43 S. Chestnut Street
Boyertown, PA 19512
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Wednesday 9:00 AM- 4:00 PM
Tuesday 5:00-9:00 PM
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Museum and Library Director or Office Manager
for Information on Group Tours and Educational Programs.
use this link to access the Historical Society By-Laws
First Wednesday of the Month,
October to June
(no meeting in January)
A $5.00 donation is being asked of all non-members
who attend the monthly meetings.
March 2, 2016
Life in Boyertown on
These vignettes of life in Boyertown were researched by Margaret Harner
Feb. 9, 1929
The jury deliberated three minutes before returning a verdict of guilty in the trial of William Sm
ith, a 67 year old farmer from Sassamansville, who was accused of brutally beating his 38 year old wi
fe, Alice. She testified at length of the troubles that led her to have her husband arrested, and th
at the beatings had been continuing over a long period of time. On one occasion, he had broken so
me of their furniture and threw it out of the house and then grabbed her by the hair with one ha
nd while striking her with the other. The couple has four children, and the oldest, a 10 year old so
n, asked two neighbors to come to their house to witness what his father was doing to his mother. Th
ey looked through a window into the house and saw Smith grab her by the hair and strike her, to wh
ich they testified in the trial. Having had enough of his brutality, one night after being slapped ar
ound and told to “get the hell out of my house,” she did, going to a magistrate, to whom she told he
r troubles. During the trial, it was stated that “Smith showed a strong inclination to “talk back” at
his wife while she was testifying. Efforts of his counsel, Robert Potts, to restrain him were “w
ithout avail,” until the judge threatened to send him to jail for contempt of court. That worked. By
the time he was called to the witness stand, Smith had calmed down and coolly denied all the al
legations of his wife and neighbors, emphatically testifying that he had never struck her or br
oken up any furniture. Apparently the jury didn’t buy it.
Feb. 10, 1955
After hours of intense interrogation by Police Chief Henry “Mush” Groff and a Fire Marshal fr
om the State Police, an arsonist has confessed to setting two fires in Boyertown. Harry A. Hu
mmer, an unemployed volunteer fireman from New Berlinville, at first only admitted to setting th
e smaller fire at the Boyertown Times building on South Reading Avenue on January 30, but af
ter more arduous grilling, he acknowledged that he had started the inferno at Schmoyer’s Lu
mber Yard on December 30 that had lite the night skies as far away as Germantown. A member of th
e Keystone, Friendship and Liberty Fire Companies, Hummer had been a firefighter at both co
nflagrations, and having been overcome by the smoke at the second one, he was taken to the Po
ttstown Hospital for treatment. During World War II, he had been one of the few survivors of the to
rpedoing of a ship he was serving on, when a number of his friends had died. He later received a ba
d conduct discharge from the United States Navy on the charge of being AWOL. (Post traumatic st
ress disorder might have explained his obsession with fire.) From the very beginning, these fires we
re suspected arsons, and the Boyertown and State police had conducted an exhaustive, rigorous, an
d thorough investigation before interrogating and arresting Hummer. The next day, he was ar
raigned before Justice of the Peace Robert Chittick and pled guilty to setting both fires. He has be
en sent to the Berks County prison.
Learn about a lonely small boy trapped in an attic or the man who came to the
Boyertown Halloween Parade the night after he died!
Help search for restless spirits!
Discover another side to Boyertown.
Take part in a Ghost Walk, a Haunted Train Ride,
or a Paranormal Investigation....
The details on Haunted Boyertown events will be posted on the events
page when the times and dates have been established for the 2016
events. A DVD on the Rhoads Opera House Fire and Charles Adams
III's book, Haunted Boyertown, about the strange and mysterious
happenings in the area are also
available as listed on the events page.
|Boyertown's Tragedy: A Nation is Shocked
January 13, 1908
It was a night never to be forgotten in Boyertown. One of the deadliest fires in American
history happened that cold, clear night of the full moon. It made international news. There
were articles in London newspapers and the President of France sent condolences to the
families of the victims. A catalyst for bringing about major changes, its impact was
sobering, immediate, and far reaching, from changes in the country’s fire safety laws to
descendants still living today. There was an extravaganza playing that night in the second
floor theater of the Rhoads building on the corner of East Philadelphia Avenue and South
Washington Street, known as the Opera House. The play was called “The Scottish
Reformation.” It was a sell-out, almost 400 people were crammed into the theater. The play
began at 8 pm and the audience was enthusiastic. After the third act, around 9:30, there was
a “magic lantern” slide presentation. The projector emitted a harmless, hissing noise that
startled the audience, and the commotion reached the cast behind the combustible curtain.
One of the actors pulled it aside to see what was happening, upset a kerosene footlight,
which ignited the curtain and started a fire that created a wall of flame between the
audience and the stage. It soon escalated into a roaring inferno that enveloped the entire
auditorium. As the fire spread, the screaming, confusion, intense heat and suffocating
smoke caused panic to grip the audience, and many rushed to the double entrance doors
that opened inward. A mass of frightened people pushed against those doors, wedging them
shut, and the pressure of the frantic crowd prevented anyone from prying them open. They
were trapped. The fire escapes were unmarked and more than three feet off the floor, very
difficult for anyone, especially women in their long, flowing dresses and heavy winter
outerwear to maneuver. Fifteen minutes later, everyone left in the room was dead.
Miraculously, more than 200 people escaped, but 170 died. Fire fighting efforts were
useless. Firemen pulling their hose cart down Philadelphia Avenue from South Reading
Avenue, had not taken into account that the street had just been paved and the heavy
engine would travel much faster on the smooth surface than they were used to on the dirt
road. It bowled out of control, veered toward fireman John Graver, and crushed him against
a tree, only one block away from the fire. The cart was destroyed and Graver was carried
into Dr. Rhoads’ surgery, where the doctor valiantly tried to save his life. Unfortunately,
Graver died two hours later. By the time the Hookies brought their horse drawn wagon to
the scene, the building was fully engulfed in flames. A frantic throng of sobbing relatives
and friends gathered on the streets, wild with grief, waiting for news. No one slept in
Boyertown that night. At the time, it was expected that it would be “months and years”
before the people of Boyertown would recover from the shock and sorrow of their loss.
Make that generations.
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 building to keep curious gawkers away as
it began in the second floor auditorium of the Hookies fire house on South Reading
Avenue. 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 being given the night of the fire, Harriet
Monore, had been summoned but did not attend the trial because of ill health. She 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 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, who met at the Union House (now the Boyertown Inn) to
deliberate. 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 and license stereopticon and motion picture operators. No
one was ever arrested, but the legislature did pass a number of regulations as a result of
the Boyertown fire, that are now used nationwide to help insure that such a tragedy
Der Belsnickel Craft Show
for information, go to the Craft Show page.
The 2015 Belsnickel was very successful with
over 3,500 people attended the two day event.
The Belsnickel is a juried show. The next jury session is March 13, 2016 at
the Boyertown Historical Society. The session is at 2:00 PM.
|the Ghosts will return!
|PRESERVING THE PAST
FOR THE FUTURE:
Help us save History
Memberships are due! Please use this Link for information and an
Opera House fire.
Human life was
lost in spite of