the Story Research forum are focusing on details, rather than what makes a good story. I hope the link is some help to you.

As for the flammables, there were lots in early theatre, greasy rags, oil paints, lanterns. You have an embarrassment of riches there, I don't see why anyone would bring something in from the outside, and if they did it could be practically anything (but if they did, knowing the construction of the era, I simply wouldn't believe that a few actors with buckets of water could put it out).

CWatts
01-28-2015, 12:43 AM
(but if they did, knowing the construction of the era, I simply wouldn't believe that a few actors with buckets of water could put it out).

That is why I want it to have something that could NOT be extinguished with water. It seems white phosphorus (apparently known as "Fenian Fire" at the time) needs to be extinguished with specialized chemicals. They could also be using something petroleum-based that could be similar to napalm (some theories about Greek Fire have it be something like this - and there's enough of an alt history element that I could have it get rediscovered or reverse engineered).

I am also having them trap people in the box seats, as they are trying to kill the richest patrons who would normally have the best chance to escape. So, bar the doors from outside and deny access to the corridor. What else am I missing...?

Drachen Jager
01-28-2015, 01:08 AM
Simply having a very flammable oil or gasoline would do that, though. Even a large enough quantity of lamp oil won't go out from a bucket of water, the water just spreads the burning liquid faster.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8TkvEB-EDWE

WeaselFire
01-28-2015, 03:06 AM
Paint and varnish. Quite volatile in the late 19th. century and extremely common backstage for set painters. Add in muslin from backdrops, paraffin and some other items and it's easy to set a fire that smolders and flames but could be put out reasonably easily with effort. The key to any delay would be water availability (faulty tap, bad indoor plumbing conversion, no water trough, etc.) and late discovery (it's in a store room...).

Your anarchists just need a match and a little time, or careless workmen.

Jeff