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Tragedy in Boyertown

Updated: May 7, 2020

Life does not always go as planned. Sometimes terrible events can happen and tragedy can strike at any moment. Such was the case with Henry S. "Harry" Shaner and his family.

Henry was born on 10 July 1862 to Henry Ritter Shaner and Henrietta Schmehl. He was the second son and the third of five children and was born in raised in Boyertown, Berks County, Pennsylvania. Harry was a contemporary of my paternal great grandfather, William Moore Schoener.

He married Amanda Renninger in 1885 and had 4 children, all boys:

Lawrence R., born 18 January 1888

Paul R., born 16 May 1890

Edgar R., born 2 June 1892

Charles R., born 20 April 1900

Per the 1900 Census, Henry was employed as a Cemetery Laborer.

Boyertown, at the time of the century, was like a lot of other towns in the nation. Built at a crossroads, it became a thriving market town. It was home to two cigar factories and one of the country's largest casket makers and about two thousand residents.

However, for Henry Shaner and his family, the good fortune they and the other town's people enjoyed would soon come to an end.

Shortly before 11 P.M. on Monday, 3 February 1902, a fire broke out at George Carver's bakery on Philadelphia Avenue. It is thought to have started in the basement due to an overheated flue. The fire attracted a large crowd of spectators. Among them were Henry and his oldest son, Lawrence. By the time the firemen arrived, the fire had reached the second floor. It was confined mainly to the rear of the building. The spectators started gathering closer to watch. When the fire was at its height, there was a deafening explosion when it is believed that an oil stove on the second floor ignited. Before anyone could realize what had happened, the side wall collapsed and tons of bricks and timbers fell out onto the gathering. A cloud of smoke covered an area of about 200 feet. By the time it cleared, it was discovered that Henry had been killed instantly. Lawrence was badly injured and died soon afterward. He was 14 years old. Two other people were killed and many more were hurt by the flying debris. Henry's wife, Amanda, was a widow and left to raise her three remaining sons.

Less then six years later, a special event was scheduled at the Rhoads Opera House. A play called "The Scottish Reformation" was to be performed with a magic lantern (also known as a stereopticon) slideshow of Scotland during intermissions. There were 60 local actors, many of them members of the St. John's Lutheran Church. The first show was to be on Monday, 13 January 1908 and was sold out. That night 252 people were in attendance. Extra chairs were even installed to accommodate the large audience who wanted to enjoy the entertainment.

Amanda and her sons, Paul, Edgar and Charlie had tickets for the performance that night.

The building where the Rhoads Opera House was constructed in 1885. It was a three story commercial building with a bank, insurance company and hardware store on the first floor and a meeting hall on the third floor. The opera house was located on the second floor. The auditorium was frequently used for graduations, plays, and other events so it was a venue with which the townspeople were extremely familiar.

As the actors were preparing for the third act, the magic lantern showed slides of Scotland. It was at that time that one of the gas tubes came lose from the machine which used tanks of hydrogen and oxygen to create calcium light. This created a hissing noise, causing people to look around for the source, including the actors. As they moved about on stage, a kerosene foot lamp was knocked over. This started a fire which quickly spread when the oil tank spilled as people were trying to extinguish the flames. When the curtain ignited, people began to panic and ran for the exits, windows and fire escapes. However, the doors opened inward and the exits were poorly labelled and too few. The fire spread extremely quickly and, what was supposed to be a joyous event, turned into a hellish nightmare.


Edgar survived the blaze, but his mother and two brothers were initially among the unidentified. Burns covered his entire face and head and arms down to his elbows. Amanda was 44, Paul was 17 and Charles was 7.

Overall, 170 people lost their lives that night in the fire that made nationwide news. Ten percent of the town's population had been wiped out. Consolations came in from President Theodore Roosevelt and as far away as France. This tragedy would cause new fire safety laws to be put into effect; laws which are still currently enforced.

Edgar would live until 8 April 1910 when he died as a result of septicemia and pericarditis with emphysema as a contributing factor. This was no doubt a result of the injuries and trauma he had sustained in the fire. He was 17 years, 10 months and 6 days old and the last surviving member of his immediate family.

If this sad and tragic tale tells us anything, it is that every day is precious because we never know what tomorrow will bring.


The Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 Feb 1902

The Philadelphia Inquirer, 16 Jan 1908


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