Hildegaard Morgenrott was just 15-years-old when she died while performing a circus act with her brothers in Great Victoria Street’s now demolished Royal Hippodrome Theatre in 1907.
The tragedy has long been forgotten by the people of the city but author Chris Wood thinks it is “important to raise awareness on deaths like these”.
Mr Wood’s new book, Death in the Theatre, which is set to be published on May 30, details tragic theatre accidents and gruesome murders that occurred in the UK.
Reflecting on Ms Morgenrott’s death, Mr Wood said the tragedy “really rocked Belfast to the core”.
“The Royal Hippodrome was a popular theatre amongst the community in Belfast at the time,” he said. “It was fairly priced so it was a theatre everybody had access to.”
The Hippodrome Theatre was demolished in 1998 and the Fitzwilliam Hotel now stands in its place, but at the height of its popularity it attracted large crowds to its shows and often held fundraisers – including the night Ms Morgenrott died.
“On June 14, 1907, they decided to run a fundraising night so they had all of these different acts performing in the hopes to raise as much money as possible,” Mr Wood explained.
Ms Morgenrott was performing an aerobatic act with her two brothers when tragedy struck.
“For this particular act, the two brothers were cycling and then there was a wooden platform balancing on top of them that Hildegaard was on, cycling in the opposite direction,” said Mr Wood.
“This was an act that Hildegaard would have been very familiar with.
“She had been doing this since she was around four or five and her family travelled around the world performing, but on this particular night, she lost her balance and fell 12ft and landed on her neck.”
There was a large medical presence in the audience that night but Ms Morgenrott died instantly.
“The fall had fractured the base of her skull,” said Mr Wood. “There was really nothing anyone could have done for her.”
The family, who were German, wanted to bring Ms Morgenrott’s body back to their homeland to bury her so it was decided that the money raised that night would go towards repatriating her body.
An inquest into Ms Morgenrott’s death found the incident was no fault of the theatre management.
“It was quite harsh inquest,” explained Mr Wood. “Her father couldn’t speak English so he wasn’t able to stand but her older brother was able.
“It was found there was nothing wrong with the stage, the brother said this was her first ever accident since she had been doing it. It was just literally a horrible accident.”
During the inquest, the community of Belfast showed great support and shared their condolences to the family.
“The juror actually said nothing had shocked Belfast more for a long time since the death of this girl,” Mr Wood said.
It’s believed Ms Morgenrott may have fallen due to dizziness from poor circulation.
“We think, now, what might have happened is, she had been just performing standing on her head before this trick so her circulation had no time to recover, so she lost her balance and then she had no time to react, she just landed on her head,” Mr Wood said.
Before Hildegaard’s body was taken back to Germany a funeral service was held in Belfast.
“The community was devastated by the news of the girl’s death,” added Mr Wood.
“A practical funeral service was held in Belfast and crowds came pouring out of sympathy for the family.
“It was really a testament of the community of Belfast. It would have been a special thing for the family and before leaving Belfast they expressed their thanks to the community.
“You can tell it was really something that struck the community to their core.”
Ms Morgenrott’s story is one of many Mr Wood is sharing in his new book, which was inspired by the death of an electrician in a Derby theatre.
“I just felt it was important to raise awareness around deaths like these,2 he said. “I was three quarters of the way through writing my last book and I heard about an electrician in Derby that had died in a theatre and I wondered if anything similar had happened in other theatres.”
Unfortunately, Mr Wood found that deaths happened in theatres around the country.
“I could have written this book three or four times over,” he said. “It’s shocking the awful things that happened in theatres.
“I go to the theatre a lot so I often put myself in the shoes of the audience.”
Mr Wood said he felt Ms Morgenrott’s death was important addition to the book.
“It’s a nationwide book so I wanted to include something from everywhere but when I saw her story I knew it needed to be shared,” he said.
“It was absolutely awful and totally devastated the city at the time but it’s likely no one knows her story now.”