Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Iroquois Theater Fire. Fireproof Firetrap...America's Worst Single Building fire.

The Iroquois Theater Fire
Dec 30, 1903
Fireproof Firetrap
America's Worst Loss Of Life In A Single Building Fire. 

Ahhh, Chicago! The Windy City! Home to The Cubs, Al Capone, John Belushi, and, of course, Ferris Bueller.

Chicago boasts one of the most colorful histories of any city in the U.S. and is every bit as loaded with history, drama and mystique as it's East Coast arch rival, New York City. In fact, when you get right down to it, The Windy City's history and legend just may be a scosh more colorful than The Big Apple's. 

Wait...you didn't know New York was Chicago's arch-rival?

Oh yeah...A spirited, but one-sided rivalry began between these two legendary cities towards the end of the 19th Century, when Chicago finally edged past Philadelphia to become the second most populous city in the U.S. (A title the Windy City would hold until the mid 20th Century, when L.A snagged the #2 spot for themselves.). Second, I might add, only to New York. The good citizens of Chicago found that they did not like being 'Number 2' and most especially, didn't like being 'Number 2' behind The Big Apple. 

New York, on the other hand, pretty much ignored the fact that they'd gained a brand new Arch-Rival...Go back in time and ask any Chicagoan from 1903 which city they considered their arch-rival, nemesis, and city to beat at all costs and they'll tell you, with little hesitation and a good bit of enthusiasm, 'New York'.

Go to New York and ask that very same question, however, and the answer won't be Chicago. In fact, New Yorkers really didn't, and indeed, still don't, consider themselves to even have a rival ...they pretty much knew, and indeed, know they're #1.  Chicago wasn't even on their radar as a rival.

That fact did absolutely nothing to dispel The Windy City's desire to one-up The Big Apple, which is why, as soon as they snagged that #2 spot, Chicago began doing everything in their power to blow past New York in every possible category.

One of the categories they decided to try to one-up New York in was Theater. Which is kind of like your local high school football team deciding to take on the New York Jets.

Don't get me wrong here...Chicago had a pretty solid presence in Theater at the turn of the 20th century. The city was home to thirty-six theaters in 1903, but that was still just a fraction of the number of playhouses in New York. The New York theater scene had blown past The Windy City's theater scene decades earlier and was still pulling away steadily.

 After all, in the U.S. the New York Theater scene pretty much was (And indeed, still is) THE THEATER.  Broadway had, by then, become...


...And All Things Theater looked towards The Big Apple for their cue.

Needless to say, this made the New York theater scene hard, if not impossible, to top. Chicago, however, was not only going to try to beat The Big Apple at their own game, they were going to try to do it with a single theater...a Megatheater, encompassing every possible modern luxury feature and safety technology known to man, to be called The Iroquois Theater.

Unfortunately, while they were at it, they managed to surpass New York, and every city in the U.S. in one category that they didn't even want to compete in. When the Iroquois Theater burned with an over-capacity house attending a matinee performance of Mr Bluebeard on December 30th, 1903, it resulted in 602 deaths...The highest death toll ever recorded in a structure fire in the U.S, a record that stands to this day.

And yes, you read that right. Just over six hundred people...the majority of them women and children...died on that frigid December afternoon, and the events that led to their deaths began in the spring of 1903, when a pair of enterprising gents named Will J. Davis and Harry Powers bought a couple of lots near Randolph and Dearborn Streets, in Chicago's already legendary 'Loop' (named after the system of elevated trains...the legendary 'El'...that served Chicago's main business district), with intent to erect the afore-noted theater to end all theaters there.

It's a good bet that these two gentlemen needed some backing from somewhere in order to tackle such a huge task...not only financial backing, but professional backing as well, the latter to ensure that major plays (The forerunner of today's first-run blockbusters) were performed on their theater's stage.

Enter The Theatrical Trust.

As I noted in my post about the Brooklyn Theater Fire, several theaters would be owned by a single corporate entity, just as movie theaters are today. Think Regal Cinema's, Or, maybe, kinda think Regal Cinemas, because, if you go by percentage of the nation's theaters owned rather than hard numbers, the New York based Theatrical Trust...the syndicate that owned and controlled the vast majority of the nation's major theaters in the late 19th/early 20th Century...made Regal look like a small town business owner.

I'm not sure if Will Davis and Harry Powers approached the Theatrical Trust to inquire about backing, or if The Trust, with it's pulse on all facets of the theater industry, heard of the plans for a new theater and contacted them with an offer to provide financial and professional backing (And to provide themselves with yet another source of profit), or if, possibly the plan to build the Iroquois was a collaboration between the team of Davis and Powers and The Trust from the outset, but whichever way that collaboration came to be, the Iroquois ended up under the collective thumbs of the Theatrical Trust.

Wait, Rob, you ask...just what was this 'Theatrical Trust' of which you speak?

 That organization's story could fill an entire book all it's own, much less a blog post, but I'll try to hit the high points here. The Theatrical Trust was run by a Good-Cop/Bad Cop-style pair named Marc Klaw and Abraham Lincoln Erlanger from an office on (Where else?) Broadway, in New York. The two of them were also named as producers of the majority of the plays that were performed in theaters owned by The Trust.

The Theatrical Trust's Good Cop/Bad Cop team, Marc Klaw(L) and Abraham Erlanger (R). These two pretty much controlled the entire American theater scene in the early 20th Century.

Though the Theatrical Trust...also known as The Syndicate...had only been around since 1896, by 1903 it had an iron-fisted grip on just about all of the major theaters in the U.S. They controlled which theaters got major productions and which ones got second or third rate plays, and by the same token they controlled which producer's plays were performed in major markets and which ones went to second and third rate theaters in smaller cities. Underhanded tactics were pretty much the norm, and Klaw and Erlanger were not well liked by anyone in the entertainment industry, be they actors/managers/theater owners or members of the press.

They were said to have had the 'Good Cop-Bad Cop' method of doing business down to an art form, with Klaw being the sophisticated and eloquent speaking 'Good Cop', while Erlinger was the harsh, rude, demanding 'Bad Cop'.  Utilizing this method, they regularly intimidated theater owners/producers/ etc into doing their bidding. 
That being said, getting under the wing of The Trust all but ensured a theater's success...as long as they kept Klaw and Erlinger happy.

Keeping those two happy would play a huge part in the disaster to come...but we'll get back to 'The Trust' in a bit. 

Now...lets take a look at the beautiful death-trap that the team of Davis and Powers planned to build.

Ok, obviously they didn't build it to be a death trap...they intended for it to be the be-all and end-all in both luxury and safety, and if everything had gone right, they just may have done  just  that...but then again, if every thing had gone right, I wouldn't be writing a blog post about the place.

First off, when the property for the Iroquois was purchased, it did not include the lot at the actual corner of Randolph and Dearborn. That lot was already occupied by the seven story Real Estate Exchange Building, the very same office building that's located at that intersection today, now named the Delaware building.

This meant that The Iroquois would have to be built around the Real Estate Exchange, giving it an 'L' shape. ( HMMMM...beginning to sound a bit like another ill-fated theater, ain't it??)

Of course, while the Iroquois, like the Brooklyn Theater, was 'L'-shaped, and while the two theaters did share a vaguely similar layout, that's where the similarities between the two stopped.


Front view of the Iroquois...or actually the former Iroquois, as this photo was actually taken a year or so after the fire, during the theater's short stint as Hyde and Behman's Theater. The striped canopy over the front entrance, and the bust of an Iroquois Indian that once resided above the front entrance were both removed after the post-fire renovation. Though it was no longer The Iroquois by the time the pic was taken, you can very much still see the level of grandeur that Architect Benjamin Marshall designed into the building
A Stereograph pic of the intersection of Randolph and Dearborn Streets, with the by then former Iroquois Theater visible obliquely dead center of the frame. The large, dark brick, multi-story building at the corner of Randolph and Dearborn is the Real Estate Exchange Building, which still stands today as The Delaware Building. The cigar store visible at the front of the building is both where the Iroquois ticket receipts and cash drawer would be taken for safe keeping and where the first telephone report of the fire was called in from. A MacDonalds occupies that same space today.

A quick word about stereographs. This is actually half of a double image, The two images were taken from almost identical angles and the side-by-side double image was placed in a stereoscope viewer which had a clip for the photo, mounted on a wooden rod six or so inches in front of an eyepiece that sort of looked like a very early version of the old Viewmaster toy. When you looked through the eye piece at the photo, it...sort of...appeared to be in 3D. Very popular at the turn of the 20th Century, valuable collectible today.

Artists drawing of he lobby of The Iroquois. You can definitely see how lovely the lobby was...and looking at the set up of the balcony stairways, how dangerous it would have been in a fire. The three first floor doorways  visible lower mid-frame are the entrances to the parquet and orchestra levels of the auditorium, just above them is the 2nd floor promenade where the Dress Circle entrances were located. The 'Hanging' landing above that promenade separated the 2nd and 3rd floor promenades.  The    3rd floor promenade, where the Gallery entrances were located, is above the hanging landing, at the very top of the frame. That hanging landing was an artistic...and very dangerous...touch, but it didn't trap as many people as you might think, because most of the Dress Circle and Gallery occupants never made it that far before becoming trapped in the exits and on the promenades.

And then there were the iron accordion gates...we'll talk about them later.


 The very first differences between the two were size and decor.

Lets get this one out of the way first...the Iroquois made the Brooklyn Theater look like a hovel. While the Brooklyn Theater's decor had been ornate and attractive, the Iroquois took 'Ornate and Attractive' to the next level. The Iroquois was designed to one-up the most ornate play-houses in Europe and...most particularly...New York, with copious use of marble, exotic woods, and plush fabrics. It was breath-takingly beautiful inside and, unfortunately as it would turn out, much of that beauty came at the cost of safety.

As for the relative sizes of the two buildings, even though the Iroquois and Brooklyn Theaters were both designed to have the exact same seating capacity...1600 seats....The Iroquois was a far larger building. The Iroquois' lobby wing, where the main entrance, lobby, facilities such as checkrooms and restrooms, entrances to the Auditorium's main floor, and the stairways providing access to the balconies were all located, was six stories tall, and fronted 45 feet on Randolph Street...three stories taller and nearly twice as wide as the Brooklyn Theater''s entrance wing...while the 120 foot long auditorium wing, containing the auditorium, stage, and back stage areas, fronted 110 feet on a narrow vacant lot off of Dearborn Street, a third again larger than The Brooklyn Theater in all dimensions.

The only part of the Iroquois that wasn't considerably larger that the Brooklyn Theater was the auditorium... as in the actual audience seating area...itself.  In fact, dimensions-wise they were about the same size. Both theaters also boasted two balcony levels, but this is where the Brooklyn Theater was actually a little better than the Iroquois. Because of an architectural design error, the Iroquois' second balcony...home to the theater's least expensive seating, tucked up against the theater's ceiling, and known as the Gallery,... had far more steeply pitched rows of seats than those in the Brooklyn Theater's 'Family Circle', with a twenty-five inch rise between rows...far steeper than even modern football stadiums.  So steep, in fact, that brass railings were installed between rows to assist people walking to their seats, as well as to keep those already seated from tumbling head over heels if they tripped while standing back up.


The first floor floor plan of The Iroquois, showing the theater's 'L' shaped design. The fire exits were along the north wall, directly opposite the entrances to the auditorium...this was true on both balconies as well.  The square with a cross with-in it was the elevator, the six levels of dressing rooms would have been between the elevator and the theater's back wall. The light bridge where the fire started was on the the 'Stage Right' side of the stage (Left side as you face the stage), hard by the elevator, with he buildings main electrical switchboard tucked beneath the light bridge.

The two stage doors are also visible...the Dearborn Street stage door, located hard by the dressing room wing near the building's southwest corner, and the Couch Place stage door, which was a 'Wicket Door', with a small personnel door nested within a larger scenery door, located on the other side of the stage at the building's's northwest corner.  Keep the Couch Place stage door in mind...it would play a huge and tragic part in the fire.


The Iroquois' stage and backstage areas, however, with a total square footage of 5,750 square feet, were far larger, than those of the Brooklyn Theater.  The Iroquois boasted six levels of dressing rooms, situated along the backstage area's south wall and served by an electric elevator, which was considered an extremely high-tech feature in 1903. There were also stage offices and dressing rooms below the stage, accessed by a stairway on the south side of the back stage area..

Of course, there were two major differences in the layouts of the Brooklyn and Iroquois theaters. The first was the way the auditorium was oriented to the lobby. The Brooklyn Theater's auditorium was actually located to the side of the lobby, with the entrances to the lower level to your left as you entered the lobby and a stairway accessing the first balcony ahead of you. As you walked in to the Brooklyn Theaters first level through one of those entrances, you were at the rear of the auditorium, with the stage directly in front of you.

 The Iroquois lobby, on the other hand, was far larger. You entered the Iroquois through one of six elaborate glass and mahogany doors to find yourself in a lavishly decorated forty-five foot wide, fifty foot deep, six story high marble and mahogany lobby, called the grand stair hall...with ornate stairways on either side of you and the three entrances to the first level of seating (The Parquet and Orchestra level) directly ahead of you. If you had an Orchestra or Parquet level ticket, when you entered the auditorium through one of those three entrances to the Orchestra Level, you were at the side of the auditorium with the stage to your left, and the sides of the rows of seating directly in front of you. The entrances to both balcony levels were, of course, oriented similarly.

 The second, and biggest, major difference between the two theaters was access to the balconies. The Brooklyn Theater featured separate stairways for each balcony with a separate outside entrance for the Family Circle (Topmost balcony). If you read the Brooklyn Theater post, you may remember that that very circuitous Family Circle entrance/Exit path became a death-trap.

The Iroquois architect managed to make his stairways even worse by having the exit paths from the two balconies meet in a restricted space. I'll take a more detailed look at this when I discuss the fire itself, but lets take a look at how you'd access the balconies.

If your ticket had been for a Dress Circle or Gallery seat, you'd climb one of those twin stairways, both of which climbed through a series of five 'straight through' landings, until they reached a balcony above the Parquet Level entrances. When you reached that balcony, you could either go straight, and enter the first balcony level, called the Dress Circle, through any of three ornate doors, or you could turn (Depending on which stairway you climbed) either right or left, and climb yet another set of steps that passed through a long 'hanging landing' before turning 180 degrees and climbing to a similar balcony serving the Gallery's (the topmost balcony level) two entrances. Then, owing to the top levels extremely steep pitch, if your seat was at the very rear of the balcony, you had yet another short staircase to climb before reaching your seat.

Theses balconies, promenades, stairways and landings were elaborate, beautiful, allowed everyone to see and be seen, and, owing to the fact that they created numerous pinch points, they were deadly in a fire. Keep them in mind...they become real important here in a bit.

The differences in size and grandeur and access between the two buildings, while notable, were far from the biggest differences. Will Davis and Harry Powers, as you recall, intended the Iroquois to be one of the safest, most modern, most technologically advanced theaters in the U.S, if not the world. That backstage elevator was just one of the theater's technological innovations. 

First, speaking of electricity, the theater's lighting would be all electric. OK, this wasn't really 
that new...The very first electric, incandescent lighting system to be installed in a theater (Both stage and house lighting) was installed in London's Savoy Theater in 1881, with Boston's Bijou's Theater getting the first theatrical electric lighting system in the U.S. a year later, so electric lighting in commercial buildings had already been around for a couple of decades.

By the time ground was broken for The Iroquois on May 1st, 1903, electric lighting in large commercial buildings...the ones located in major cities at any rate...was very common, and every new theater was being built with electric lighting for both house and stage lighting, so electric lighting in the Iroquois was pretty much a given from the git-go.

 Electric lighting in Rural areas was a different story, though. Electric lighting in homes... especially rural homes...still lagged behind electricity in urban commercial buildings by miles in 1903, so many people still considered electric lights to be just shy of actual wizardry. People who traveled from their kerosene lamp lit rural and small town homes to see a play in Chicago would stare in unabashed wonder at these flameless sources of illumination that required only the flip of a switch to light.

Much of the Iroquois theater's new technology was safety and exit technology related. The Brooklyn Theater Fire, along with the even deadlier Ring Theater Fire, in Vienna, Austria five years later, taught a slew of lessons RE: Theater Fire Safety, and the Iroquois' owners planned to heed all of them.


A cut-away schematic of the theater, looking in from the Couch Place side of the building. The ventilator above the stage was actually supposed to be a smoke/heat vent that could be opened in event of a fire to vent heat and smoke straight up and out, keeping it out of the auditorium. The vents were never completed, and were boarded over at the time of the fire, with tragic results. The ventilator and fan above the gallery, however, was completed, and running. 

The area beneath the stage...the Sub-Stage...was not just open space., It contained dressing rooms, workshops and storage as well as the coal bin for the furnaces, which were in the basement, adjacent to the sub-stage. The chute for the coal bins was used to rescue several trapped dancers.

The scenery flats were hung vertically in the two fly galleries, which became fully involved very early in the fire, trapping both a group of German aerialists...one of whose number would become the fire's first fatality when she fell to her death...and aerialist Nellie Reed.


Almost every theater fire started either on-stage or back stage, sending smoke, heated gasses, and fire into the auditorium. The proscenium arch ( archway that separated stage from auditorium) was an integral part of the building structure in the Iroquois (And all modern theaters) but it was also the weak point of the theater, fire safety wise. A fire starting backstage and gaining headway could and would pump smoke and heated gasses through the proscenium arch and into the auditorium to endanger all of the theater's occupants, causing multiple deaths...especially in the balconies...long before flames swept through that arch to finish off any trapped occupants who the smoke hadn't already suffocated.

The Iroquois was designed to prevent that from happening.

The roof over the stage would be equipped with a pair of big smoke vents, cable operated from the main switchboard...a flip of a switch would drop counterweights which would slide the covers down tracks, opening the smoke vents and venting fire and smoke straight up and out, there-by preventing it from rolling out into the auditorium. My bet is that the mechanism that held the counterweights in place was either designed to release them automatically in the event of a power loss, or was supposed to be backed up by a fusible link.

To prevent flames from roaring into the auditorium through the proscenium arch, the Iroquois would have a weighted, fire proof asbestos curtain that could be dropped in the event of a fire, completely separating stage and auditorium, holding the fire backstage and on stage long enough for the theater to be safely and calmly evacuated.  The curtain would be manually dropped, though, rather than automatic, but there was a sound reason for this...a manually dropped curtain wouldn't be disabled if the fire killed power to the building.

A sprinkler system as well as standpipes and fire hose were included in the plans. The former should keep a fire from ever getting much beyond the incipient stage, with the latter making quick work of any fire that the sprinklers didn't snuff. At least that was the way it was supposed to work.

The Iroquois was...theoretically, at any rate...also well equipped with exits as well as exterior fire escapes. There were nearly thirty exits, nine of which were dedicated fire exits on the north side of the auditorium, with the fire exits on the first level emptying directly onto Couch Place, which ran between Dearborn and State Streets, paralleling the theater's north side, while the second and third level fire exits emptied onto a pair of exterior fire escapes that also emptied into Couch Place. In theory, a capacity crowd in the auditorium could be emptied in around 4-5 minutes. Note here that I said 'In Theory'. 

Basically, no fire on stage at the Iroquois should ever get past the incipient stage. If a fire, somehow, did manage to get rolling on stage, the fire-curtain should contain it, the smoke vents should pull the smoke, heat, and fire straight up and out, helping to keep it out of the auditorium, the sprinkler system should knock it down before either fire curtain or smoke vents became necessary in the first place, and the hose lines should be all but redundant. Our theoretical fire shouldn't be more than an inconvenience to the audience, who should be exiting calmly and quickly through the nearly thirty exits available to them as the fire department rolled up.

That's also what should  have happened when the actual fire started, while the story about that same fire in the New Years Eve edition of the Chicago Tribune should have been a short filler article about a minor fire causing the evacuation of the city's newest theater during a matinee performance of Mr Bluebeard. But that's not the way it happened...not even close.

To tell the story of the fire, we first have to continue with the story of the theater itself.

Will Davis and Harry Powers handed off design of the building to a twenty-nine year old architect named Benjamin  H. Marshall, who would ultimately become one of Chicago's most renowned architects, then contracted construction of the theater out to the George A. Fuller Construction Company...one of that era's premiere national construction firms. I'm going to give them the benefit if the doubt, at least in the beginning, when that ceremonial first shovel full of dirt was turned, because  I truly think they started out with the full intent of building the most luxurious, most modern, and most importantly, safest theater the U.S. had ever seen.

Unfortrunately, shenanigans went hand in hand with the construction of the Iroquois almost from that ceremonial first shovel of dirt on Ground-Breaking Day.

Then as now, the Christmas Holiday season was when a lion's share of the entertainment industry's profits were realized so, when construction started on 5-1-1903,  the tag-team of Klaw and Erlanger made it clear to Will Davis and Harry Powers that they wanted the Iroquois to open it's doors well before Christmas, 1903. In fact, they wanted  it open in late October, in time for the opening of the 1903 Theater season.

Of course, with all the dictatorial control that The Theatrical Trust may have held over the industry, and all of the original good intentions that Will Davis and Harry Powers may have had when construction started on the Iroquois, there were a couple of things that none of them could control. Like Labor issues. And the weather.

The inevitable delays due to weather and such things as materials not being delivered on time,  pushed the opening date back first a week or so, then a month, then six weeks until, finally, a firm opening date of November 23rd was announced to a Windy City public who had been reading about this amazing new theater, watching progress of construction, and anticipating it's opening for months.

Then that date was threatened, first by the year's first major snow, which hit on November 5th, extremely early even by Chicago standards. This storm was followed up by a couple of days of freezing rain, a combination that would have delayed construction further even without causing rail line delays that kept Fuller employees from making it to the site.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the project was also hit with a One-Two-Three punch of labor problems.

Just as the weather began to moderate a bit, only eleven days before the theater's grand opening, the New York Bricklayers Union...1000 men strong...struck every Fuller Construction contract in the Big Apple. .I'm not a hundred percent sure how a labor problem in New York would affect a construction site in Chicago, and a full explanation of the labor politics involved is far beyond the scope of this blog, but basically, with the bricklayers not working in New York, no one else could...or would... work either, and this led to across the board work stoppages. These stoppages included sites in  The Windy City, once again slowing the final stages of construction at the Iroquois to a crawl.

They got that one sorted out, and then, even as the bricklayers went back to work, another, far more serious strike took place only a week or so before the theater was supposed to open, when the iron and steel workers union struck Fuller Construction. As Fuller tried to sort out these labor problems, the third, and likely most damaging, punch was thrown.

On November 14th...three days after the theaters new, firm opening date was announced...3000 streetcar motormen went on strike in a violent work stoppage that had the multiple effects of delaying workers trying to get to their jobs (Including the Iroquois site) and keeping the public from getting to places of business. The strike's violence also made husbands hesitant to allow their wives and children (Who made up a huge percentage of Holiday theater-goers) to venture down-town. The strike wouldn't be settled until November 25th...two days after the Iroquois' grand opening...and I can just about bet that the strike affected attendance those first two days. And trust me, Klaw and Erlanger did not need anything to either delay the Iroquois' opening or cut down on attendance.

As if the weather and labor problems weren't giving the Theatrical Trust enough headaches, the Trust was having other problems of its own. That iron grip they had on the Entertainment Industry had apparently been smeared with a little bit of grease because it was beginning to slip a little, and in fact, had been slipping for the better part of a year..

Several well known entertainers and a few successful theater owners had split off from the Trust to start their own syndicate and produce their own plays and thanks to this, neither of 1902/03's two biggest hits...the magically legendary Babes in Toyland in 1903, and a little play called The Wizard Of Oz the year before...were Theatrical Trust (AKA Klaw and Erlanger ) Productions.

Klaw and Erlanger were getting just a bit desperate to turn things around, but they had both a plan and a play to turn it around with.

While the Theatrical Trust couldn't claim either of the last two years' really big hits, they had had been finding success with family oriented musicals...all imported from London's Drury Lane Theater Company. They chose one of them to kick off the Iroquois reign as Chicago's Premiere Theater. The play they chose was a (for the time) special effects packed musical and dance fantasy called Mr Bluebeard that had opened at New York's Knickerbocker Theater the previous season.

They had really gambled on Mr Bluebeard being a success, by the way, because it was not an inexpensive production.  To bring the production to life, a company comprising over 350 people utilized hundreds of set pieces, lights, special effects, and costumes (Most of which had to be altered to properly fit American actresses), all of which had been shipped across the Atlantic at Klaw and Erlanger's expense. Then those 350+ people had to be paid. Total outlay, before the first prop was carried through the Knickerbocker's scenery door had been around $150,000. That's just shy of four million 2017 dollars.

But their gamble had paid off. Mr Bluebeard had enjoyed a successful run, making a tidy profit, and the Trust decided to extend their rights to the production for another season (Bet that wasn't inexpensive, either) so they could open their newest and finest theater with it. 

They even already had a home-town favorite
...A Chicago native of amazing comedic talents named Eddie Foy...starring in the play, and had courted him for months before signing him at the then unheard of salary of $800 a week (Just over $21,000 in today's money). 

SO the Trust had the tools to, despite several theater owners jumping ship, make the 1903 Chicago theater season a major success, and maybe even make their own home town's already iconic theater scene pause for just an instant and take notice.

 But first they had to get the Iroquois open for business, and, frustrated to no end by all the problems and delays, they told Fuller Construction's honcho's to get the building open on November 23rd no mater what it took and, most importantly and ultimately tragically, no matter what wasn't finished.

'What about Inspections and being Certified for Occupancy, and such?' Fuller's brass may have asked. Klaw and Erlanger's reply? It was something to the effect of 'If free tickets had to be offered and palms had to be greased, so be it.'

Let the shenanigans begin.

Of course, said shenanigans had actually already started, probably before the first construction delay reared it's head, in the form of cutting corners to save money.

One item...That reinforced asbestos fire curtain...is a perfect example. And, OK., before anyone else brings it up, yep, we all know that asbestos has been proven to be dangerous to life and lung, and that inhaled asbestos fibers cause one of the most horrible modern diseases (Asbestosis) to ever be discovered, but in 1903 none of this was known, and asbestos was considered a miracle material that rendered anything it was even near fire-proof, at least according to those who manufactured and sold items made from it.

The curtain, originally, was to be made of asbestos fiber and reinforced with a brass wire frame, rendering it semi-rigid and fire resistant. Properly constructed, this curtain would have weighed somewhere between 3000 and 4,000 pounds, and would have been manually raised and lowered using a geared winch/cable/counterweight system. The base of the curtain was fixed to a rigid metal rod fitted with rollers on each end that would be slotted into a vertical track on either side of the stage. This way, when lowered, the curtain would form a semi-rigid fire-resistant barrier between a back-stage fire and the audience that, along with the stage roof vents, would hold the fire long enough to give them time to calmly exit the building.

I don't know how much this curtain would have cost, but I have a feeling that they weren't cheap. So Fuller, with full knowledge of Will Davis and Harry Powers, instead ordered a curtain that was made chiefly of wood pulp, with some asbestos fiber...enough to meet building codes...woven through it. There was no wire mesh frame to provide rigidity, though there was a metal rod slotted into a track on either side of the stage, but the tracks were wooden rather than metal.

This Faux-asbestos curtain may have met the then existing building codes, and it certainly saved money...to the tune of about $56 ($1550 in 2017), but it was just about as fireproof as a paper towel. Which meant that that $56 was saved while robbing the theater's patrons of a a major safety feature while giving them the impression that it was, indeed, still there.

And it got worse...The sprinkler system that had been in the original plans (And that was actually required by Chicago building codes) was somehow deleted from the actual construction process. The standpipes, with multiple hose connections, were installed...but without hose or fittings. They would have been useless anyway, because the standpipes hadn't been connected to the city water system, nor did it have a roof mounted water tank large enough to both supply water to the system and pressurize it. While there was a water tank on the theater's roof, it was a small one whose purpose was to supply water pressure to flush toilets.

There was also no fire department standpipe connection to allow an engine to pump into the system, supplying it. So the standpipe was nothing but a useless, empty pipe. Even worse, these 'oversights' were somehow 'missed' by building inspectors. Spoiler alert...That's going to be a recurring theme here.

Remember that high-tech roof venting system above the stage?  Those construction delays... especially, most likely, the problems with the iron workers union...delayed completion of the automatic roof vents above the stage and back stage areas (Probably delaying installation of the tracks that the missing counterweights, which opened the vents, slid up and down in). Make that 'prevented completion', as in, when the theater opened on November 23rd  not only was the roof venting system not finished, it apparently wasn't going to be finished anytime in the immediate future. In fact, boards were actually nailed over the roof vents themselves, apparently to prevent cold air from entering through them.

 A large ventilator above the auditorium, which was part of the normal heating and ventilation system and was designed to draw air up and out of the auditorium, was completed and operational. These two facts alone would be a huge factor in the fire, and the deaths resulting from it.

Then there were the fire escapes. While some sources say they weren't finished, leaving only blind platforms hanging over Couch Placephotographs (Including the best known photo of the fire) say otherwise...the fire escapes were there. There were nine exits leading to these exterior fire escapes alone.  But there were still a bunch of problems with these exits.

First,  the way the exits were set up was a major problem in and of itself. The fire exits utilized 'stacked' doors, with double glass doors (Equipped with difficult to operate bascule locks) inside and windowless iron doors  (Equally difficult to open.) outside. So even getting out of the fire exits onto the fire escapes posed a major problem.

Then, once the theater patrons got out of the fire exits onto the fire escape landings, things got even worse. They could only assume that if a exit was provided, that a way to safely reach the ground would also be provided, and this should  have been a given. This, as we'll see, would turn out to be a lethal assumption. 

The stairs were 
there, but were were poorly designed. We'll go into just what these design flaws are later, as we examine the fire as it's in progress, but lets just say that the stairs would be completely obstructed before the evacuation really got under way, leading to a choice between burning to death or a forty foot drop to just about certain death on the cobblestones of Couch Place.

You'd think it couldn't get any worse but it could and did. As preparations to open the theater began, and newly minted ushers and cashiers and elevator operators and all the other people needed to run a major stage theater were trained, one thing was missing in that training...what to do in case of a fire (Or any other emergency for that matter)

So as commemorative programs for the Grand Opening were ordered and printed, and rehearsals for the performance were held and last minute inspections were allegedly supposedly carried out...the inoperative roof venting system was nailed closed and covered, the fire escapes were death traps waiting to happen, and no one who worked in the place had a clue as to what to do if it caught on fire.

And these weren't, by far, the only hazards in the new, supposedly uber-safe theater. They were just the most obvious. OK, you ask, why didn't the fire inspections, or final inspections by the building department or somebody find these problems and forbid the theater from opening until they were corrected?

Anyone by any chance remember me mentioning shenanigans?  Eight or so weeks before the theater opened, city Building Commissioner George Williams submitted a study on Theater Fire Safety, with the intention being to amend the building codes, bringing the hammer down on the unsafe practices that were still all too common in theater construction and management. Problem was, the proposal, and new ordinances, were shelved pending further study.

Me thinks the timing on shelving this proposal was not coincidental.

Of course, even with action on this study tabled indefinitely, the theater shouldn't have opened with a single...much less multiple...major fire hazard(s) still existing, because the Iroquois' owners hired a retired Chicago firefighter named Bill Sallers, to act as the 'House Fireman'. His primary duty was attending each performance to ensure that the theater's exits and exit paths were clear and unobstructed, inspect the in-house fire equipment to ensure it was in good order and ready for use, and ensure that the theater wasn't over-crowded as it filled before each performance. Also, if a fire got going anyway despite all of the precautions, he was there to make the initial attack on it, to, hopefully, hold it until CFD rolled in.

His secondary duty (And to be technical, primary duty before the theater opened ) was to clue the owners and builders in on fire hazards so they could be corrected before they actually became safety issues.

Awesome idea in theory...but there were lots of problems in practice.

Lets take a look at  'Checking exit paths and fighting incipient fires' first.

There were no exit signs, (The architect felt that they'd be 'distracting') and some of the exits were hidden behind draperies (Wouldn't want an ugly ol' fire exit marring the theater's elegant decor, now, would we?). Several of the exits utilized difficult to operate Bascule locks, which were common in Europe, but rare in the U.S., meaning very few people on this side of The Pond could operate them in broad daylight when they weren't panicking...much less in choking, smoke-filled darkness when they were.(Those big, ornate, brass Bascule locks sure were pretty, though!!)


The infamous Bascule Lock. I wish I could have found the legend that identified the numbered parts, but it wasn't included. Best I can figure out, you had to pull the latch, marked '1', towards you, which rotated the locking pins at the top and bottom of the door away from the lock plates, allowing you to swing the door open. Not at all intuitive when you're used to twisting a knob and either pulling or pushing the door.

Now!  Imagine encountering this beast in a building full of smoke when you're terrified, can't see, can't hardly breath, and have several hundred panicking people behind you trying to push through the door.


On top of that, during performances the theater management locked accordion gates across the landings on the stairways between the upper gallery and the Dress circle, to keep Gallery patrons from sneaking down to better seats...Sallers was not provided with a key.

Now!  Lets take a look at the 'Controlling Incipient Fires part of the deal.

 He couldn't control a small fire if it got started for the simple reason they left him virtually no equipment to fight a fire with. Or, for that matter, even to report one with.

Of course the sprinkler syste...oh, wait, there was no sprinkler system. It had, as noted above, disappeared from the theater's final plans. The standpipes were still there...but they were useless. The only firefighting equipment that was retained were six...count 'em...six three foot long tin tubes, each about an inch and a half or so in diameter, each filled with about three pounds of a dry chemical known as Kilfyre. It was intended to be thrown (Forcibly, as the label indicates) onto the fire, and it was actually designed to be used on minor household fires, chimney fires in particular.


The infamous Kilfyre extinguishers. Six of these three foot long, inch and a half diameter tubes, filled with a dry chemical fire extinguishing agent, were all of the fire fighting equipment that The Iroquois could muster. It even had a model name...'The Monarch'. The discharge end was apparently on the bottom of  the tube...the directions stated to 'Yank Down (Thus Removing Cover) Hurl Contents Forcibly with sweeping motion into the base of the flames. It also advised the user...in bold type...to


It could also be used on flue fires (Chimney fires) by pouring some of the contents into a container and tossing it into the fireplace or stovepipe opening below the fire.

The thing may have been OK on a small fire burning on the floor or the classic 'Pan On The Stove' fire, and may even have been effective on chimney fires, but it was...as Bill Sallers was to find out...absolutely useless for stopping a fast moving fire running up a vertical surface, such as curtains, located above the user.

Those six tubes of Kilfyre, folks, were all Bill Sallers had available to him in the event of a fire at the Iroquois..

 And reporting a fire? Wasn't happening, not quickly anyway. There was no fire alarm box in or even near the building...closest one was at the corner of Clarke and Randolph, in front of the famous Sherman House Hotel (The very hotel where most of the first-billed cast of Mr Bluebeard were staying), nearly two blocks from the theater. First Due Engine 13's firehouse was actually closer to the theater than the nearest box.

'How 'bout a Telephone?' You ask. Good luck with that...Even though telephones had become a part of urban life by late 1903, especially in commercial and government buildings, there wasn't a single phone back stage in the Iroquois, and only a couple, apparently, in the entire building

The situation should never have gotten anywhere near that bad, though, because, as noted above, Sallers was actually hired well before the theater opened, and was supposed to point out fire hazards to the owners and management of the theater so they could be corrected before they became an issue.
He should have pointed these problems out to Mssrs Davis and Powers, and if that didn't yield any results, made a bee-line to the fire department and reported the issues to them.

Didn't work that way. Or even close to that way.

Oh, Sallers was, indeed aware of all of these problems and hazards and had pointed them out to Mssrs Davis and Powers, who equally obviously, simply ignored him...after advising him that his job depended on him also ignoring the problem. Remember, The Trust wanted the theater opened before the Christmas Holiday Rush at all costs.

Also, Sallers had previously had been fired from a similar job at McVickor's Theater for over-zealously attempting to enforce fire regulations. And now he was being told he was in danger of losing this job as well. SO , with his job on the line, and knowing the threat to fire him was not an idle one, Sallers  made absolutely no mention of the theater's many issues to the Fire Department...even though CFD Engine 13 was quartered less than a block away, on Dearborn Street, literally with-in sight of the new theater.

Then again, as it turned out, even if he had mentioned it, it may not have made any difference.

Say What???' you ask. 'Read on', I say.

Sallers was actually called out on the fact that he never notified the Fire Department of the theater's many fire safety issues, and it was Engine 13's Captain that called him out on it. 

  Back in 1903, firefighters pretty much lived at the stations. There was one 'platoon' rather than the three or four shift system departments use today, which meant that the twelve or so firefighters watched this huge new theater that they were not only first due on, but less than a minute away from, take shape and form  daily for six months. It would have been nice to have taken a tour of the place as it neared completion, to see just what they would be facing if caught a run there, but the technology of the era...or actually, the lack of technology...got in their way. The lack of radio communications back then prevented the guys from going 'In the district' to tour the theater as it was being built because they'd have no way to receive alarms.

 This didn't, however, prevent Engine 13's captain, Patrick 'Paddy' Jennings, from touring the theater, possibly on one of his two or so times monthly days off, with Bill Sallers in tow. He, after all, would be in command of the first in engine if they caught a working fire at the theater, so he felt like he should familiarize himself with the theater's layout, features, and hazards so he could tell his guys what they would be up against should they have a fire there. Not as good as the entire company roaming around the place and seeing first hand what kind of problems they could potentially face, but better than nothing.

He'd also heard that, due to the theater's ultra-modern, high-tech fire safety technology, any fire call at the Iroquois would likely be more of an inconvenience than anything else and he wanted to see just how true this was. He'd quickly find out that this was far from accurate.

Paddy Jennings about had a major conniption as he looked at the disaster waiting to happen, and (Probably very colorfully) demanded to know why Sallers hadn't swung by #13 and let him know about the theater's many and varied fire safety problems.

Simple, Sallers replied...he didn't want to get fired. As noted above, he literally feared for his job if he brought up the fact that the theater was a very luxurious fire trap...a situation he was, theoretically at any rate, hired to prevent.

Captain Jennings replied , bluntly, that if a fire got going during a performance and Sallers' complicity in the lack of fire protection became known, that the families of the inevitable fatalities would find and lynch him. Jennings was pissed.

He didn't have an actual Fire Prevention Bureau to contact...Chicago wouldn't have one until 1911...but he did have a Battalion Chief, quartered in the same house as Engine 13, so as soon as he returned to quarters, Jennings made his way to the Battalion Chief Jack Hannon's third floor office and laid his findings out, telling the Chief that 'If a fire gets going on stage or back stage, it'll be frightful' (I have a feeling the actual conversation may have been a scosh more colorful.)

The thing is, Chief Hannon simply answered 'What can we do about it, Paddy? They've got Bill Sallers there, they know all about the problems and don't seem too worried about it'.

The unspoken conclusion of the discussion was 'Just Drop It...something my mind definitely struggles to get around even though it was a far different time and era.

Believe it or not...it gets even better. While there wasn't a Fire Prevention Bureau, there was a building department, and they were responsible for inspecting public buildings to ensure that they met building codes and that they were safe for occupancy. New construction had to be certified safe for occupancy before the first paying customer was allowed inside.

Responsibility for inspecting the Iroquois as it was being built fell to Deputy Building Inspector Ed Loughlin, who passed the Iroquois with flying colors without even filing a written report...he simply told his boss that the building was completed, safe, and OK for occupancy.

So, as the theater's grand opening loomed, the building was actually far from finished...but no one apparently cared. Worse, it was actually certified for occupancy despite all of the unfinished and/or faulty/poorly designed/non-existent fire safety equipment and fire escapes.

The public didn't have a clue. Half page newspaper ads espoused the theater's luxury, modern features, and, ironically, safety, and plans were made by people from a radius of a couple of hundred miles of Chicago to bring their kids into the big city over the Holidays to see Mr Bluebeard, which would've been a once-in-a-childhood treat for rural kids back in the first decade of the last century.

Interestingly, a seemingly minor incident provided both a bit of foreshadowing of the coming disaster as well as final chance to avoid it.  The sets for Mr Bluebeard included dozens upon dozens of scenery flats, many of them delicate bordering on lacy and all of them heavily painted with oil paints to the point that they were, basically, solidified gasoline. All it would take would be a tiny spark...

Supposedly Will Davis stopped by the theater one afternoon shortly before it opened to see the sets being off loaded from a couple of big freight wagons and carried in through the scenery doors off of Couch Place. He took one look at the heavily painted, highly flammable scenery flats, went goggle eyed, and said 'That has got to be the most goddamn flammable mess of scenery I've ever seen in my life! No way it's going in my theater!'

He supposedly actually told the teamsters and stagehands who were carrying it inside to carry all of it back outside...but then reconsidered. Erlinger had an absolutely volatile temper, Klaw and Erlinger owned a percentage of the theater and the production, so pissing them off could mean he was out of a job, and delaying the opening of the Iroquois by so much as an extra day was a perfect way to piss them off.

So he told them 'Ok, take it in...we'll try to get along with the damn stuff!'

Among the items that were taken in were a big pedestal-mounted carbon arc spotlight, which used an electric current arcing between a pair of carbon rods to create a bright, directable beam of bluish-white light. While they created plenty of light, they also drew an immense amount of current. And they had a bad habit of shorting when they pulled too much current, creating a spark when they did so.

All of the elements of the disaster were in place.


Satellite view of the intersection of Randolph and Dearborn today. The building at the intersection's northeast corner is the Delaware building, formerly the Real Estate Exchange Building, and is the only building still standing that was around in 1903. The 'L' shaped Iroquois was built surrounding it on two sides. The eastern third or so of The Real Estate Exchange was partially razed in 1924, along with the former Iroquois Theater and much of the rest of that block, to make way for the United Masonic Temple Building, which also contained The Oriental Theater. The Oriental, of course, is still there, and still thriving.

I've also indicated the approximate footprint of the Iroquois as well as the location of the Iroquois' exterior doors, and the location of Thompson's Restaurant, next door to the theater, which became a 'Field Hospital' of sorts during the fire. 

Christmas has always been a kids holiday...Oh sure, adults exchange gifts as well, but just about everything about the commercial side of Christmas was created with kids in mind, from stockings and Santa to holiday entertainment, and Mr Bluebeard was not only no exception to the rule...in fact, it was a kid's dream come true. On steroids.

Mr Bluebeard was loosely based on the fable about a wealthy, violent monster who had married and killed 7 wives, and his eighth wife's attempts to avoid the same fate after she went into a forbidden room in Bluebeard's castle and discovered the bodies of wives 1-7. OK, I can see the horrified, questioning looks as everyone asks, mouth agape, 'That was a 
kids play???'.  As originally written, it wasn't...to make it kid-friendly, the story was given a happy ending (All seven deceased wives came back to life), put to music, and Americanized a bit.

While it wasn't a Christmas-themed play, it was still very much a kid's play, with lots for kids to love... Exotic and colorful (And, as noted, highly flammable) backdrops, amazing special effects (Most made possible by the same thing that would cause the fire...electric lighting), spectacular musical numbers performed by huge, gaudily dressed dance troupes, whimsically costumed characters, a baby elephant (Actually a couple of actors in an elephant costume), Eddie Foy in hilarious drag (He was a brilliant comedian, and reviews of the play said he was seriously underused...he'd also be considered the hero of the day.) and an aerial ballet featuring a dancer who actually 'flew' out over the audience, on a wire.

Of course the dangers weren't apparent, and had remained dormant for the nearly a year that Mr Bluebeard had played in the U.S, during both it's run at Broadway's Knickerbocker Theater, and  a mini-tour of the Midwest it embarked on to keep the profits rolling in while the Iroquois was under construction.  Klaw and Erlanger knew that the play's appeal to children made it perfect for the premier run at what promised to be the nations most luxurious, safest, most technologically advanced stage theater, so they went all out, even as they sweated the construction delays.

The Iroquois had been advertised heavily and constantly...or as constantly as a world without electronic communication would allow...with all of the major Chicago papers running articles about both the theater and the play, as well as half and full page ads, for weeks before the opening, which was timed well despite it's being a month into the new theater season.  November 23rd was the Monday of Thanksgiving Week, and Thanksgiving, then as now, was pretty much the kick-off of the Holiday Season, though it was dozens of times more low-key in 1903 than it is today. Then as now as well, theaters made a big hunk of their annual profits over that five or so week period. And, As I've noted, Mr Bluebeard was the perfect play to make said profits with.

A capacity crowd turned out for Mr Bluebeard's premiere Chicago performance despite the still on-going motorman's strike, and though the critics were a bit disappointed in the play's weak plot, they raved about the special effects, colorful costumes and sets, dance numbers, and in particular, Eddie Foy's performance, and were very impressed with the Iroquois. 

While the critics weren't quite sure what to make of the play's weak plot, the target demographic loved it...kids, generally, could care less about the plot's sophistication, or lack there of, as long as it's fun to watch.


Yep...souvenir programs were very much a thing even 115 years ago. Here we have the front cover of the inevitable souvenir program, available to those attending the grand opening and premier performance at the Iroquois on November 23, 1903. The picture on the left is an an enlargement of the illustration on the cover.

Mr Bluebeard starred Home Town Boy Eddie Foy, shown here in a head shot from the era, and in costume (And drag) as Anne, the ugly sister of Fatima. He would end up being considered one of the heroes of the fire.

The play enjoyed pretty good attendance right on through the first couple of weeks of December, though not quite as high as owners and producers had hoped, but that would soon be a non-problem. Remember, Mr Bluebeard was basically a kids play. And one thing that hasn't changed much over the past century and change is the amount of time kids have off for Christmas, at least here in the U.S.

Traditionally, kids in just about every school system in the U.S have gotten two weeks...Christmas Week and the week between Christmas and New Years...off for Christmas. This has been happening for at least the last century and a quarter or so, and it's likely what the kids in Chicago had as a Christmas Break in 1903....very probably from Monday the 20th to Monday, Jan 4th, 1904. And that's exactly what Klaw and  Erlanger were counting on.

Twice a week  (Saturday and Wednesday) Matinee performances were added during those two weeks, bringing about exactly what Klaw, Erlanger, Will Davis, and Harry Powers had hoped for. With the kids out of school, parents decided to give them a special treat, in the form of shopping in the many high-end stores 'In The Loop', lunch at a good restaurant (Many of them probably ate at Thompson's, a popular restaurant right next door to the Iroquois) and finally, attending the afternoon matinee performance of Mr Bluebeard.

Because the men of the house had to work, it was usually the moms, or sometimes aunts or nannies, who brought the kids to the afternoon matinees, and they showed up in droves, as did groups of high school kids, especially the girls. During an interview after the fire, Eddie Foy would note that the play had enjoyed big crowds the entire week after Christmas, crowds that seemed to get larger with each successive night.

And then came December 30th.

The day before New Years Eve, 1903 dawned clear and frigid in Chicago, with a little bit of snow on the ground and temps hovering right around zero. This was shaping up to be a cold winter in Chicago (And would, in fact, end up being the coldest on record) but the frigid temps didn't do anything to slow the influx of moms, kids, and families who converged on Chicago's Loop from thirteen states and eighty-seven cities.

People had planned day-trips around this performance. Remember, back in 1903 going into Chicago wasn't just a simple affair of getting into the trusty Family SUV and jumping on I-55 or I-94. For the vast majority of families it entailed making a trip into town by train, which meant round-trip train tickets also had to be purchased, then everyone had to be up early, bathed, dressed, and at the train station, ready to go when the train rolled in to the station. It's a good bet that lunches may have been made and packed, unless a lunch in a restaurant was planned.

It was a day loaded with excitement for the kids, who were already in the middle of that sensory-overloaded week-long sugar-high giddiness that's the awesomeness of Christmas as a child. The train ride, day in the big city, and seeing Mr Bluebeard were just icing on the cake (And very likely part of many of the kids' 'Santa Claus' )

Of course, they also had to get tickets to the show. Back then, of course, there was no buying tickets online ...you had to actually go to the theater's box office and purchase them. They could still be purchased in advance at the box office, but you pretty much had to live in Chicago to do so. Those coming from out of town had to buy tickets at the door.


A ticket to Mr Blue Beard from Dec, 30, 1903...but this was one of the tickets that would never be sold. This one...in the Orchestra section, on the auditorium's first level...was for the evening performance which, of course, was never performed. 

One of the ticket stubs from the fatal performance, held by an occupant of orchestra section, on the theater's first level of seating. Just about everyone on the auditorium's first level made it out safely, so this stub was very likely held on to by a survivor..

The Iroquois' box office was located in a vestibule between the theater's inner and outer exit doors (Two groups of six identical glass and mahogany doors). With  that afternoon's matinee performance starting at around 2PM,  a crowd was already queuing up at the box office well before 1PM, filling the vestibule up to overflowing, then probably forming a line that extended down Randolph Street. With school out for the holidays, the line was packed with moms and kids as well as groups of teens.

The tickets kept selling, until all 1600 seats had been filled, and this made Davis and Powers more than happy because, as I noted above, crowds, while good, had been disappointingly short of being a full house. So they told the ticket-sellers to keep on selling standing room tickets until they managed to stuff another anywhere from...depending on the source...two to five hundred more people inside the theater. According to many witnesses there were people standing four deep along the back walls of all three levels as well as standing or sitting on camp chairs and stools in the aisles. (Though actual records seem to refute this....more about that in 'Notes')

They sold so many tickets, in fact, that the show's star...Eddie Foy...even got shut out. Being on the road constantly, he didn't get anywhere near enough Family Time, so his wife and kids were in town over New Years to visit him, and he tried his best to get passes for them to attend the Wednesday afternoon matinee...but he was too late. By the time he tried to get passes, all of the seating had been sold out, and they were well into 'Standing Room Only' mode. After a quick parental discussion a very fortunate decision was made...his wife would take the kids shopping (Or maybe take herself shopping, with the kids in tow) instead. There would, after all, be other chances to see Eddie perform.

The oldest Foy child, six year old Brian, begged his dad to take him anyway, so Eddie relented and brought him along, trying one more time to get him a seat...or possibly even just a folding chair...near the front,

No room, though a folding chair was likely what he sat on when his dad, instead, took a look at the wings of the stage and realized he could stow Brian on stage...or just off stage. There was an alcove of sorts, just off of 'Stage Right (The left side of the stage to the audience) hard by the main switch board and beneath one of the 'Fly bridges' that both supported lighting equipment and provided access to the overhead scenery storage known as the fly gallery. That would be a perfect place for Brian to watch the show...And lets be honest here, a six year old boy would much rather be back stage, where he could watch all of the action. And next to the switchboard, where he'd get to 'supervise' the high-tech stuff?  Even better in the mind of any six year old boy!

So Eddie grabbed the afore-mentioned folding chair and placed it in the alcove, let stage managers and the electricians running the switchboard know where he was putting Brian so they could keep an eye on him, then headed for his dressing room to begin the likely long, drawn-out process of becoming Anne, the the ugliest of  the seven ugly sisters of Fatima, who was the lust-object of the titular Mr Bluebeard. (It's a good bet that Brian tagged along to watch this process, too.)

And, as a now fully costumed Eddie brought Brian back to his place of honor next to the switchboard, he glanced through a small opening in the curtains to see a huge crowd awaiting the performance. Every seat in the house filled, with people standing along the back walls.Among them, he'd note later, were 'More mothers with kids than I've ever seen at any performance...

Meanwhile, as Eddie Foy installed his son next to the switchboard and glanced out at the crowd, just above them, on the Fly-bridge, electrician William McMullen was probably in the process of testing a big carbon arc spotlight, maybe even letting their new 'assistant' throw the big knife switch that sent power to it.

The entire theater was humming with the energetic controlled chaos that's a major stage production as the clock ticks down the last half hour or so to show-time, and the audience could feel it. Young girls tittered and giggled (And checked out the actors) and young guys preened  (And checked out the young girls...some things haven't changed in 115 years.) and kids all but shivered in anticipation as moms and dads pointed out details of tech and beauty.

And finally, the curtain opened and the houselights dimmed. All of us have been in a movie theater when the lights finally dimmed all the way and the feature started, and you, as it's been said, can almost hear the silence. It was the same as the houselights dimmed at the Iroquois that long-ago afternoon, but even more-so, spiced with youthful and childish anticipation...

The show had started.  Over a third of the audience had just begun their last hour or so of life.

The first act went off without a hitch, much to the delight of the audience, especially the kids. The song and dance numbers were spectacular, the special effects amazing, and everyone loved the young, lovely, petite and very talented teen dancers of the Pony Ballet as they cavorted and swirled across the stage. The antics of Eddie Foy were hilarious, what they had gotten to see of them so far. He'd hit his stride in Act 2, when he would, among other hilarity, dance with an elephant (OK, again, it was a couple of actors in an elephant costume...)

It was probably about quarter to three or there-abouts when the curtain dropped on Act 1, kicking off a general rumbling and jostling of activity among the audience as moms took kids to the rest room, and the men-folk gathered in the smoking room to enjoy cigars, as others headed for the 'Crush Room', as the huge foyer was also called, to mingle during intermission.

If you think there was a lot of activity in the audience, back stage things went into overdrive. Flymen heaved on ropes to raise the old backdrops and lower new ones into place while Prop-men quickly and efficiently organized various set-pieces so they'd be available in the right order.

One of the biggest jobs was handled by riggers as they set up the wire for lovely young dancer Nellie Reed's aerial ballet...she'd actually fly out over the audience dropping flowers...and as some of the riggers strung her flying wire, another assisted Nellie in donning the leather and steel 'Greek Corset' that she wore beneath her costume. This beast looked like the top half of a leather suit of armor (And was probably just as comfortable) and came complete with a hook on the back that allowed the wearer to be attached to the flying wire.

Nellie Reed, who would be one of only two fatalities among the Mr Bluebeard cast when, while still attached to the wire used for her aerial act, she became trapped above the fire. 

Early in the second act, a double octet...a group of sixteen dancers...would dance to the  hit song 'In The Pale Moonlight', the exact breed of performance that the big carbon-arc spotlights were designed for.. Up on the flybridge, Bill McMullen slid a blue-tinted sheet of isenglass into a pair of guide slots on the front of the spotlight he was manning that evening. This would give the lighting for the octet a blue glow, simulating a moonlight effect. Of course, In The Pale Moonlight' wouldn't be performed for another fifteen or twenty minutes or so, but he also wouldn't need that carbon-arc light until then, so now he was ready to go.

The house lights flashed several times in the traditional signal that intermission was over and Act 2 was about to begin.


The second act kicked off just as smoothly as the first, keeping the hundreds of kids in the audience wide-eyed with wonder. Eddie Foy once again had the audience in stitches as he cavorted with the dancing elephant, then, as his first scene in Act II ended, he checked on Brian, who by by then was probably happily in Coolness Overload. Once he made sure Brian was OK, Eddie headed for his dressing room to touch up his make-up and get ready for his second performance of the act, a fantasy sequence as the Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe.

Nellie Reed's aerial act was also flawless and awe-inspiring, made even more so by the use of lighting. Some of these lights were housed in twenty inch tall, five inch wide retractable reflectors, called 'Front Lights', mounted on either side of the proscenium arch. They were hinged vertically, and when not needed could be swung into wells in the arch's wall, so they'd be out of the way of the curtain, and most importantly, the fire curtain. Nellie Reed's aerial performance was the only time during Act 2 that the front lights were needed, and once she finished showering the audience with flowers, stage hands should have swung the lights on both sides of the stage back into their wells. And they did just that, swinging the lights on the stage-right side of the stage closed. The one on the stage-left side, however, didn't catch completely, and bounced back open a couple of inches. In the tumult of activity that's a major stage production, no one noticed.

The Octet's sixteen performers were waiting in the wings as Eddie Foy headed for his dressing room to make his quick costume change, and it's a good bet that he quietly and good-naturedly bid all of them 'Break a Leg...theater's traditional Good Luck Omen...as he passed. Eddie heard the orchestra swing into 'By The Pale Moonlight as he started touching up his stage.make-up.

Up on the fly bridge, Bill McMullen called for both the houselights to dim and and power to his big carbon-arc spotlight. Brian Foy probably watched wide-eyed as the chief electrician twisted a rheostat, dimming the house lights all the way down, as he closed the arc light's knife switch at the same time. The effect worked perfectly...The sixteen opulently costumed dancers gracefully entered the stage, followed by a circle of diffused blue light, just as the houselights faded out, giving the impression that the moon was rising and that they were indeed dancing in the moonlight...

In certain 'Down Front'  seats, the two flybridges...one on either side of the stage...were visible from the audience. Simple fix...both flybridges were concealed by vertically hung gauze curtains, hung close to it in such a way that the lights and fly bridges were both hidden from the audience. 

The curtains were within just a few feet of Bill McMullen's spotlight, which was hazardous in and of itself, considering the fact that those big old carbon-arc spotlights generated about 4,000 degrees (Yep...you read that right) at the electrical arc between the electrodes...but the electrodes were actually pretty well isolated, and wouldn't be the problem. The huge amount of power the things drew, however, would. These lamps drew a tremendous amount of current...more than any building's electrical system was really designed for at the time. Because of this,  a small defect could be a killer...a short could toss sparks around among all of the combustibles on a stage, igniting a firestorm.

It almost  happened a couple of months earlier, in Cleveland, while Mr Bluebeard was touring. An arc light sparked, setting the curtains on fire, but that one was caught quickly and extinguished before any damage was done. And it's probably exactly what did happen that afternoon at the Iroquois, about fifteen or so minutes into the second act.

Bill McMullen was following the Pale Moonlight dancers with the blue spot, concentrating on that task diligently, when a couple of loud 'POP!!'s startled him at the same instant a bright blue flash lit up the wall behind the light...and the flash didn't entirely disappear...it just turned orange, and...

Bill jerked his head around and looked up and to his right, where a small flame was working it's way along the bottom edge of one of the gauze curtains that was hung to obscure the fly-bridge. These curtains were thin and lacy and burned fast, so what started as a fire the size of the palm of his hand quickly grabbed hold of the curtain and started climbing, just a dozen or so feet below hundreds of highly flammable, vertically hung scenery flats, supported by miles of manila rope. He knew he had to stop the fire.


Artist's rendition of the very early moments of the fire. Once those curtains got going, there was no stopping it with the entirely inadequate fire equipment that Bill Sallers had available to him. It only took minutes for the fire to reach the scenery flats stored in the fly gallery and 'Go for a hayride'. Both levels of the fly gallery were likely fully involved well less than five minutes after the fire started.

One of the post fire investigative photos, take from roughly the same point of view as the painting. The photo was taken from the Gallery...note the brass rails that were installed between the seats because of the Gallery's extremely steep pitch between seats.

The light bridge where the fire started is just out of view to the left of the stage. The building's main electrical switchboard was directly beneath the light bridge. You can see the Dearborn Street stage door, which I've labeled, at the rear corner of the stage as well as the tiers of dressing rooms immediately to the left of the stage door. Numerous cast and crew members as well as Eddie Foy's son escaped through this door before the backdraft and scenery collapse.

The scenery on stage would have become fully involved quickly as burning debris fell on it (And would have burned quickly due to it's lightweight construction.). Had the fire curtain worked properly and actually been fire resistant, it very well might have held the fire long enough for the theater to be evacuated, or at least to have significantly reduced the death toll, Unfortunately, while being lowered, the 'fire curtain' got hung up on a side light on the right side of the stage, leaving that side of the curtain 20 feet above the stage. On top of that, curtain was actually flammable, making it useless even if it had lowered properly.

Note the extreme heat and fire damage above the stage's proscenium arch. When the fly galleries and gridiron 'backdrafted', sending a fireball down onto the stage, then out into the auditorium, it rolled out from beneath the proscenium arch and across the ceiling, into the Gallery and Dress Circles, dooming anyone left in them. The useless fire curtain lit up and collapsed into the orchestra pit and first few rows of first level seats seconds later, about the same time the ropes holding the scenery flats aloft burned through and sent tons of burning scenery slamming into the stage, taking out the main switchboard and plunging the theater into flame-lit darkness.

The lack of debris on stage is notable as well. The scenery consisted of painted canvas stretched over lightweight wood framing, and would have burned fast and hot, even though the falling scenery partially snuffed itself by burying a lot of the fire when it hit the stage. It wouldn't have taken long at all for the entire pile of fallen scenery to re-ignite, and the debris would have burned fast, consuming the combustibles on stage in a matter of minutes. Engine 13's crew made quick work of what fire was left back/on stage once they took a hose line inside through the Couch Place scenery door.


Bill McMullen dived across the fly bridge and grabbed the curtain (Likely burning his hand while he was at it), tearing at it as he tried desperately to yank it down, and when that failed, he tried to beat the fire out with his hands. The fire climbed out of his reach in well less than an instant, causing both of his attempts to stop it to failed miserably. Even worse, as the fire climbed, it extended to the other curtains hanging near it, kicking a cloud of dark smoke ahead of it as it boiled upward, .

"Guys, put it out!!!" McMullen called up to a man on the catwalk a few feet above the fly bridge, who also started slapping at the flames, meeting just about as much success as McMullen had...the fire just kept boiling upwards towards the scenery hanging in the flies, rolling past him as if he wasn't even there while it was at it.

As of yet the audience wasn't aware of the fire, nor were the dancers, but several stage hands in the wings and on cat walks were more than aware of it, and all were both alerting McMullen to the fire that he already knew about, and offering unsolicited advice about just how to handle the growing blaze, none of which was particularly helpful.

As all of this was going onBill Sallers was checking the basement dressing rooms and work rooms located  beneath the stage for illicit smokers. He was just coming up the basement stairs, on the far 'Stage Right' side of the back stage area, behind the elevator, so at first he didn't see anything. But he heard people calling for someone to 'Put It Out!!!" and he smelled it. Once you're a firefighter, your nose becomes attuned to smoke, especially smoke that shouldn't be there, and there shouldn't have been any smoke backstage at the Iroquois. Sallers was instantly on high alert.

He bolted around the elevator cage, probably all but running into a couple of people looking up as he did so. When he came around the elevator, he was diagonally behind the right-hand stage wing and the electrical panel, which put him just below and maybe 20 feet from the light bridge, which meant it was no way he could miss the developing disaster above him as he followed everyone's gaze.  He muttered a curse when he saw the fingers of orange rolling up the curtains, pumping black smoke into the fly gallery even as they raced upwards towards it.

He grabbed several Kilfyre tubes from their wall hooks, made the vertical ladder to the light bridge in about two steps, and somehow managed to scramble up the ladder while hanging on to the three foot long tubes. When he got to the light bridge he had a slew of problems.

The metal platform was narrow, packed with cables and the lights, and set at an angle that put the burning curtains beyond his reach. Ignoring the 12 foot drop to the stage, Sallers probably handed McMullen the tubes, then climbed over the bridge's pipe-made railing, straddling it before taking one of the tubes from him. Then he probably popped the cover off of the tube's discharge end, grabbed the railing one handed to steady himself, and reached as high up, and far over as he safely could as he whipped the tube back and forth, over his head, slinging the powder in an arc that didn't even come close to reaching the flames, and wouldn't have been effective even if it had...


Sallers called down to the backstage crew as he emptied the first tube...but he'd forgotten something, unless he meant for someone to run the two blocks to Randolph and Clark and pull the street box there. There was no box in the building.

As for the 'asbestos' fire curtain, it was as if no one even heard him, because absolutely nothing 

He called for both the box to be pulled and the curtain to be dropped a second time, even as he grabbed a second tube from McMullen, uncovered the discharge hole, and whipped it back and forth overhead just as he had the first, with even less success. The flames, which were leaping and rolling up the curtains with a vengeance, were by then out of reach and control of anything short of a fire hose and were, very likely, already licking at the scenery stored in the fly gallery.

Bits of burning cloth were beginning to drift towards the stage, like slowly falling stars, and the audience...at first...thought they were yet more of the play's amazing special effects. The double octet dancers performing 'In The Pale Moonlight', however, damn well knew that the burning bits of fabric they were having to dodge were not part of the show.

At first, the dancers continued as if everything was just fine, with several of them even thinking that the fire would be quickly brought under control, an opinion that was proven wrong in short order. Above them, Sallers had grabbed yet a third Kilfyr tube, and was slinging the contents at the flames with absolutely no effect other than causing a snowstorm of bicarbonate of soda to fall on the stage.

The Pale Moonlight dancers pressed on with their performance even as they dodged drifting bits of flaming cloth and faster moving mini-meteors of burning debris. Below them, in the Orchestra pit, the musicians making up the sixteen piece Iroquois orchestra could probably look straight up into the flies and see flames jumping from one highly flammable scenery flat to the next. Despite this  terrifying vantage point, they kept playing.

The audience by now knew the theater was on fire,,,especially those seated on the right side of the auditorium, on the 'Stage Left' side of the stage...they could now see the fly bridge, and could see both the flaming curtains and Bill Sallers comi-tragic, completely ineffective attempts to control the fire.

Some of the audience started leaving. Up in the balconies a hum of panic was starting...crying children, tense, murmured shoutings, rustlings of panicked motion...

Eddie Foy, meanwhile, was entirely unaware of the unfolding disaster as he touched up his make-up, and put on a wig with a comical, up-tilted pony-tail. It was as he was adjusting his wig that he heard the fight. Or, at least, what he at first thought was a fight. A few of the stage-hands had gotten in to it pretty seriously a few days earlier, and Eddie figured it was this same two or three people, at it again, as he got up from his chair, and opened his dressing room door. What he saw sent chills up his spine.

The dressing rooms were on six levels, off of a stairway on the 'Stage right' side of the backstage area and Eddie Foy's dressing room was likely the first one on the first level, hard by the stairs. He had to go down a short flight of steps and down a short corridor to reach the stage, and when he walked out of the corridor he got an eye-full of Bill Sellars' futile attempts to control the fire, which by now had roared into the fly loft like a runaway train, and was rolling across scenery flats at the rate of one every second or so.. One look told Eddie that the theater...or at least the stage area...was doomed.

He glanced around frantically for a second, spotting Brian still under the light bridge, probably watching Sallers tossing Kil Fyr. Eddie made it to his son in less than seconds, picked him up, very likely said something like 'Time to leave, buddy', and made his way back stage, probably dodging falling bits of flaming debris the whole time. As he carried Brian towards the Dearborn Street stage door, he could hear the panicked pandemonium that was the audience...sobbing and panicked cries, and a general rumbling and rustling, most of it from the galleries.

The stage crew was bailing out of the building en masse by then, and Eddie started to follow them out when those panicked sobs and cries from the audience started haunting him.

"Here..." Eddie said to one of the crew he knew well, handing Brian off to him. "See that my boy gets out of here, and watch him for me..." Once he knew Brian was safe, Eddie Foy made a broken field run through the rain of flaming debris, heading back for the stage, very likely mentally guesstimating just how long the ropes holding all of those burning scenery flats would hold before they burned through and dumped the whole flaming mass on the stage.

Even as Eddie made his way to the stage, the situation was worsening by the second. First, the Pale Moonlight octet began to falter as the dancers watched the fire. Then, the music (And the performance) stopped cold as several of the Orchestra members, watching the fire grow, left through the trap door and stairway that took them beneath the stage. One of the Octet dancers fainted, and her partner carried her backstage.

  In the audience several people on all three levels left...one young man of 12 grabbing his two siblings and, when his nanny insisted that it was 'Part of the show', ignored her and left, saving them. Several other kids were told to 'Sit back down before you start a panic'. Sadly, it's a good bet that many of them didn't make it out.


So far there was no smoke in the Auditorium itself...yet...but it was filling the two fly galleries, as well as the 'gridiron', the very upper portion of the stage, where a group of sixteen young German aerialists should have been awaiting their turn to perform, but instead were watching the fast-growing fire from above. Several pieces of burning scenery, some the size of bed sheets twisted and rolled, leaving smoke trails as they fell, while a couple more, catching the rising convection currents caused by the fire, drifted upwards towards them,....and one of these up-drafting fire-bombs caused one of their own to become the fire's first fatality when it wrapped around her. She screamed as she tried to unravel herself from the burning cloth, lost her grip, and plummeted to the back-stage floor sixty feet below, hitting the boards with a solid and deadly 'THUNK!" that the rest of the troupe swore down they actually felt. The rest of them unhooked from their wires, and, on the verge of panic themselves, scampered down some scaffolding. When they looked as they reached the bottom, Florentine...the girl who had fallen...wasn't there. Someone had apparently moved her, and they could only hope that she somehow managed to survive. Sadly, their hopes would be in vain.

...And, as the German aerialists scampered down the scaffolding, another performer was forgotten in all the terror and confusion.  Nellie Reed was still attached to her wire, still wearing that formidable Greek corset under her costume, and still 30 or so feet above the stage. She was also all alone, desperately trying to get the hook disengaged, and becoming more terrified by the second...then another big piece of burning canvas, kicked aloft by the fire's thermal updraft, wrapped itself around her and lit her filmy costume  off...and she started screaming. Still burning, she somehow untangled herself from the burning canvas, finally disconnected the wire from her rig, and made it to the same scaffolding that the German aerialists climbed down, crying in pain and terror and trying desperately to get her burning costume off the whole time.

Her costume burned off of her...she disappeared, horribly burned and in unspeakable pain, somehow making it to a stairway and down to the basement, below the stage, where she'd wander around in agony for several minutes until she was found by building engineer Robert Murray, who had just finished rescuing several trapped and terrified dancers and chorus girls by pushing them up and out of the theater's coal chute,...they would emerge on Couch Place still dressed in their costumes in the near-zero-degree cold, but they would be alive.

Murray happened upon Nellie Reed as he headed back up the stairs (Some sources have him finding her in the stairwell, others back stage). He carried the terrified and fatally burned young aerialist up the stairs that emptied near the Dearborn Street stage door, and carried her outside, handing her off to someone who would see that she was transported to a hospital. Unfortunately, she wouldn't survive the night.

The German Aerialists and Nellie Reed weren't the only performers trapped on the upper levels of the theater...there were six levels of dressing rooms, arranged in tiers, on the 'Stage Right' side of the back stage area, serviced by both the afore-mentioned staircase, and the elevator. Smoke and heat were already rolling into the dressing rooms on the upper level tiers when Eddie Foy handed his son off to a stage hand and headed for the stage, and it was thick, acrid, and thoroughly unbreathable.. Enter a mostly unsung hero named Robert Smith,who was the elevator operator. Elevators at the turn of the last century weren't automatic as today's elevators are, instead requiring an operator to manipulate a lever that raised and lowered the car. This was Bob Smith's job, and as the fire grew, he made the first trip, stopping at the first level to bring down a load of chorus girls. He cold hear the rumble of flames in the fly galleries, and the panicked cries in the audience as he handed off the chorus girls to electrician Archie Bernard, who was the point man of a group who herded the girls to and out of the Dearborn Street stage door.

As soon as he was sure the chorus girls were safe, Bob Smith closed the door and threw the control lever to 'UP', shooting towards the top level, diving into a malicious fog-bank of hot, acrid smoke as he did so. He found one girl trapped on the top...sixth...level then, hearing screams below him, stopped on the fifth level, all but working blind and coughing and wheezing as he packed the elevator full before heading back down and unloading. The scenery on stage was burning now, and an ominous crackling rumble came from the fly lofts as flames rolled through the scenery flats unchecked. He handed this load off to Archie Bernard as well, then shot back upward to either the third or forth level, where he had to drag several girls who were frozen with terror onto the elevator. The controls were hot by now, burning his hand as he headed back down. Flames were probably rolling through the upper levels of dressing rooms by then, and going back up a forth time would be suicide. He and Archie Bernard guided the girls to the stage door, bailing out of the burning theater along with them when they reached it.

The Dearborn Street stage door was a life-saver for many of the cast and crew, but a good third or so of the crew, and several of the performers were on the opposite side of the stage, nearer the Scenery doors, which opened onto Couch Place. There was another stage door, embedded in the big scenery door, and the first performers to reach it discovered a terrifying fact...the stage door was jammed tight. It moved maybe a quarter inch and stopped. 

I don't know why they didn't open the scenery door...it would have actually been better if they had done so then, early in the fire...but they didn't. Instead they considered crossing to the other door,  looked at the flaming debris beginning to rain down into the backstage area, then began pounding on the jammed door and screaming.

About the same time Archie Bernard was ushering the girls that Bob Smith had rescued through the Dearborn Street stage door while the cast and crew members on the Couch place side were discovering that their stage door was jammed, one of the first audience members to make it out of the theater shoved one of the main entrance doors open so hard it rang, and ran down Randolph Street. He all but ran down Peter Quinn, the AT&SF Railroad's Chief Special Agent, who was in charge of the team that investigated crimes committed against the railroad. Quinn had been walking up Randolph when the man nearly bowled him over, then pin-balled off of a couple other pedestrians and ran up to a police officer, saying something to him. The cop immediately went wide-eyed, glanced at the theater, and took off for the nearest police call box. The coatless man then continued up Randolph and hung a right on Dearborn.

A front view of the Iroquois' main entrance, said to have been taken early in the fire...note the smoke seeping from the bottom of the top left window. You can also tell that the upper floors are filled with smoke, which never banked down much lower then the floor of the second floor promenade.

Kodak had developed the roll-film 'Brownie' camera over a decade earlier, and those little cameras were not only extremely popular, they took (And, if you can find the 120-size roll film they took, still do take) pretty decent pics, so if this was indeed a quick shot of the very beginning stages of the fire, taken by a soon-to-be bystander, it's a good bet that it was taken by a 'Brownie' or similar box camera.

Quinn noticed the quick tang of smoke even as he quickly scanned the teaming crowd pouring out of the main entrance doors, many of them (Like the guy that nearly bowled him over) coatless in the bitter cold, and immediately knew what was going on. He trotted past the Real Estate Exchange building, and around the corner onto Dearborn, glancing across the narrow vacant lot beyond the Real Estate Building and next to the theater, where he saw people...many in costume...milling around and hustling out of the Dearborn Street stage door. He probably cut diagonally across the lot, rounding the corner onto Couch Place, and he heard it as soon as he rounded that corner...pounding and screaming, voices yelling 'Oh GOD, please get us out of here!! 

The big scenery door, which had a standard single door embedded in the center of it, was right at the corner of the building and opened onto Couch Place, with the smaller door being one that all of the terrified screaming and pounding was behind. Quinn Muttered an oath, grabbed the doorknob and twisted it, yanking hard on the door...he might as well have been trying to move the wall of the theater, because the door was jammed tight. He glanced at the hinges, saw that it was hinged on the outside, and yanked a small tool kit from a pocket. My bet is he grabbed a screwdriver.

"Hang on, I'm going to pop the pins out of the hinges..." Probably working from top to bottom, he quickly popped the pins, then called for the people trapped behind the door to move back. He yanked on the door, letting it fall and stepping back himself as a throng of a hundred or so people...both adults and children, some of them in colorful costumes and all of them coatless, hustled out of the door, a coupe of them confirming what he already suspected as they told him the theater was on fire. 

He had no way of knowing that the larger door...the door that the personnel door whose hinge pins he'd just popped was embedded in...would play a huge and deadly part in the carnage to come.


Quinn had probably just started removing the Couch Place stage door's hinges when Eddie Foy trotted out on stage with burning scenery as his backdrop and heavy smoke beginning to roll out from beneath the proscenium arch (And beginning to fill the balconies). Dressed partially in drag and wearing a wig that included a huge, upswept pony-tail, he strode to the edge of the stage and called out:

 'Please, don't get excited...There's no danger if you stay calm...please sit down, it'll be alright, there's no danger, it'll be all right...'

Whether he actually believed this or not is open to speculation, but the main things he was trying to do were prevent a panic and get the fire curtain lowered to buy the audience some much-needed time. With those goals in mind he first looked down at Orchestra conductor Herbert Dillia and the six musicians who remained, all standing in a Hodge-podge of overturned chairs and music stands left by those who had fled.

"An overture, Herbert, play an overture, play anything...just keep your music up..." and the six muscuians swung into the overture for Beauty And The Beast'

That accomplished, Eddie called for the fire curtain to be lowered (Not realizing that Sellars had already called for it to be lowered, with no success). If they could drop that, so he thought, it would protect the audience at least long enough for them to get out...

...But there was a problem. No one knew where the stage manager was (He'd gone to a nearby hardware store to buy something that was needed back stage...what that item may have been is long lost to history) and to make matters even worse, the guy who usually handled the curtains had been hospitalized that morning and a stage hand named Joe Daugherty was subbing for him after a quick and cursory explanation of what ropes controlled which curtain...and for the life of him he couldn't remember which of the wire-reinforced ropes dropped the 'asbestos' fire curtain. So, as people called for him to 'Drop the Fire Curtain, and the bell that rang to warn that the curtain was dropping, activated by some unknown person, peeled in the background, and the audience panicked even as Eddie Foy tried desperately to prevent said panic, he was staring at what looked to him like a rats nest of ropes, completely confused.

And Eddie Foy grew more frustrated by the second as he waited, in vain for the fire curtain to drop, calling for it to drop a second time as a couple loud crashes resounded from back-stage...larger pieces of scenery, possibly an entire scenery flat or two, crashing to the floor. Dozens of thoughts were running through his head...time for a change in game-plan...

"OK, we need to get out of here, folks, but take your time...go slow, we've got plenty of time, don't be frightened...take your time,"...He turned as a couple of stage hands passed behind him, making tracks for the stage door. "For Gods sake, drop the fire curtain! Does anyone  know how the fire curtain works???"

The Octet dancers had bailed by then, a couple of the girls carried to the stage door by their male partners after fainting, and the six remaining orchestra members quickly left through the trap door that took them below the stage, where they'd have a round-about journey up a set of steps, back stage, and out the stage door...

...Many of the audience members hadn't had to be told to leave...they were coming to that conclusion on their own, and, like the audience at the Brooklyn Theater twenty-seven years earlier, most of those on the first level would make it out by just leaving through the exits out to the lobby, and them through the main entrance. OF course, that makes their escape sound far, far easier than it actually was. While most would make it out of the first level, they wouldn't have an easy time of it.

All three of the exits out to the lobby were tri-fold French doors, (Actually a bifold door, with a single French door to the right of it.) and all were initially locked (Probably with those Bascule locks that the building's designer was so taken with) and on top of that, the ushers reportedly refused to unlock them. (They would later say that the theaters's management had never told them when to unlock the doors, only that they were to remain locked during a performance. The thought ' If The Building's On Fire, Unlock The Freakin' Doors ' apparently didn't occur to them.).

Only the middle set of doors was partially opened...the bifold door was broken open, reportedly after a recalcitrant usher was...er...forcibly removed from it and there were fatalities among the crowd fighting their way out of the first level, most due to being trampled to death as they all tried to make it out of that single double-width doorway. The panicked mob rolled over women and children like an out of control steam roller, some of these women and kids going down after people behind them stepped on the hems of long dresses, then bowled them over. Conversely, some of the people being trampled grabbed hold of the skirts of women who were trampling them, pulling their skirts and dresses off...quite a few women were found on the street wearing only their Victorian undergarments.

The only reason that there weren't more first level fatalities was because the smoke never really mushroomed all the way down to the first level of the auditorium...the auditorium's high, high ceiling and the exhaust fan above the rear of the gallery vented the building just enough to keep the bottom of the smoke layer well above the heads of the orchestra/Parquet level occupants.

While few on the first level died, those occupants still lived a nightmare of panic and terror. Parents and children were separated from each other as were sets of siblings. Some theater-goers showed a resourcefulness that was uncanny...one young lady of about twelve, finding herself separated from her mom and cut off from the aisles by the panicking mob, jumped up on her seat and, using the seat backs as stepping stones, bypassed most of the crowd, then, upon reaching the rear aisle, slalomed her way through the crowd until she reached the south side of the auditorium and slipped through the exit to the lobby before escaping through the main exit...

...But all wasn't roses at the exits out to Randolph Street either. Once the crowd made it into the vestibule they were home free, because the three street doors were all unlocked, but the ''Making It Into The Vestibule Part' presented another problem. While all of the street doors were unlocked, all three of the vestibule doors, between lobby and vestibule, were locked, and all were the same type of 'trifold' (Bifold French with a single French Door on one side) that were used as the Parquet level exits out to the lobby. All three of the bifold doors were ultimately unlocked and opened...the middle one after it was broken open...while the single door on the door-sets to either side were both broken open, either by the crowd itself, or someone who came in from the outside. Once just one of those doors was opened, the panicking crowd hit it in a mass rush. 

 The panicked crowd trying to make it through the inner vestibule doors kept jamming up as everyone tried to make it through the doorways at the same time.  Luckily, there was plenty of outside help at the front of the theater, because the box office was open, selling tickets to later performances, which is also why the vestibule doors were locked. The ticket-buyers-turned-rescuers kept having to drag people off of the rapidly growing pile-ups to keep the crowd moving. As one of them stated 'We'd clear the doors, and a dozen or so people would make it through, then they'd start jamming up again, and we'd have to clear the doors again...' (These brave souls likely came close to getting trampled themselves).

The audience on the first level...the Parquet and Orchestra sections...may have had a rough time making it out, and may have been banged up, bruised up, and traumatized...but the majority of them did make it out. The audience in the balconies, however, would be an entirely different story. Panic was beginning to overwhelm them, especially with fire now visible on stage and heavy smoke rolling out from beneath the proscenium arch, to be dawn upward into the Gallery by the big exhaust fan over the rear of upper level. Smoke, heavy, nasty, and toxic, was beginning to fill the balconies, stinging eyes and filling lungs to bring on fits of uncontrollable coughing.

Some of the Dress Circle and Gallery occupants never even made it out of their seats, suffocating in the heavy smoke before they even had a chance to try to escape. The hundreds...mostly women and children...who were fighting for their lives as they did  try to escape began running up on the multiple obstacles that had been inadvertently thrown in the way of a successful escape.

As rough a go as the parquet level occupants had, that level still all but emptied pretty quickly, and those very few who left the Dress circle (First balcony) early in the fire also had a comparatively easy go of it, but the Dress Circle and Gallery occupants who waited more than a very few minutes before trying to escape had a multitude of obstacles in their way, and believe it or not, the locked accordion gates were the least of them, because most of those who died got jammed up at the entrances to the two balconies or on the fire escapes before they could even get close to the gates.

One group from the Gallery almost made it out, though. Almost. The Iroquois topmost level of seating (The Gallery) emptied onto a 'U' shaped promenade that extended along both the east and west walls, all the way to the front of the building. A utility stairway that allowed theater employees and vendors to move between floors without having to use the main stairway was located at the south (Front) end of the eastern third floor promenade,. It also provided access to the theater manager's office as well as the music room...both located on the second floor. And, as the stairway dumped into the main entrance foyer, in theory, it could have given anyone escaping the fire a nearly straight shot out of the theater's main entrance. Unfortunately, this could also allow someone to enter off of the street and bypass the box office to gain themselves a free seat.

could have, anyway, except for the door on the north end of the second floor landing, which was kept locked. Which also made it not only useless, but potentially deadly, as a fire exit. As a gallery occupant named James Strong was about to find out.

James Strong, who had attended the play with his wife, mother, and teenage niece, decided early on that it was time to leave the building, despite Eddie Foy's insistence that they were safe where they were. Panic was beginning to erupt around them, and I can picture him saying something like 'Let's get the hell outa here, guys'. to the other three members of his party...I get the impression they were seated pretty near the Gallery's eastern-most entrance, which was one of the few doors that wasn't locked or jammed, making getting out of the Gallery itself a piece of cake. Getting out of the theater, however,  would be another story altogether..

When the Strong family got up and made their way towards the exit, around thirty more people took the hint and followed. They made it out before smoke had really started filling the upper part of the theater and just before panicked theater-goers mobbed the exits, jamming them up with a solid wall of trapped and trampled bodies.

They started down the steps leading to the main stairway, only to spot the accordion gates blocking the landing They quickly regained the third level promenade, hung the 90 degree turn, dropped down another short flight of steps, and ran head-long down the section of the third floor promenade that ran along the theater's east wall. They dropped down a short, open flight of steps into the third floor landing for the utility stairwell with a burst of relief that was all but ecstatic as they hit the first flight of the utility stairway...but then they encountered the door separating the second and third floors. James Strong twisted the door knob, finding it locked...

The utility stairway door that trapped James Strong's family along with a couple of dozen other Gallery occupants. James Strong climbed out through the transom over the door, then went in search of either help, keys, or something to break the door down with, whichever he might find first.

The board sitting across the door jamb just might be the one that he desperately wielded when he tried unsuccessfully smash the door so he could rescue his family and the rest of the people trapped with them.  Firefighters finally used an ax to smash open the bottom of the door panel...You can see where the lower panel was bashed in...in an attempt to reach the trapped occupants, but by then it was too late.

As James Strong and his thirty or so fellow patrons were making that heart-breaking discovery, the rest of the occupants of the Gallery and the Dress Circle were ignoring Eddie Foy's pleas for calm, and mobbing either the fire escape doors or the exits leading to the main stairways. All three levels had at least three exits out to the fire escape (Or, for the first level, directly out to Couch Place).but there were no exit signs (Remember...they would have been a 'distraction') and the doors were hidden behind heavy drapes, making them resemble windows. It took the quickly panicking crowd a couple of minutes...at least...to to figure out that these lavishly curtained windows were actually the fire exits. When they did figure that out, they pulled the drapes aside (Or, more likely, down) and immediately began queuing up at the doors, expecting them to be easily popped open...they were, after all, fire escape doors... only to find them secured by Bascule locks, which the great majority of US citizens had never even seen before, much less actually operated.

This would have been a problem...or at least an inconvenience...if there was no fire, but with a panicked mob pressing against the two or three people at each door who were trying to figure out just exactly how the locks operated, and smoke quickly filling the balconies, burning their eyes, and causing fits of spasmodic coughing, these exits became multiple death traps.

They got lucky with a couple of the doors, when either a recent European immigrant or someone who actually had some of the few other Bascule locks in the U.S. in their own home knew how to operate the locks, and managed to open the inner, French doors.  A couple of the other inner doors were opened by brute strength, but when they got the inner doors open, they found that they still had a problem. These were stacked doors, with French inner doors, and windowless steel outer doors. The steel outer doors were supposed to be opened and swung flat against the theater's brick wall, out of the way of anyone exiting onto or descending on the fire escapes before every performance, but this didn't happen. Therefore, the outer doors were also locked, using difficult to operate industrial style latches...and a coupe of these refused to budge.

The crowd managed to get two fire escape doors open on the first level, one, and possibly two doors opened on the Dress Circle, and all three doors in the Gallery open, none of them easily.  Those Parquet level patrons who hadn't already exited through the single main entrance that was opened flooded through the two open fire exits into Couch Place to find frigid temps and smoke rolling from the roof of the theater, Bedlam was erupting above them as the occupants of the two galleries poured out onto the twin fire escapes, and found yet another host of problems, a couple of them particularly deadly...


...Even as all of this drama unfolded, Eddie Foy probably breathed a sigh of relief as the fire curtain finally started easing down in it's guide track. Most of the stage crew had either left, or were at the stage doors, queuing up to leave, but someone in the crew hadn't bailed yet, and they actually knew how to lower the thing.  Eddie watched as the curtain started easing down, rollers probably rumbling gently in the wooden tracks...probably thinking 'Finally...this will buy us a little bit of time...'  as, for a few seconds, the lowering curtain stopped, or at least slowed, the smoke rolling into the Auditorium. His relief was to be short lived.

I don't know if he spotted it before or after the curtain jammed up. Remember those front lights on the sides of the proscenium arch? Specifically the one that bounced back open and therefore wasn't completely retracted? That reflector was probably on the stage left (Right as you face the stage) side of the stage and Eddie Foy's eyes went huge as that side of the curtain hung up on the front light, stopping twenty feet above the stage and refusing to move, while the other side of the curtain continued to drop. Someone...maybe even Eddie himself...very likely yelled 'Whoa..whoa..   WHOA!!!' to whoever was lowering the curtain, and it stopped with the low side about five feet above the stage and the high side still twenty feet up, hung up on the reflector.

Smoke and super-heated gasses were 'mushrooming'...starting to move downward as they filled the fly-galleries...and now heavy smoke started rolling from beneath the high side of the curtain, adding to the malicious over-cast of smoke in the auditorium.

Several stage hands tried desperately to free the high side of the curtain, Building Engineer Robert Murray coming perilously close to tumbling off of the edge of the stage into the empty orchestra pit, but it was useless. (Murray would head down to the basement immediately after, where he'd make sure the boilers were shut down before rescuing several dancers and aerialist Nellie Reed.)

 If the curtain had been stopped and reversed a foot or so the instant it hung up, they could have possibly just closed that front light and continued lowering it. But they didn't, and now it was in a bind, the high side too high to jump up and reach, and the roller twisted just enough that it was in a bind, jamming it and preventing the stage crew from pushing it up off of the light with scenery poles. The low side was in even more of a bind, and twisted far worse, pulled by the uneven high side of the curtain, putting a 
lot of stress on the wooden track....and the first punch of a one-two punch was thrown.

With a splintering, ripping, drawn out crack, the rail on the low side ripped loose and the roller on the low side tore away from it, leaving the bottom of the curtain free to sway.

Remember the stage door was open, and the breeze whipping in billowed the now-free curtain outward like a spinnaker on a sailboat, heavy smoke rolling and puffing from beneath the curtain as it swayed and flapped in the breeze. The gallery was probably almost obscured by smoke by now. and the Dress Circle was also filling up with smoke. They didn't know it yet...but they were running out of time even faster then they knew...


A Cataclysmic event was only minutes away, but even before it happened, even as the fire grew with each passing second as the stage crew tried vainly to get the jammed curtain down, people were already dying by the hundreds on the two balconies...

A chart showing the locations of all of the doors in the Iroquois, as well as their status (Locked, unlocked but difficult to open, unlocked and open.) I've tried to remember to refer any door mentioned back to this chart as a reference for you guys as you read the post.

Multi-section doors use a number for the door, and a letter designation for each section (For example, 33a, 33b, 33c, 33d) and colors indicate that door or sections status, as indicated on the key. Most of the multi-section doors were French doors.

Other important features are also noted, so this floor plan is an excellent reference point to keep in mind while reading this post.  Charts courtesy iroquoistheater.com.

By the time the crowd on the fire escapes had shoved, broken, or forced the metal outer doors open, smoke had probably banked all of the way down to the floor in the Gallery, and was steadily filling the Dress Circle, so it was an increasingly desperate crowd that found themselves on the twin fire escape stairways...and they also found that they had had more problems, and they were bad ones.

 First, lets talk about the fire escape door at the northeast corner of the Dress Circle....Door 31 on the door chart above. This door would have been at the rear corner of The Dress Circle, also making it the highest Dress Circle fire escape door from the ground.  The panicked crowd managed to get it open, only to find that there was a two foot drop from the floor of the Dress Circle to the top landing of the fire escape. Sadly, they found that drop the hard way...by blindly making that first step. And falling. 

The ankle length skirts and dresses of the day would have made that a daunting first step if you knew it was there, and would not have exactly helped speed up the evacuation, because all of those ladies, shepherding terrified kids, would have had to have looked at what they were doing and stepped gingerly out and down, creating a back-up. Again, let me reiterate...this is what would have happened if they knew that two foot drop was there.

This is possibly the infamous Door 31, the top-most Fire Escape Exit from the Dress Circle, on that balcony's north-east corner. There was a 24 inch drop from the floor of the Dress Circle to the fire escape landing, causing the first several people out of the exit to trip and fall. Those behind them either stumbled on the pile-up and pitched over the railing, falling to their death, or piled up in the doorway, blocking it. The several dozen bodies found piled up at this exit, sadly, would not be the worst body count at a single exit by far.

That dubious title would belong to the main Dress Circle exit, directly opposite this door on the south-east corner

...But they didn't know it was there, and they were in a blind panic, rushing to escape the smoke filling the Dress Circle, making that gargantuan first step a death trap of the first magnitude.  Everyone expected to just step right out onto the landing, so it's an all but sure bet that the very first person out the door fell...not tripped, fell...and two or three others followed suit, ending up in a tangle on the landing. Then more people tripped over them, and several may have even pitched forward and over the railing, to fall to their death on the cobblestones below. 

As this was happening, the panicked crowd still inside tried to force their way out of the door, and the next group that tripped and went down blocked the door way...then more people tried to force their way out of the doorway, trying to climb over the fallen bodies in the doorway until an immovable mass of humanity was piled up in the doorway, totally blocking the exit. It's a very good bet that very few people actually made it out of Door 31. Numerous bodies would be found in that deadly corner, but it wouldn't even be close to the worst death trap with-in a deathtrap on that frigid Wednesday afternoon. Some of of the worst ones were the fire escapes themselves.

There were several more problems with the fire escapes. When the doors were opened half way, they completely blocked the fire escape, but that wasn't the biggest problem. Remember, the outer doors were designed to swing 180 degrees so they could lay flat against the outside wall when open all the way, so they could  be swung out of the way. It wouldn't have taken long for the crowds pushing through the fire exits to figure this out. It was, in fact, probably discovered almost as soon as they cleared the door, when the throngs of people at each exit pushed against the door between them and the safety of Couch Place. They likely wasted no time slamming the doors on the 'downstairs' side against the wall, allowing them to continue downward.

 Remember, though, the Dress Circle  and Gallery exits weren't all on the same level...there were three exits from both balconies, each a bit higher (Or lower depending on where you were) then the other, so the those coming out of the two higher exits on each balcony were still blocked by an open door. No problem...they either pulled it all of the way open or, most likely, shoved it closed, and continued down. Of course, pushing it closed would have blocked people who were still inside that exit, so it's possible that the doors on the 'upstairs' side of each exit see-sawed between open and closed a couple of times until someone finally swung it all of the way open...if they had room to do so with people crowding them from above. This still wasn't their biggest problem, though. It's when they were almost at the bottom that they quickly found the real problem.

A schematic of the Iroquois' exterior fire escapes, detailing the problems that faced terrified, panicked theater-goers who were trying to escape the fire. Pay particular attention to the description of the problems with the uppermost fire escape door (Door 31 on the door chart) which I also detailed above. Chart courtesy iroquoistheater.com

The northwest corner of the Gallery...the top most balcony...during the after-fire investigation.  The fireball rolled across the ceiling and into the Gallery, causing the heavy damage seen here. The Gallery was was still almost fully occupied when this happened. Nearly three hundred people died there when that happened....many in their seats, others in the exits and on the narrow promenade immediately outside of the exits as they jammed up in the panic  The debris draped over the brass railing on the left side of the frame is just some of the hundreds of coats and other personal possessions left behind by the victims as they tried to escape the fire.

You can also see just how steeply pitched the seats were here.Take a look the two fire escape doors...these would have been Doors 37 a-b (Right side of frame) and 36 a-b (Lower left side of frame) and are labeled as two doors each due to them being stacked doors, with a French door on the inside and a steel door on the outside. Take a look how much lower Door 36 is than door 37...the two doors are separated horizontally by only about 17 feet, but the pitch is so steep that door 36 is almost six feet lower than door 37. Or to put it another way, each row of seats is nearly two feet lower than the row behind it.

From the looks of Door 37, the panicked mob trying to get out managed to break down the inner French door, only to find the steel outer door closed and latched...it appears to still be latched here. On the chart, it's listed as unknown if opened,but from the number of people trapped on the top-most landing, it had to have been opened. It's not at all improbable that the crowd of investigators seen in the pic pulled it closed to block some of the frigid air that would have been rolling in to the now-unheated building.

The bottom section of steps on both fire escapes were designed to fold up, out of the way of traffic on Couch Place...all fire escapes are designed this way...and normally a quick yank on a release drops it. Remember, though, Chicago had been dealing with some nasty, frigid weather over the past several weeks. The bottom section of stairs on both fire escapes were frozen solid. The lower fire escape...from the Dress Circle...was apparently freed fairly early on, allowing the people on that set of steps to make it to safety, but the ladder for the upper...Gallery...fire escape remained solidly frozen.

One father took matters into his own hands as soon as he reached the bottom of the Gallery fire escape. Eleven year old Harriet Bray (Who would be one of the longest-living survivors of the fire) had attended the play with her dad, and so far they'd been lucky. They had been on the lowest portion of the Gallery, fairly near a fire exit, which her dad had managed (With help) to break open even as the Gallery filled with heat and nasty, toxic smoke. They were very likely all but coughing up a lung when they finally made it out to the frigid cold on the fire escape and started down only to find the bottom section of the fire escape frozen solid in the raised position. 

Mr Bray quickly came up with a plan, and told Harriet what he was going to do. He then vaulted over the rail and made the 12 foot jump to the cobblestones below, looked up at his daughter, and said something like 'OK, Sweetheart, I've got you...jump!! From the description I read, she was all but already climbing over the rail as her dad got ready, and when she jumped, her dad made a perfect catch. 

Meanwhile, as the Brays were escaping from the Gallery,  things were going from desperate to deadly a level below them, in the Dress Circle. The three interior Dress Circle exits that opened out to the twin Grand Staircases were on the opposite side of the auditorium from the fire exits, and all were equipped with ornate, multi-section French doors. When smoke started rolling into the Dress Circle like a killer fog bank, panic became desperate terror, and three hundred-plus people rushed those three exits, immersing themselves in heavy smoke as they did so.

 One of the three exits was near the southwest corner...front corner...of the Dress Circle, and used a trifold French door. This one opened directly onto eastern grand staircase, but it had two problems...it was either jammed or locked, and using it required people to (I'm guessing, here, BTW) climb a small flight of steps, and then hang a left to exit. A third or so of the Dress Circle crowd...those closest to the stage...crowded into that small staircase, and those closest to the doorway shoved, pounded upon, kicked, and cursed the triple doors until they were smashed open, and a flood tide of humanity surged through it...until someone tripped. Someone inevitably tripped on that small flight of steps to be trampled by the onrushing throng, then someone else tripped over them...and that person took a third person down with them, and it became a deadly game of dominoes as people either tripped over them or tried to climb over them, and multiple people, blinded by smoke, coughing their lungs up, and crazed by terror, all tried to climb over each other until there was a pile of dying humanity stuffed between the railings on that small staircas.

This would not  be the worst of it

Another group surged towards the middle of the three exits, which was a double French door...but that would be a moot point, because when they got to the door, it was locked, and no amount of pounding would open it. People either died right their or, groping their way along the Dress Circle's South wall, made their way to one of the other two exits. They would either succumb to smoke inhalation between the exits, or simply find another jam-up to die in.

The majority of the Dress Circle crowd headed for the same door they had entered...the four section French door equipped main entrance (Actually a pair of two section French doors) on that balcony's southeast corner. The panicked mob of mostly moms and kids dropped down a short ramp as they piled up against the doors, only to find yet another deadly design flaw. There was a specific way this door had to be opened or it would jam on the ramp.  From the looks of it, the outer two sections had to be pushed outward with the inner panels still in the closed position to get them clear of the ramp. Once they were clear, the inner panels were folded against the outer sections, then the whole shooting match could be opened all of the way.

Not at all intuitive, especially to this crowd who were blinking acid tears as smoke blinded them, and coughing uncontrollably as smoke filled their lungs. Someone did what everyone does when encountering such a door...pushed at the hinge point between sections, pushing each section open from the middle. In the process, the doors inevitable swung a bit inward,  jamming the two inner sections on the ramp, which also manged to jam the doors mostly closed.

The main exit from the Dress Circle (Doors 33 a-d on the door chart), which would have been on the south-east corner of the Dress Circle and was at the head of one of the two Grand Stairways, which should have made it all but a straight shot out of the main exit.

Instead it became the deadliest exit in the theater. The doors...broken open here...jammed when the terrified occupants tried to open them, leaving only a quarter of the door opening unobstructed and usable. Over a hundred people all tried to get out of that one opening at the same time, resulting in a tangle of bodies that was almost as tall as the door itself piled and jammed in the doorway, and a mass of nearly a hundred bodies piled up on the floor of the balcony hard by the door.

Their were two other interior exits from the Dress Circle., The middle exit (Doors 32 a-c) was locked, and never opened, and the exit on the northeast corner of the Dress Circle (Doors 28 a-c) required occupants to drop down a short stairway, then make a 90 degree turn to the left to exit the door....dozens of bodies were found jammed on that stairway as well.

Attempts to open them further only managed to jam them worse.  The crowd basically freaked, shoving and pulling and kicking at the doors until they managed, ultimately, to tear the inner section on the right side completely free, but they probably pulled the outer section inward as they did so, jamming it and forcing nearly two hundred panic-crazed people to funnel through an opening about as wide as a standard door. A few...a very few...did make it out, but that ended when someone fell in that narrow doorway, and the terrified throng tried to climb, clamber, or jump over them, three and four people all hitting that doorway at the same time, until dying people were stacked almost to the top of the door frame, trapping everyone else behind them.

Some occupants of both galleries wouldn't even make it out of their seats...maybe they were initially frozen in terror, or maybe they were waiting to see if the jam-ups would clear, but whatever the case, they would succumb to smoke inhalation where they sat. Others didn't make it to a fire exit, and stopped short of the body-jammed main exits from the gallery. Several of these people took a look at the half-wall at the front end of the balconies, gauged the distance to the parquet level floor (Or seats), swallowed hard, then climbed the half walls...and jumped.

The fifteen or so foot drop from the Dress Circle was on the very borderline of being survivable...but not without injury. Anyone managing to land on their feet broke a leg or hip (Or maybe both legs), and if you landed on a seat, or even worse, astride a seat back, you would be injured in some of the most horrible ways imaginable. But they might survive, to be carried from the lower level of the auditorium to a hospital.

If you jumped from the Gallery, however, you were doomed...that was about a thirty or so foot drop, and you'd hit the floor...or seat...or parquet level occupant...at about 25 miles per hour. There was no way that was survivable...even if a person survived that initial fall, they would have been gravely injured, with death all but inevitable.

Anyone on the parquet level who was hit by one of these jumpers (From either of the balconies) was also doomed as their head...and neck...would take most of the impact. There were only twenty or so fatalities among Parquet/Orchestra level occupants, and several of them were trampled to death...but a few others were hit by jumpers, and I can just about bet that the cause of death for these unfortunate souls was a 'High Level Cervical Fracture'...a broken neck.


Back in the Utility stairwell, James Strong, his family, and the twenty-five or so people who'd followed them down the third floor promenade choked on the smoke that was quickly filling the upper part of the theater. He pounded desperately on the locked second floor landing door, hoping against hope that someone on the other side would hear them, have (Or be able to find) a key, and unlock it, but all the pounding was giving him were sore hands. It wouldn't surprise me if a couple of them tried kicking it open to no avail.

The smoke was getting heavier by the second....but there was enough visibility for James to realize there was a transom above the door.

"Quick, someone give me a boost!" He called back to the rest of his group, a couple of whom lifted him up towards the closed transom. Suddenly realizing that he had nothing to break the glass with, Strong wrapped his shirt sleeve around his fist, and, working nearly blind due to the smoke,  pounded on the glass, shattering it. He probably cleared as much of the glass from the transom's frame as possible before dragging himself through head first and dropping to the floor on the other side. The locked door was on a landing halfway between the second and third floors, and Strong had to go to his left about five feet to find the flight that led to the second floor. He all but tumbled down that half-flight and bounded off of the stairs to find another locked door.

He tried the door (Maybe there's a key in here) with no success...he then looked back up the stairwell, and his heart sank.. The second floor landing 
had been pretty clear of smoke, but a boiling cloud of it was now rolling through the shattered transom, and desperate coughing and screaming from the other side of the door made it clear that he didn't have much more time. He wasn't going to get the door open without tools...he headed down the steps, hoping to find more help, and ran in to none other than light operator Bill McMullen, who was also desperately looking for a pass key, but for a different reason,

McMullen was rushing to see that a friend of his...believed to be a female restroom attendant...got out safely. Strong quickly reported that there was no pass key, that the stairwell door was locked, and that there were thirty or so people...his family among them...trapped on the other side of that door.

Who knows where they found it, but the two men snagged a short, solid board from somewhere and pounded back up the steps, then took turns at smashing the board against the door which, though it sang like a tuning fork with every blow, didn't budge an inch.  Strong's heart sank as he realized all was quiet on the other side of the door...


In the Iroquois entrance vestibule, only yards from the utility stairway where James Strong and Bill McMullen would soon be desperately trying to get the second floor landing door open, ticket-taker Fred Brackenbush watched in awed, and slightly frightened wonder as a near literal stampede of humanity rushed through the vestibule and out of the main entrances. He knew the theater was on fire, but that didn't worry him too much...the fire was back stage, and he was over 100 feet away from it...just let all of this crowd get clear and he could just...

"Fred!!..." Brackenbush's head snapped around to see one of his bosses...theater manager Thomas Noonan...standing at his window. 'Lock the cash box and get it out of here...take it to the cigar store next door, they'v got a vault..." Then Noonan disappeared , and Brackenbush quickly set about closing the cash box (Containing around 1700 dollars...just north of 47, 000 dollars today) and trying to get out of the door...which he found jammed closed by the teeming crowd outside. So then did the next best thing by shoving the ticket window all of the way open and pulling himself through it, dropping to the floor on his feet, cradling the cash box like a ball carrier going for the goal line, and bulling his way through the crowd, out of the door, and into the frigid weather outside.

He hung a right and, shivering in the cold as he ran, made for the Best and Russell Cigar Store on the first floor of the Real Estate Building (Still standing as today's Delaware Building). Brackenbush pushed through the cigar store's front door, ran to the counter, and told the store's owner what was going on, and what he needed...and I can hear this conversation taking place, as the store's owner took the cash box, opened the vault, and placed it inside...

"A fire at the theater??...has anyone called the Fire Department?"

"I don't know!" Brackenbush may have replied over a look of bewilderment....and the stores owner, picked up the phone, rang for the operator and, when he got her, asked to be connected to the Fire Department, like then.

And, as he said something to the effect of  'I need to report a fire at the Iroquois...' he may have been making the first report of the fire...or maybe not.


McMullen and Sallers had both probably bailed off of the light bridge when it became clear that Sallers wasn't going to control the fire, but the two men went in different directions. McMullen headed for the utility stairway to see to his friend on the third floor while Sallers continued in fire-fighter mode, helping to get cast and crew members out of the Dearborn Street stage door.

'Where the hell's Engine 13???' He likely asked himself as he hurried people to and out of the stage door...then it hit him. The box hadn't been pulled because there was no box in the Iroquois.

He stopped rushing people out of the door for just a second, just long enough to ask one of them...who turned out to be carpenter John McClosky...if he knew where Engine 13's house was located.

"Straight down Dearborn, just the other side of Lake Street, on the left...Go!" Sallers may have told McClosky, who disappeared through the stage door, heading for and up Deerborn...

...But here's what we don't know...just how fast McClosky ran...or walked...to get to Engine 13. But head for Engine 13 he did...


Engine 13's firehouse, located at 209 N.Dearborn Street, as it looked in 1903. The firehouse was only two blocks from the front of the theater, and one block from the scenery door on Couch Place, The rigs were likely 'stacked' one behind the other behind the single bay door, with the Chief's buggy in front, the hose wagon behind the 'buggy', and the steamer in the rear, where it's boiler was connected ti the station's hot water heater via a rubber hose and quick-connect coupling to cut the time needed to get steam up and to working pressure. 

On the afternoon of the fire, Fireman Mike Corrigan was sitting at the house-watch desk, just inside the personnel door to the left of the bay door when john McClosky knocked on the door to report the fire. As soon as he got the report, Corrigan would have hit a button to sound the station gong, 'Stilling Out' the company, and would have probably called the fire alarm office to advise them of the alarm. As soon as the bells hit, chains across the entrances to the horse stalls would have dropped, and the horses...as well trained in their jobs as the fire-fighters were at fighting fire...immediately trotted to their assigned places in front of the rigs, where their drivers woulds pull on a rope or chain which dropped their harnesses, hung from the ceiling, down on them and finished the hitch using snap-like quick-hitches. As all of this was going on, a couple of firefighters would be swinging the big bay doors open. During this era, Rigs regularly got out of the house in half a minute or so when an alarm came in.

...And at Engine 13's house, sitting at the watch desk just inside the personnel door at the southeast corner of the building, was future Chicago Fire Commissioner Mike Corrigan, who was also acting as Battalion Chief Hannon's driver that day.

Specifically, though, at that moment Corrigan was very likely being very glad that he was inside, where radiators were hissing, keeping the building nice and wa...

And then a knock sounded at the door's glass window, and he looked over to see a face at the window.  Corrigan jumped up from his chair and walked the few steps to the door, opening it,  probably wincing at the flood of 0 degree air that poured in, even as he noticed that the guy didn't have a coat on and was shivering. Corrigan stepped aside, ushering the man in, then going wide-eyed as he realized what he was saying.

I can just about bet that Corrigan stuck his head out of the door, looked south on Dearborn, and probably breathed a curse as he saw the column of smoke already pushing skyward. He made it back to the watch desk in a couple of giant steps and finger-stabbed a button that sounded the bells, 'stilling out' Engine 13 and the Chief. As men appeared through the pole holes, sliding the shiny brass poles from the second floor, Corrigan shouted ' The Iroquois's on fire!!! (It's a good bet he also called the Fire Alarm office to 'still them out' officially...this would get them a single truck company responding along with themselves)

The chains across the horse's stalls automatically dropped (The chains dropped automatically when the bells hit, no matter whether they were activated by the telegraph alarm system or the 'Still' button) and the well trained animals trotted to their positions in front of the rigs, (The rigs were probably 'stacked' one behind the other as the station only had a single bay door, probably Chief's buggy, hose wagon, then the steamer) as a couple of guys swung the big exit doors open. Engine 13's engineer tossed a burning taper into the steamer's firebox, and other firefighters pulled releases that dropped quick-hitch harnesses onto the horses.

"The Iroquois? No Shit???' someone very likely yelled to Corrigan as firefighters pulled stepped into and pulled up 3/4 boots, pulled on rubber coats and donned leather helmets. Corrigan hitched the horse to the Chief's buggy as Chief Hannon, already in white coat and helmet, pulled himself up into the shotgun seat. Corrigan dived up into the drivers seat, grabbing the reins and flicking them, calling the animals name...the well trained horse, eager to roll, very likely bounced them back into the seats a bit as he tore out of the house, swinging to the right with the hose wagon and the steamer following close behind, the quick-disconnect for the pipe that connected the steamer's boiler to the station's hot water heater popping loose as they rolled.

Chief Hannon didn't even need to hear Corrigan's 'It's gettin' it, Chief' as he spotted the boiling, dark grey smoke rolling from the rear of the theater. We don't know what the conversation between the two was like, but it was probably something like:

"Mike, this is gonna be a freaking nightmare..." Then, thinking fast...they had a Truck company responding with them and that was it (Again, if they had a phone in quarters and if  someone called the fire alarm office to report their response. If not, they were on their own). Chief Hannon was a veteran of decades of service...he knew they needed a full box response...at least. Preferably yesterday.

A schematic map showing the locations of the two still alarms, either called in or reported directly to Engine 13's crew at their station as well as the location of Firebox 26, from which the first box alarm was transmitted by Chief Hannon.
Chart courtesy iroquoistheater.com.

"Mike, go up Couch to Clark and out to Randolph so we can pull the box..." This would also give him a chance to do a quick size up. One of  Northwestern University's classroom buildings was at Lake and Dearborn, backing up to the Iroquois, which also meant it hid the rear of the theater...but it didn't hide the smoke pushing from the ally...or the strangely dressed throng at the corner of Dearborn and Couch, with another similarly dressed crowd milling around further up Dearborn, nearer Randolph Street.

"What the..." One of them started to say, before realizing just exactly what they were seeing...actors and stage hands...many in the colorful costumes of the Mr Bluebeard cast...who had evacuated the theater, many of them gesturing towards the alley that Couch Place became behind the Iroquois.

The auditorium...and therefore, the fire escapes...were on the far end of the building from Couch Place's intersection with Dearborn, so Chief Hannon probably had to crane his neck, then look behind him to look down the ally as Mike Corrigan swung the turn onto Couch Place but he got enough of a look to tell him they had a true horror on their hands.   His eyes widened as he saw the smoke rolling from the fire escape doors, and the panicked throng of people screaming on the upper fire escape, saw the planks between the upper landing and the Northwestern U. Building (At least it looks like everyone's off of the lower escape). It also looked like..and he hoped against hope it wasn't...bodies in the ally.

"Mike, get us to the box, and get us back here!", but Hannon didn't even have to say it as the buggy was already swinging to the right on Couch Place. Mike Corrigann flicked the reins hard, calling the horses name and very possibly yelling that 'Hi-Yahh'! that westerns have made famous. They made Clark Street in a few seconds, then hung a left and shot past the side of the Sherman House Hotel before Mike hauled back on the reins, calling 'Whoa, Boy...whoa!! as he pulled up short at the corner. Hannon bailed out of the buggy, trotted to the box, opened it up, and pulled the hook down before turning and running back to the ride.

"At least we' got some help on the way" he said to Corrigan as he pulled himself back in...Mike Corrigan flicked the reigns and yelled to the horse to 'Go!'


As Engine 13's rigs pounded up Dearborn Street towards the Iroquois, things were getting desperate on the fire escape landings in Couch Place. Couch Place, to this day, bears the nickname 'Death Alley, and a few dozen people...college students workmen, and painters...had a very much unwanted front row seat to the horror that would give the alley it's nickname...we'll have to back time up just a few minutes to see just how the ally got that name.

The Northwestern University's classroom building at Lake and Dearborn Street extended all the way to Couch Place, which meant it backed up to the Iroquois. Despite it being the Christmas Holidays, several students were inside one of the building's labs, studying. They weren't the only ones occupying the building on that frigid Wednesday afternoon..several classrooms had smoke damage from a room and contents fire a few weeks earlier, and painters were hustling to get repairs made before the next semester started,

A senior named George Dunlap just happened to glance in one of  the rooms being repainted as he walked past the door. He went wide eyed, uttering an oath, as he saw heavy smoke pushing from the open fire escape doors as terrified people emerged from the roiling clouds of smoke to join the throngs fighting for their lives on the fire escape.

He ran into the room, shouting to the painters about the fire as he ran to one of the windows and shoved it open, allowing the screams and pleas for help from across Couch Place to roll in with the cold December air. Couch Place was only about twelve or fifteen feet wide, and the painters had an extension ladder handy...several of the painters lifted it, pulled the fly section out and (Probably a bit awkwardly in the room's confined space) swung it and pushed it out of the window as another painter guided him...'Run it out...OK...keep going...'

They were apparently on the same level as and nearly directly across from the top landing of the Gallery fire escape, making it a bit easier...for them. But when the tip of the ladder touched the fire escape railing, all hell probably broke loose as people...pushed by the super-hot smoke (And possibly some flames as the smoke started to light up) fought to get on the ladder. 

One man, all but crazed with terror, made it onto the ladder and started across, making it about a quarter way across before the nasty weather that Chicago had been having helped to kill him. The window sills of the N.W.U. building were coated with ice, and the foot of the ladder, barely resting on the window ledge, was bouncing as the man scurried across. The ladder finally skated off of the icy window ledge, falling from under the man, who plummeted fifty feet to the cobblestones, probably dying instantly when he hit.

The room the painters were working in may have had actual fire damage from then earlier fire, because there were a few planks lying around, and the painters quickly grabbed a couple of them, sliding them across the ally so their ends, like the ladder's tip, rested on the railing. A couple of feet of each board extended inside the room this time, and whenever anyone would get on the boards, two or three guys would put all their weight on the ends of the boards to anchor them in place.

The first people to make it across were a pair of sisters named Hortense and Irene Lang. Sixteen year old Hortense was the oldest, and she and eleven year old Irene had both been crouching lower and lower, trying to get below the smoke rolling from the open fire escape door...Irene let out a couple of shrill little screams as some flame lanced through the smoke. The girls were about ready to chance a jump, even though Hortense knew it would be suicide...then the board thumped down onto the railing.

Everyone had seen the man on the ladder fall, and possibility worse, heard the bursting-watermelon 'Thunk!' when he hit the pavement, and at first no one made a try for the board. Hortense decided to try for it...

'Come on Sis...'  
'No! We'll fall...'
"If we stay here we'll burn...' Hortense pulled herself up onto the board and then actually managed to turn around on the board so she was facing the fire escape. She grabbed her little sister's hands and pulled her onto the board.

'I've got ya Sis...just crawl...it's not but ten or twelve feet...don't look down...look at my face...there we go...look at my face!' and, as painters and students as well as people on the platform encouraged them, the girls eased across, Hortense backing across, encouraging her little sister as the two of them eased their way across the ally. Finally...after what probably seemed like hours to the girls...workers in the room pulled first Hortense, then Irene inside the room. Then, miraculously, they were reunited with their mom, who had also made it out without injury. The three just held each other and sobbed with relief.

Hortense wasn't the only hero in Couch Place that afternoon...Several people from the NWU building actually made their way out onto the planks to assist people in getting across, including George Dunlap, the student who first noticed the plight of the people trapped on the fire escape. More than one plank was used ultimately, and I have a feeling that at least two of the planks were laid side by side to give them room to actually crawl out on the planks to make rescues

Looking up Couch Place, from Dearborn Street, the day after the fire. The steamer is probably Engine 13, and you can see the open scenery door next to it. More importantly, you can see both fire escapes as well as the plank bridge used by the students and workers at NWU to rescue nearly 40 people and the ladder used by CFD to remove bodies. Imagine having to crawl across that plank bridge during the fire...

 This pic very handily refutes one of the best known and often told stories about the fire, BTW...that the fire escapes were unfinished. They had actually been finished, but the bottom sections of the fire escapes were frozen in the raised position...both sections have been freed and lowered here. The Dress Circle fire escape was lowered during the fire, allowing many of those trapped on it to escape, but the Gallery escape remained frozen, trapping over a hundred people who either jumped to their deaths or burned to death on the fire escape when the back draft occurred.  

As to how the 'Unfinished Fire Escape' Rumor got started...look above the steamer. There's a small balcony, probably leading to some type of scuttle in the Gridiron, up there. I'd bet lunch at Applebees that reporters took a look at that and, despite the fire escapes right in front of their noses, went 'OMG...The fire escapes weren't finished! The rest is inaccurate journalistic history. 

This, BTW, is probably best known picture of the fire...it has appeared in just about every book, article, or account of the fire, and almost all of them have captioned it as 'Pumper in Couch Place/The ally behind the theater/What have you/ During The Fire', and all of them that captioned it that way are wrong. This pic was actually taken the day after the fire. That's probably Engine 13, and they are in the ally getting ready to pump out the flooded basement. Though the steamer is spotted right next to the open scenery door, the crew is probably going to lower the rig's suction hoses (Called 'Hard Sleeves' by fire fighters) through one of the coal scuttles. The smoke that looks like it's coming from the scenery door is actually coming from the steamer

↓ For a look at what the rescues may have looked like while in progress, look below ↓

Students and construction workers in the upper floors of the Northwestern University building across Couch Place from the theater rescued several theatergoers trapped on the Gallery fire escape over a plank bridge. Here we have an artist's rendition of the rescues, probably published with a newspaper story about the fire.

 Though it's not entirely accurate as the artist shows them using a ladder rather than planks, and shows trapped theater occupants at a window rather than on the fire escape landing, it still gives us a pretty good idea of what the in-progress rescues may have looked like.  An attempt to use a ladder actually was made, early in the fire, but only one person tried to cross it, and he fell to his death when the ladder slipped off of the NWU building's ice covered windowsill. 

Once they got the planks in place, the NWU crew rescued nearly 40 people, but sadly, over a hundred more died in Couch Place, either from jumping/falling from the fire escapes, or burning to death on the fire escapes when flames rolled out of the fire escape doors after the backdraft that occurred when the scenery door was opened.

George Dunlap and the others who assisted people across sensed that they were working against time...the smoke boiling from the open fire escape doors was beginning to churn as it pushed out under more and more pressure, and every once in a while a lancet of flame would appear within the smoke. Several of the people they helped across had burns from the intense heat in the gallery.

They got nearly forty people across...but they couldn't get everyone, and  a slew of people jumped, many of them, like the man on the ladder, dying all but instantly when they hit the cobblestones. A few people who'd escaped through the first level fire exits died when they were hit by jumpers and, conversely, a few jumpers survived when their landing was cushioned by the bodies of people who jumped before them.

Sadly, it was about to get worse. Much worse...The event that would seal everyone's fate was only seconds away...


The fire had possibly been burning for as much as fifteen minutes by the time the Lang sisters made it across the plank bridge, and falling bits of flaming scenery flats had set the scenery already on stage as well as various items back stage on fire, so both the back stage and stage were also well involved... but something strange was happening to the fire rolling through the scenery flats. The gridiron...the area above the scenery flats, where the German aerialists had been temporarily trapped...was by now packed with super-heated smoke with nowhere to go  On top of that, there was no ventilation, so the fire roaring through the scenery flats was rapidly becoming what firefighters call a 'Third Stage Fire', which occurs when a fire basically runs out of oxygen and enters a smoldering stage. 

Of course, the burning scenery probably hadn't quite become a Third Stage fire yet...there was a little too much oxygen available...but it was definitely getting there, pumping a huge quantity of smoke into the gridiron while it was at it.  The smoke vents were blocked off and even though you had that huge proscenium arch, the air in the auditorium was actually being pulled away from the proscenium arch by the big exhaust fan over the gallery (Which was also helping to fill both balconies with smoke). The stage doors were open, but they weren't big enough to provide the fire with that much 'New' oxygen, and they were partially blocked by the actors and crew trying to exit.  On top of that, the air was cold, so it was staying low. Most of the fire was still well above the stage at that point.

Meanwhile the gridiron was filling with smoke, which is flammable, by the way...all smoke 
is is unburned gasses and bits of carbon. In fact, under the right circumstances...say being super-heated and stuffed into a confined space with little oxygen...it can be explosive. And all that smoke in the gridiron had displaced the oxygen, and was becoming hotter by the second as the scenery flats burned below it.

So as hundreds of people fought for their lives in the two balconies and the crew members struggling with the jammed fire curtain finally gave up on trying to free it and made their exit, a very potent fuel-air bomb was simmering in the Gridiron, just waiting for someone to give it some air. And, as I think about it, it just 
may have been one of those crew members who provided it.

The fire curtain was jammed up on the 'Stage Left' side of the stage, so when the crew members who were working on it decided the curtain wasn't coming loose and that they definitely needed to leave, they were closest to the Couch Place stage door...the one embedded in the big scenery door, that Quinn had removed form it's hinges. It was raining burning bits of cloth and wood as they ran for the door. Everyone on that side of the theater who was going to leave through that door likely had done so by then...except for them. They absolutely 
knew that they didn't have much time before all of that burning scenery slammed down onto the stage, which meant that they really didn't want to leave one by one, even if there were only five or six of them. And then one of them remembered that the stage door was actually a wicket door, set in the larger...20 ft by 12 foot...scenery door.

"Wonder why they didn't just open the big door' one of the group possibly asked aloud as he hit the latch for the scenery door, and dragged it open, the rest of the crew scurrying around him and out of the twelve foot high, twenty foot wide, 240 square foot opening in the wall. The guy pulling the door open slipped around the edge of the door and out, bracing himself against the 0 degree breeze roaring in through the big doorway...

...He'd just inadvertently signed several hundred death warrants. 

It happened in less than seconds. That frigid mass of cold air, staying low as it moved from right to left, rolled across the stage and slammed into the tiers of dressing rooms, trying to roll up and over as even more cold air piled in behind it. This frigid air mass mushroomed upward, whipping the burning scenery flats into renewed vigor as it roared into the gridiron, rolling across the underside of the roof and mixing with the mass of super-heated smoke and gasses that was just waiting for the final piece of the perfect fuel-air bomb.

Firefighters call it a 'Backdraft', and before that term was coined, they called it a 'Smoke Explosion'. What it was was a mini Armageddon.

When that oxygen-rich tidal wave of cold air slammed into the gridiron, it gave all that super-heated smoke and gas the single thing it needed to light up. And light up it did...violently. The smoke-gas mixture flashed into a ball of flame in a millisecond, expanding to hundreds of times its original volume as it filled the gridiron, fly-lofts, and backstage area, being shoved towards the proscenium arch by the very same breeze that birthed it.

This expanding fireball blew the glass out of the skylights, rolling out of the roof in a mushroom of fire, but more importantly..and lethally...in that very same milli-instant it also slammed into the floor backstage and rolled towards the stage and proscenium arch, filling the stage from wall to wall and hitting the supposed fire curtain with the force of a dozen or so high-balling locomotives

That all-but-useless 'fire curtain' held for an instant or two, long enough for the fireball to bow it outward, roll out from under it and surge towards the auditorium ceiling, rolling upward into the mass of smoke filling the upper portion of the auditorium, and the galleries. The fireball then rolled along the ceiling, towards the back of the auditorium (Helped along a bit by the ventilating fan above the Gallery) as the smoke already filling those areas lit up ahead of it, filling the gallery and dress circles with fire a milli-instant before the fireball roared in, probably blowing the fire escape doors that couldn't be opened open wide even as lit both balconies off, sealing the fate of anyone still trapped in them.

Even as flames ripped through the Dress Circle and Gallery, and rolled out of the open fire escape doors, the 'fire curtain' lit up in a solid sheet of fire, held for another second or so, then dropped into the orchestra pit and first three or so rows of orchestra level seats, setting them on fire.

Then, as the flaming curtain dropped, the last few ropes holding the burning scenery flats aloft burned through, and the whole flaming mass let go, taking anything that was in its path with it as it slammed into the back stage floor with a tremendous crashing roar, hitting with the force of a large truck ramming the stage at about 40 MPH. The flaming mass flattened anything beneath it when it hit, some of the debris taking out the main  switchboard with a single bright-blue flash before plunging the entire theater into darkness...except for the dancing orange light from the flames.

Something a little strange probably happened to all that burning scenery when it hit the backstage floor...it partially snuffed itself out.

 'Huh???. You may ask.

Think of burning leaves...and what happens when you dump more leaves on the pile. The new mass of leaves appears to partially snuff out the original fire, until the new leaves light off as well. This was the same thing, on a HUGE scale. The mass of scenery buried itself, burying much of the fire, when it fell. Oh it didn't go 
out...but the whole pile wasn't free burning either. It was just pumping clouds of smoke into the already smoke-filled theater.

This probably also saved Eddie Foy, (If he was, indeed, still on stage...more on that in 'Notes...') who decided that the time to 'Un-ass The Building' had come when the fireball rolled from beneath the curtain, a decision that was reinforced when the mass of burning scenery shook the building as it hit the floor. Eddie's Guardian Angel was working overtime in that few seconds. First, the fireball missed him as it rolled from beneath the curtain, then the burning curtain missed him when it fell, and finally the fire snuffed itself to the point that he was able to skirt the burning debris pile and make it out of, most likely, the Couch Place exit. (Again, if he was, indeed, still in the building at that point...)

The fireball not only doomed everyone left in the Dress Circle and Gallery, it also finished off dozens of people still on the fire escapes, giving the group from Northwestern who'd just recently been making dramatic rescues a front row seat to a true horror. Flames boiled out of all six fire escape doors on both balcony levels, trapping everyone who was still on the fire escapes. Almost everyone on the Dress Circle fire escape had already made it down, but dozens of people were still trapped on the Gallery escape.  Worse still, Flames blowing out of the Dress Circle doors rolled upwards, through the grill of the Gallery fire escape, burning several people to death where they stood...in full sight of the workers and students only fifteen or so feet away at Northwestern.


A panoramic view of the Iroquois' auditorium after the fire, looking out at the auditorium from the stage, taken the day after the fire...click on the image for the full size picture. The great majority of the fire damage is in the upper part of the auditorium was caused when the fireball from the backdraft rolled up, along the ceiling, and into the two balconies (The Dress Circle and the Gallery). One exception to this...note the heavy damage to the first couple of rows of seats. especially on the left side of the frame. This was likely caused when the burning 'Fire Curtain' fell into the front rows of seats.

You can see the heavy heat and fire damage on the back wall of the Dress Circle (The first balcony) very easily in this pic as well as the contrast between the flame-seared Dress Circle, and the undamaged rear wall of the first level. The light coming in on the left side of the picture on both the first level and the Dress Circle is coming in through open fire escape doors. What appears to be smoke is probably actually snow blowing in through the open doors. While there wasn't that much snow on the ground, these photos were shot using long exposure times of several seconds, giving what snow was blowing in that blurred effect, making bit appear to be smoke.

Close up of the Stage Right side of the stage, actually an enlargement of part of the above panoramic shot.   The light that started the fire has been removed from the light bridge and is visible on the stage at the lower right side of the frame, I've also labeled the light bridge. The main electrical switchboard was directly under the light bridge. Note the box seats in the center of the frame...there was an identical set of boxes on the other side of the stage. These seats featured their own exits and stairways. The box seat exits on this side of the stage emptied directly into the lobby, on the other side they emptied into the first level immediately adjacent to the first fire escape door. None of the Box Seat occupants were killed or injured thanks to this feature.

Speaking of those box seats, they actually created a hazard for the occupants of the first four rows of seats, and it was because of yet another ignored regulation. There was no aisle between the end of those rows and the boxes, forcing occupants of those seats to use the center aisles. A pain in the ass in normal use, a potential jam-up during a fire. Luckily this one hazard didn't create as much of a problem as it could have during the fire. Tragically, the same can't be said for the majority of the other hazards the theater threw at it's occupants.

The damage to the first level seating, caused by the falling 'fire curtain' is also far more evident here, as is the contrast between the all but undamaged walls of the rear portion of the first leveled, and the burned out Dress Circle and gallery levels. Interestingly, once firefighters got hose lines onto the balcony levels, they made quick work of the fire as all that was really burning was the seats and some wood trim. And, sadly, bodies.

A close up of the Stage Left side of the Auditorium. The fire damage to the fist row or so of seats is very evident here, as is the absolute lack of fire damage to the rear portion of the first level. The stairway banister visible just about mid frame is the stairway that served the occupants of the box seats, the two doorways visible just to the right of the stairs are two of the three fire escape doors serving the first level occupants. Though they suffered a bit of smoke and heat damage, the lower level box seats on both side also escaped major fire damage as the fire ball rolled up and over after it cleared the proscenium arch, The second level of boxes on both sides, however, did burn. 

The people visible at the rear of the auditorium are just a few of the battalion or so of investigators who examined the ruins after the fire.

A close up of both the light bridge and the destroyed electrical switchboard. Note the bent metal ladder at the rear of the light bridge, damaged when the mass of scenery fell...this is the ladder that Bill Sallars scrambled up, carrying three ineffectual tubes of Fyrkil, in his attempt to control the fire. The curtain that was the original point of ignition was likely hanging vertically next to the near end of the light bridge. 

The switchboard was protected by a metal railing, but it didn't even slow the mass of scenery down. Look next to the police officer standing below the light bridge and you can see the railing bent downward and inward in a 'V'. This was caused by the mass of scenery, part of which probably bounced sideways into the switchboard. The light bridge would have kept the scenery from falling straight down onto the switchboard.

I'm not sure what the metal beam visible lower mid frame, next to the step ladder, once supported, but either the heat of the fire or the impact of the falling mass of scenery bent it like a strand of cooked spaghetti!

An unfortunately low quality photo, taken from about the middle of the backstage area and looking towards the southwest corner of the theater. The Dearborn Street stage door is visible just to the right of mid frame with the dressing rooms to the left of the door, and the theater's west wall to the right of the door. While there is a huge amount of debris on the floor, it's still not as much as you'd think would be there given the huge mass of scenery flats that fell to the stage. Much of the combustible materiel that the flats were made of burned away fairly quickly. Engine 13's line made quick work of the  burning debris left on stage.


Before I get into what may have happened next, a quick review of Engine Company operations back in the Horse Drawn Steamer era is in order.

Back in that era, all engine companies were two piece companies. First was the most familiar piece, the steamer, which was a single purpose beast, It pumped water, and that was all it did, It carried no hose, no tools, no ladders...nada. It's reason for existence was to sit on a hydrant or other water source, and pump water to the fire.

Second piece was the hose wagon, which carried hose, coal for the steamer, fittings, tools, and possibly a couple of pike poles. Many also carried 'Chemical equipment'...basically a huge soda-acid fire extinguisher connected to a reel or basket of small diameter hose, for taking care of small fires...or getting a line in service quickly if they had, say, a fire escape full of people with their clothes on fire (Yep...I think the first line in service may have been a chemical line off of 'Wagon 13' as the hose wagon would have been designated...the steamer would have been 'Engine 13'). Back then this was the only kind of hose line that could be put in service in seconds.

A period post card showing an Early 20th Century Chicago engine company, hose wagon in front with the steamer bringing up the rear. Engine 13's rigs would have been, essentially, identical.
The front of the Iroquois during the fire. I wish I could tell for sure which engine companies the three steamers belonged to. (Yep there are three of them...look just to the left of the steamer closest to the theater and you can see one of the third pumper's rear wheels.) One of them is probably 2nd due Engine 32, but first due Engine 13 is likely not in the shot...it would have probably been well out of the frame to the left, on the hydrant at Randolph and Dearborn, pumping the lines that were in service on Couch Place.  The steamer with it's two horse team still hitched very likely has only just arrived. It doesn't look like it's pumping a line, and the team hasn't been unhitched and led away to a place of safety yet. There is very possibly another steamer...or two...on other hydrants pumping to them, to supply them with water.

Steamers were single purpose rigs...they sat on a water source and pumped water to the fire, and carried no water, hose, or tools, so it not only would have taken a while to get lines in service, if they weren't 'on a hydrant', lines would have been stretched to them from another water source (Most likely another hydrant in the middle of downtown Chicago), and another steamer would have to connect to that hydrant and supply them with water. Interestingly enough, though the technology has changed a hundred fold since 1903, the basics of getting water on a fire haven't, and much the same system...one engine on the hydrant pumping to another engine at the fire...is used to this very day.

A pair of hose wagons and an aerial ladder are also visible...one hose wagon mid frame, just ahead of the team of horses still hitched to the steamer. The aerial ladder is ahead of the horses, directly in front of the theater, almost hidden in the smoke and steam. The other hose wagon is across Randolph Street from that same steamer, behind the light pole. 

While there is a lot of smoke and steam visible in this pic, all of it is coming from the steamers. There was very little showing from this side of the theater. All of the fire, and most of the firefighting was on the Couch Place side of the theater. Also note the snow on the ground, and visible on the window sills of the Real Estate Exchange Building. It was cold during the fire!

Looking down Couch Place from Dearborn Street at the height of the fire. The NWU building is on the left, the theater on the right. The auditorium...and thus the fire escapes...are on the far end of the building. Heavy smoke is still boiling out of the theater, hiding the planks bridging Couch Place as well as the fire escapes.  The Scenery Door is just inside Couch Place, a few feet beyond the small one story building.

Look on the extreme right center of the frame and you can see one of Engine 13's hose lines leading into Couch Place...There's a man standing, facing the camera, with his right foot resting on the charged hose line.  Several lines were stretched into the ally, then advanced over the fire escapes and into the two balconies to knock down the fire, a couple of those lines were probably stretched from the State Street end of the ally by the extra alarm companies.

A huge crowd gathered to watch the fire, and if it appears that some of this crowd are posing for a picture, it's probably because they are watching the photographer...On-scene photography such as this was still not all that common in 1903. Note as well that several of the people in the pic are blurred. This picture was shot using a long exposure time...possibly as much as a half second or so...so the least little movement would create a blurred image.

The hose wagon was first out of the house on any alarm, followed by the steamer, and normal SOP was for the 'Wagon' to stop at the nearest hydrant, where a firefighter would pull the last section of hose off of the hose flat-loaded and coupled together in the wagon (Hose is still loaded on rigs the same basic way today). He'd snub the end of the hose around the barrel of the hydrant ('Wrap the Hydrant) and yell to the driver to 'Go!'. The driver would head for the fire with hose dropping off of the rear of the hose wagon, leaving a trail of hose in it's wake. Then the steamer's operator would hook up to the hydrant, get his water supply established, connect the hose line to a discharge, and send water to the fire.

I'm firmly convinced that the backdraft occurred in the couple of minutes between Engine 13 hitting the street and their arrival at the theater, possibly even between their arrival and Chief Hannon's arrival only a half minute or less earlier..  I also think they may have been on the way to Randolph Street, and their game plan got suddenly changed mid-response. Firefighting was becoming more sophisticated by leaps and bounds at the turn of the 20th century, especially in big cities, and pre-planned responses to major buildings, assigning each incoming engine company to respond to a specific entrance and/or to lead off with a specific task was already very definitely a thing in large urban fire departments in 1903.  

E-13's crew probably heard the screams before they saw the carnage in the ally. They were very likely originally on the way to the front of the theater when the desperate screams coming from the rear of the theater likely clued them in that the game plan was about to change dramatically. They wouldn't have been able to see the backside of the Iroquois until they cleared the Northwestern University building, and there was a BIG vacant lot on the west side of the theater, behind the Real Estate Building (The building that, today, is the Delaware Building), so the rear of the theater wasn't right on the street. Then, the fire escapes, as noted, were on the far end of the building, so they would have had to actually looked down the ally to see the on-going horror on the fire escapes.

 But that's part of what they're trained to do...it's something that's been ingrained in firefighters mindsets pretty much since firefighting became an organized effort. It's called size-up, and it simply means looking at the fire building and it's surroundings as you approach and arrive to see what you had, then mapping out your strategy according to what you saw. So as they rolled past the ally, Engine 13's guys...like Chief Hannon only seconds earlier...looked down the ally as 
they cleared the Northwestern U building, saw heavy fire blowing out of six doors on two levels, trapping dozens of people on the fire escapes. 

The wagon's driver would have first hauled his team to a stop, then turned onto Couch Place, and pulled as far down the ally as possible, with the crew bailing off of the rig before it even got stopped. If the rig was indeed equipped with chemical equipment, a firefighter spun the crank that dumped an acid vial into a sodium bicarb container contained inside the fifty or so gallon tank, pressurizing it with carbon dioxide. As this was happening another firefighter pulled the 1" diameter chemical line and stretched it into the ally as the firefighter who had pressurized the tank assisted by pulling the line, hand over hand, off of the reel or out of the basket. The firefighter on the chemical line's nozzle stretched to the fire escapes, where he directed that line's small stream onto the people trapped on the fire escape. He had, maybe, a minute and a half worth of water.

Engine 13's driver would have known something was up when he saw the wagon stop and turn, ...one look down the ally would have told the engine crew what was going on. The wagon's crew would have yelled for him to 'Go on and take the hydrant!' There was a problem though. The 
hydrant was at Randolph and Dearborn, which both the hose wagon and engine were likely heading for when they rolled up on the deadly scene on Couch Place, Which means they found a major rescue problem before they ever reached the hydrant. Which means they had to back up and regroup. With both the wagon itself and most of Engine 13's crew committed to protecting and attempting to rescue the people trapped on the fire escape, some major-reshuffling and hustling had to take place.

The engine proceeded straight to the hydrant where it's driver and engineer began making the hydrant connection, while one or two firefighters began 'hand-jacking' hose from the tail end of the wagon, dragging a tail of hose behind them as they ran towards the engine. Cotton jacketed 2 1/2 inch fire hose with brass couplings weighs about 75 lbs per fifty foot length, and they probably had to hand jack about 350 feet of line to make the hydrant, which would have taken at least four guys to do it with any speed at all. 

 When they got the line to Engine 13, and while the steamer's engineer was spinning the coupling onto a discharge, another firefighter back at the wagon pulled enough fifty foot lengths of hose off of the rig to both reach the fire escapes and give the line more maneuverability (To be effective in protecting the trapped theater-goers as well as be able to advance the line over the fire escape and into the balcony to fight the fire, they would have had to have stretched around 450 feet of 2 1/2 inch hose) and spun a nozzle onto the line. 

Keep in mind as you read this that I'm 
assuming that Wagon 13 had chemical equipment...if it didn't, that would have made getting Engine 13 to the hydrant and getting it's line in service even more critical. Even if the wagon did have a chemical line, it was only a very temporary and very meager solution. At a maximum of maybe 30 gallons per minute...and likely less...it would have no effect on the actual fire. It's function was to try to save some of the people whose clothes were on fire, and protect them until Engine 13 got a line in service.. And to do that they had, as noted, maybe 90 seconds of water. So there were sighs of relief when the crew who'd hand-jacked the line ran into the ally, saw that the line was ready to rock and roll, and 13's Captain sent the shouted word back to the engine to 'Charge the line!!'

They couldn't rescue everyone on the fire escape. The ally was far too narrow to get an aerial ladder in and raised, and the fire escape's multiple levels would have made an aerial ladder less than effective anyway. Ground ladders would even be a problem in the ally's tight confines, and their tallest ground ladder...a 300 pound monster of a fifty foot extension ladder (Known as a 'Bangor ladder) would have likely been too short for the Gallery's top landing, and all but impossible to 'throw' in the alley anyway, so the best they could so was pour 250 gallons of water per minute into the crowd on the fire escape while some of the crew tried desperately to free the bottom section of steps...a task that they ultimately achieved, but by then there were pitifully few people left alive on the fire escape.

Chief Hannon arrived back at the scene as all of this was going on, and the very first thing he likely did was send Mike Corrigan back to the box to call for additional alarms (I think he told him to 'Skip the second and third and go straight to a 4-11. This would 
not be the last time that was done at a major loss-of-life fire in Chicago, BTW.). Engine 13's guys were hustling and doing the best they could do at the moment...Chief Hannon trotted to the corner to meet the 1st due truck company. It was, he thought to himself, going to be a long afternoon. He didn't even know the half of it.

Traffic on Randolph Street was at near gridlock during the fire's early stages, delaying both first due Truck 9 and second due Engine 32, so when 9-Truck finally rolled in, Chief Hannon was waiting for them, likely none too patiently. He probably had Truck 9's Lieutenant...thirty-six year old Michael Roche...split his crew, with half hustling ground ladders around the corner to Couch Place, and half making entry into the front of the building. Between the two groups they very likely quickly stripped the rig of both ground ladders and forcible entry tools. When Engine 32 rolled in not far behind Truck 9 (Probably laying in from a hydrant further down  Randolph Street) Chief Hannon had them stretch a line through the front door...a tactic that would soon prove to be fruitless.

There was very little showing on the Randolph Street side of the theater...just a little smoke seeping from around the frames of a couple of windows...but if you really looked at the windows, you could tell that the building was heavily charged with smoke. Knowing that there could well be people trapped in the upper floors at the front of the theater, Lt Roach, grabbed a couple of his guys, and they quickly threw a ground ladder to the last window over in the row of 2nd floor windows closest to Thompson's Restaurant. Roche grabbed an ax (One of the age-old unwritten rules of 'Truck work' is that you never go in without a tool) and, along with a couple of his guys, climbed to the window, using said ax to take out the glass. Smoke rolled out from the window as he climbed over the sill, followed closely by the 9-Truck firefighters who accompanied him, to find himself in manager Will Davis' office. 

It was smoky in the room, but the closed door had kept it from becoming untenable, and there was enough visibility that he could see the door, which he quickly crossed over to and opened. And as he stepped out of the door he was likely almost bowled over by a frantic James Strong, and Bill McMullen. One of them quickly told Roche about the people trapped behind the locked door to the utility stairwell.  The doorway was up a short half flight of steps and Roche flew across to the door (Partially hidden by the heavier smoke in the hallway and stairwell) and started chopping at the door panels, making quick work of them and quickly getting through to the deadly scene on the other side of the door. It was tragically obvious that they were too late as all but one or two of the twenty or thirty people had already succumbed to the heavy smoke...sadly, none of James Strong's family was among those pitiful few survivors.

When the backdraft occurred, lighting off the Dress Circle and The Gallery, the fire rolling out of the open fire escape doors created a draft, partially ventilating the building and pulling much of the smoke out of the upper part of the theater's Randolph Street wing (Tragically, not before the heavy smoke suffocated the group trapped in the  the stairwell), so the smoke condition was actually clearing a bit by the time Roche chopped through the door. With conditions improving, Roche and the other firefighters, assisted by McMullen, quickly pulled the bodies back up the flight of steps to the third floor landing, then into the music room, which also opened off of the landing.

As this was happening, Engine 32's crew found that the lobby of the theater was still packed with people.The smoke and heat never banked down to the lobby level, but with the lights off and the daylight quickly facing outside, visibility, though it was rapidly worsening in the gathering gloom, wasn't all that good, was still good enough for the guys to realize that they couldn't advance the line against the throng of terrified theater-goers. They quickly started evacuating the remaining people, likely assisted by firefighters from the other arriving companies.

Most of the action, however, was on the backside...the Couch Place side...of the theater. Engine 13's crew had likely set a new record for getting a line in service, and their first action was to play a stream on the people who remained trapped on the fire escape. Sadly, I have a feeling that there were pitiful few left to save by the time this happened, even with the chemical line (If there indeed was one) going in service only seconds after they arrived on scene. 

Gotta do a little speculating here...OK, a lot of this has been speculation...but I have a feeling that the rest of 9-Truck's crew, along with crews from the other arriving companies, laddered the fire escape landings for two reasons...first to start removing anyone still alive who was still on the fire escape, then to give the engine companies access to the balconies. Bodies were two and three deep on the ally's cobblestones, and the guys were having to step over and around them to advance lines (Even as other firefighters quickly checked for signs of life).

Once the rescue problem was well in hand on Couch Place, Engine 13's crew advanced that first line through the scenery door, to very likely find that much of the fire back stage, as well as on the stage  had all but burned itself out...remember, while the remains of literally hundreds of scenery flats were on the floor backstage, all of them were painted canvas over light wooden frames, and they had been burning for a good twenty minutes or so by the time Engine 13's crew made entry, so what they had back stage, basically, was a good size rubbish fire. With a 2 1/2 inch line flowing 250 GPM, they likely made quick work of it. They attacked the backstage fire as they advanced the line, pushing onto the smoldering stage and knocking down the fires involving what remained of the burning curtains and scenery, to find a pretty brisk fire burning in the first few rows of seats and the orchestra pit. The nozzleman swung the stream back and forth across this fire, knocking it down quickly as well. Above them, in the rear of the auditorium, though, they could see heavy fire rolling through the heavy smoke filling the balconies...and hear other streams tearing into them with a angry, splashing hiss.


Meanwhile, After moving the bodies from the stairwell to the music room, Lt Roche first saw to it that both James Strong and McMullen were evacuated, then made his way along the third floor promenade to the entrance to the Gallery...he was one of the first firefighters to realize the possible scope of the disaster when he found bodies stacked in the entrance like cord wood, with more bodies (But...not as many as you might imagine) piled up at the accordion gates.

Engine 32's Captain, Ed Buckley, along with his crew, had a hectic half hour or so after they arrived. Their first abortive attempt to stretch a line in through the front doors turned into an evacuation of those left on the first floor. They probably stationed a couple of people...be they firefighters, cops, or even responsible-seeming civilians...at the main entrance to keep the crowds from jamming up, and once they got the crowd in the lobby (Many of whom were likely watching the bottom of the smoke layer in horrified awe) moving, it probably didn't take that long to get everyone out. By then more help was rolling in en masse.  The guys on the Still Alarm companies probably felt like they were operating alone for a century or so, then everyone seemed to roll in at once.  Other Engine companies laid in from other hydrants or stretched additional lines from Engines 13 and 32, while other truck companies rolled in, and their crews began assisting Truck 9's crew in both searching and ventilating the building.

That wasn't the only help they had...cops and civilians also forced their way into the theater and made their way to the balconies to try to rescue those trapped in the building. No one had the slightest inkling just how bad it was (Though Lt. Roche and the guys operating on Couch Place both knew it was real bad), but as the minutes passed, the true horror of the disaster began to reveal itself...slowly at first.

One firefighter from one of the Truck Companies grabbed a roof rope, and tied it off to something on the first floor so they'd have a safety line to follow back out to the main entrance, then a mixed team of firefighters and civilians made their way up one of the stairways to, probably, the dress circle promenade.  They immediately ran into a cluster of dead bodies, all burned and all dead. One of the firefighters yelled back 'Oh my God, there must be at least a dozen dead!!' He then grabbed two small, charred bodies, obviously children, and carried them back down the stairs, horrified, but still not yet having a clue just how horrible the scene in the Dress Circle and Gallery really was.

On the Couch Place side of the theater, fire was still blowing out of all six balcony fire escape doors, preventing firefighters from setting up for an interior attack on the landings themselves, but they still had a game-plan. The truck companies had set ground ladders against both fire escapes, and the engine companies advanced hose lines over them, probably to the steps just below the lowest landing on each level...and called for the lines to be charged. The command 'Charge Engine XX's line!!' would have been called back to each steamer's engineer, and he would have spun a discharge's hand wheel open, filling the flatted hose lines with water as the guys on the nozzle crouched, waiting on the metal steps just below the flame-vomiting doorways.

When they got water, the nozzleman would open his nozzle's shut-off and play the 250 GPM stream up and through the doorway, directing it towards the ceiling so it would break up and spatter over a wider area. knocking down the fire. There would be at least two more guys on each line, pushing forward on the hose line to relieve the back pressure the nozzleman was fighting as the flames were slowly pushed back into the doorway, the flames rolling from the other four doorways slowly diminishing, to be replaced by smoke that became progressively lighter as it mixed with steam.

They were soon able to advance the lines into the building, and the call 'Lighten up on Engine XX's line!' would be yelled down the steps, a request for the guys at the foot of the ladder to feed more line to the crew on the hose line's business end so they could advance the line further into the building.  The guys on the lines disappeared as if walking into a fog bank as they duck-walked the nozzles into smoke far heavier than any modern firefighter would even think about tackling without a mask.  The guys were hacking and coughing as they advanced near-blindly into the smoke. There were still flames flickering in the ruined seats, and, before they even made it ten feet in to the balconies, the thought 'Something just doesn't look right about some of these seats' was dawning on them...unconsciously, then consciously they absolutely knew what was wrong, even though they didn't want it to be so.

Most of the fire was probably knocked down with-in about 30-40 minutes of Engine 13 receiving the walk in report of the fire (Not, IMHO, the twenty minutes often quoted in historical accounts) and body recovery operations in the Gallery and Dress Circle began in earnest even as the 'Truckies' began overhauling while the guys on the hose lines knocked down most of the remaining vestiges of the fire.

As the Truck Company firefighters began overhauling and searching the Dress Circle, they discovered bodies packed to within two feet of the top of the doorway at the main exit from the Dress Circle, with dozens more bodies piled up between the doorway and the seats. Even more bodies were found packed together in the stairwell and on the landing at the Dress Circle's west exit.

 Firefighters a level above them in the Gallery, which the backdraft's fireball turned into a miniature version of hell in less than an eye-blink, made an even more macabre discovery. Not only were bodies packed at the Gallery's two exits (One of which had been locked) in a tangled mass, just as they had been on the Dress Circle, even more bodies, burned beyond any hope of recognition, were still sitting in their seats where they had been caught by the fireball when it roared into the Gallery.

This was a nasty, nasty scene, with the overcooked-pork stench of charred flesh overlaying the smell of burned wood, cloth, paint and plaster. Death was piled and tangled everywhere you looked, but the guys dived right in searching for signs of life among the gruesome scene even as they began removing bodies.They, in fact, began even before the fire was completely knocked down...the crews removing bodies had to be pulled out a couple of times when the fires on the balconies flared back up so the Engine Co. guys could knock down the flare-up.

Even as the guys in Couch Ally advanced lines through the fire escape doors, the evacuation of the lobby was finishing up and the initial crew of truckies, cops, and civilians were joined by Engine Company firefighters who were now finally able to advance lines up the twin grand staircases. As they manhandled the heavy (But likely not yet charged) lines up the staircases, they would find several gruesome obstacles in the forms of bodies stacked as deep as six feet at every balcony entrance and anywhere corridors merged. On top of that gruesome find, I have a sneaking suspicion they had at least a little fire on the promenades, hard by the gallery exits...if fire was rolling from the fire escape exits, I can just about bet that it was also rolling from the main balcony exits. So, even as some firefighters started trying to untangle the piles of bodies, the word was sent back to the street...by loudly yelled word of mouth...to 'Charge Engine XX's line!!!', and the crews on the lines made quick work of what little fire had extended to the promenades, which was a priority, to protect both the rescuers and anyone who might be left alive. 


 Then as now, major fires draw White-Shirts, as fire and police department brass is known to the rank and file, the way picnics draw ants.  Both CFD Chief of Department Bill Musham (Who had been officiating a disciplinary hearing for six firefighters accused of bad mouthing him when the 4-11 was struck. He brought them with him when he responded) and Chicago PD Chief Patrick O'Neal were on scene by the time the lobby evacuation was being completed. Chief O'Neal entered the theater when he arrived, following closely behind the Engine Companies advancing the lines up the grand staircase. He immediately took command of his people, and possibly the entire rescue/recovery operation on the Promenade side. He...along with the firefighters on the balcony levels, both in the promenade and in the balconies themselves...had a horrible and all but overwhelming task.

 First, even though the fire had vented itself and pulled some of the smoke out of the building, the Gallery was still chock full of heavy smoke, which was also banked down almost to the floor of the Dress Circle. This not only cut visibility on the two balconies, it also made breathing more akin to torture.  (I still don't know how fire-fighters in this era...and in fact, right on up to the late 1960s-early '70s, when mask use began becoming mandatory...operated without air masks). Finding bodies was no problem as the guys were literally all but standing on them, but handling them was horrible beyond imagination.  Many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, more were mangled and even dismembered, and on top of that, they were not only stacked, they were packed tightly together in the doorways, so tightly that moving them was all but futile. 

And yet, they could hear moaning deep with-in a couple of the piles. When the crews said they couldn't move the bodies, O'Neal told them they had to move them to get to the living, so they tugged at tightly packed bodies (Sloughing skin off of many badly charred bodies) and pulled them off of piles from the top down, actually finding a few people still alive at or near the bottom of the piles.. One young lady of about 18, for example, was found bear the bottom of one of the piles only slightly injured. One or two were even found alive...though horribly burned...huddled beneath seats on the floor near the front of the Dress Circle. 

John Thompson, the owner of Thompson's Restaurant, right next door to the theater on Randolph Street, converted the entire building into what would today be known as a triage and treatment center (But not before experiencing a miracle of his own...more on that in 'Notes'), and many of the injured were taken over there where some of the hundred or so medical students who rushed to the scene from a near-by teaching hospital began treating them before they were transported to a hospital.

Finding someone still alive in the tangled piles of bodies was, sadly, a rare occurrence, and it quickly became obvious, as the death toll rose nearly literally by the second, that recovering the bodies was going to be an all but overwhelming task, both because of the number of bodies, and because of the (Not recognized for pushing a century) psychological effects of recovering them. The very great majority of the dead were women and children, making an already grim scene all the more horrible. Many of the firefighters were fathers themselves, and several of the guys had tears running down their faces as they removed the small bodies...at least one firefighter, when ordered to hand a little girls body to another firefighter so he could get back in the auditorium and remove more bodies, tearfully asked to be allowed to take this child out himself, because she reminded him of his own daughter. 

I can just about bet that this experience haunted not only that firefighter, but any of the guys involved with body recovery...this was the stuff that nightmares were made of.

The body removal was such a huge task that it had to be split into two sectors. On the Couch Place side of the theater, Mike Corrigan had been released to assist the companies operating in the galleries. One of the first things he did was (likely at Chief Hannon's direction) have a ground ladder placed between the theater and the NWU building, using it as a bridge to remove a few of there bodies while others were taken down the fire escapes. There were well over a hundred bodies on the cobblestones of Couch Place, but these, at least were out of the public view.

The other sector was on the Randolph Street side of the theater, where the majority of the bodies were brought down the Grand Staircases and out of the main entrance, to be lined up on the sidewalk in front of the theater. The hundreds of spectators who had been pushed across Randolph, behind the fire line, watched in ever increasing horror as body after body was carried out of the main entrance to be laid in a double...or maybe even triple...line on the sidewalk. That line of death would extend well over a hundred feet on either side of the Iroquois' main entrance before the night was over.

A newspaper photograph of some of the bodies lined up outside of the Iroquois main entrance on Randolph Street...news photography back in this era was far more graphic than news photography today. The line of bodies...sadly, mostly women and children...would extend over a hundred feet to either side of the Iroquois main entrance before the night was over.

This picture was taken well after the fire was marked under control, and well after the sun went down, so it was taken using 'flash lamps', utilizing the same basic tray filled with flash powder that had been used for years, but with a modern twist, A dry cell battery allowed the powder to be fired electrically by the camera shutter, giving birth to the concept of modern flash photography. But this method, of course, still used flash powder, which accounts for the somewhat funky lighting seen in this photograph.
Another view of the front of the Iroquois as bodies are removed from the theater.

The owner of Thompson's Restaurant, visible in the background immediately turned his entire building over to fire and P.D to be used as what today would be known as a triage and treatment center, and it wouldn't surprise me if the fire's command post was also moved inside Thompson's as the injured and dead were cleared out of the building.  

Chief Musham (Who probably set up a command post of sorts near the front of the theater.) as well as Chief O'Neal both recognized how daunting the task facing their crews was before the first body came through the main entrance. As soon as Chief Musham was satisfied the fire was all but tapped out, he and Chief O'Neal likely had a quick face to face conference, splitting the tasks between them. Then they started calling for more resources. Both chiefs made a request for every ambulance that they could get as well as any vehicle capable of carrying freight, Night was falling rapidly, and it would be dark, both inside and outside the theater, so a request was made for lanterns...a nearby hardware store sent their entire stock. And when the lanterns didn't provide enough light inside the theater, Edison Electric sent over forty big arc lamps and, we have to assume, some type of early mobile generator to power them.

Body removal likely ceased until the big arc lights could be set up, and when they were turned on...lighting up the singed interior like daylight...you could probably hear the collective and all but involuntary gasp of horror from outside the building. The powerful lights revealed the carnage in almost clinical detail. There were even more people dead in their seats, on both balconies, than they had even imagined, and the still massive jam-ups of bodies appeared both macabre and almost surreal. Many other bodies, in the aisles, bore brutal evidence of having been trampled to death. And again, possibly the saddest facet of the whole scene was the number of children among the dead.  None of the firefighters on scene (Or anywhere else) had ever seen death on such a massive sale.

In a ghastly parallel to the lines of carriages and horse-drawn taxis dropping off theater-goers only a couple of hours earlier, freight wagons, ambulances, and even  CFD coal wagons were lined up on Randolph Street, waiting to pick up their macabre load, then carry it to either a funeral home or morgue, or, in the cases of the injured, to a hospital.

A pair of pictures showing the bodies of the victims being transported from the scene. On the left a Fire department coal wagon...or possibly a reserve hose wagon...is being used to remove bodies (Thankfully, covered with a tarp), while on the right a horse-drawn ambulance is loaded with bodies.

Five hundred and ninety-one bodies would be counted at the scene, to be transported to thirty different morgues and funeral homes while nearly three hundred people suffered injuries ranging from minor to critical and were transported to as many as ten different hospitals. This made the search for missing loved ones a living nightmare for relatives of the victims, as no records were kept to indicate who was transported where, or even, for the first day or so, who was deceased and who was injured.

Needless to say, there were no records of any kind kept to indicate who the injured were and and where they were transported, and no effort at all was made to identify bodies at the scene, much less identify which body was transported to which place. Many of the bodies were burned beyond any hope of recognition anyway, and would have to be identified using scraps of clothing, jewelry (If the fire didn't melt it) or trinkets found in pockets (Ditto). This led to absolute chaos when people started showing up at the scene by the hundreds, searching for loved ones who should have been home hours ago. 

The mass confusion at the Iroquois lead to a problem that, sadly, still often rears it's head even with all of the technology we have today. In the quest to save lives, the multiple victims of a Mass Casualty Incident are often triaged, treated on scene, and transported before proper records as to who was transported where can be recorded. Live patients, in fact, sometimes aren't even identified before they're transported depending on their condition And that happens today, leading to that heartbreaking, multi-venue search for loved ones that's too horrible to even try to imagine.

Now, imagine a MCI involving, counting fatalities and injuries, over 800 victims that occurred before many of the modern means of communication and transportation we take for granted today even existed. (Smart phones and automobiles, I'm looking at you).

 It was absolute chaos. While some victims were reunited with their families on scene (A very few) most were transported to either hospital, morgue, or funeral home before any real attempt of identification at all was made.  Relatives of the Iroquois victims who were searching for their loved ones had pushing forty different places to search. This search for missing relatives was often a multi-day task, especially if the missing loved one was deceased. And the various morgues and funeral homes where the deceased were taken weren't always over-accommodating to the grieving relatives...at least one funeral home reportedly, in one of the most blatant displays of insensitivity of all time, told a group that it was too late to ID bodies and that they'd have to come back in the morning.

This same chaos also led to massive discrepancies as to the exact death toll, discrepancies that still exist to this day, and that I'll touch on in a bit more detail in 'Notes...'

News of the fire and horrible loss of life got around quickly...especially for a world without radio, TV, or internet...both via word of mouth and the Media. The media actually had a leg up, as one reporter, Chicago Record-Herald reporter Charles Collins, was dispatched to the scene early in the incident by his editor ...not only did he get there almost before the first in fire units, he ended up assisting with the rescues and body removal inside the theater. Not only that, he helped reunite one distraught father...who had escaped all but unscathed...with his daughter, who had also made it out of the theater with minor injuries.

By nine that night newsboys were shouting 'EXTRA! EXTRA! HUNDREDS DIE AT THE IROQUOIS!!!' as they hawked the Breaking News of that era...Extra editions of every local paper. Still, many Chicago area residents...especially those who lived in what were then outlying communities...didn't find out about the fire until the next morning. Which meant that then-cutting edge technology allowed people overseas to learn of the fire before many in Chicagoland, as the Associated Press wired reports of the fire to it's subscribers in other countries, some of whom were reading about the fire well before newspapers...extra or otherwise...hit the news stands in Chicago.

This very early version of electronic media also allowed Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, who was in Oklahoma when the fire occurred, to learn about the fire well with-in 24 hours of it being 'Tapped Out'. He immediately grabbed the first possible train back home. He'd be coming home to a hornets nest. Outrage over the fire was immediate and massive, with the populace of not only Chicago, but the nation in general, demanding answers, and wanting 'Heads To Roll'.

Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison. Harrison rushed home from a trip to Oklahoma the day after the fire to find an entire nation-worth of fingers pointing at him, in large part blaming his method of governing Chicago for the fire's horrendous death toll. The blame was not entirely misplaced at all.

Harrison rolled back into Chicago on a very subdued New Years Eve to find his city in shock and morning and bereaved families either searching for their loved ones or preparing to bury them. (Dozens of funerals took place daily over the next week...one well known minister was actually hospitalized for exhaustion after performing fifteen funerals in a single day.

The Mayor decried the carnage and vowed to take action. He immediately shut down every theater in the city, then amended and expanded that action by shutting down virtually every place of public assembly, of any kind until all could be inspected. He also vowed to get to the bottom of the disaster, and find answers...

...Aaaaand the press and most of the populace figuratively, and sometimes literally, yelled 'Whoa, dude...You  did it!!! Or at least contributed to it'.

 Think maybe that wasn't very fair? Read on, because actually, it kinda...was.

See, the Honorable Mayor Harrison was not exactly loved by either the press or a majority of the citizens of Chicago. He was renowned for allowing the city to govern itself without much oversight, and for not taking action on graft, corruption, and incompetence until he was called out on it. It was also said (And the Iroquois fire just about proved this one) that he didn't exactly encourage the enforcement of City ordinances and codes.

In fact, fingers were being pointed at him RE: Theater Fire Safety before the Iroquois fire (Remember the shelved report of fire safety?). Now everyone was blaming his lax management style for allowing the theater's many faults to fly under the radar while every city department involved in inspecting the theater and approving it as safe for occupancy was blaming each other for the disaster while denying any responsibility of their own while.

They weren't the only ones shirking responsibility, of course. Literally everyone involved with the design, building, and management of the theater was blaming everyone else.

Theater owners Davis and Powers, in one of the prime douche bag moves of all time, actually blamed the injured and deceased victims for their own fates, saying that the theater was the safest ever designed (Ignoring the fact that literally none of that cutting edge safety technology functioned properly or even at all) and that if they hadn't panicked, the theater's occupants would have had plenty of time to exit through the nearly thirty exits (Somewhere between a third and half of which were locked or otherwise unusable).

Architect Benjamin Marshall was flabbergasted by the loss of life, saying that he designed the theater incorporating every lesson learned from previous theater fires, to make the theater (Here we go again) the safest ever designed. OK, he ultimately conceded, maybe the interior trim shouldn't have been as flammable, and maybe the exits shouldn't have been hidden by drapes and maybe the latches shouldn't have been so complicated...but all of that deadly finery was absolutely necessary, because the theater absolutely had to also be the most beautiful and elegant ever designed!

As for Klaw and Erlanger, their take on it was basically 'Hey, we are just stockholders (12.5 % each) and besides, we were seven hundred miles away...how could we be responsible for anything (Ignoring the fact that they demanded that the theater be opened as soon as possible, no matter what had to be done to make it happen).

The public...not just in Chicago, or even the U.S., but world-wide...was out-raged. This was among the first major disasters that the electronic media, in the form of the telegraph and the wire services, allowed the nation and world to know about almost immediately after it happened, and as a result, the city, nation, and world were waiting for...demanding, in fact...answers.  A coroners Inquest would be convened, and surely they'd have answers and the guilty parties would be identified and made to face the music! So many people would be sent to The Big House over the disaster that the State of Illinois would have to build a new Big House!!!

Yeaahh...not so much.

What would result would be one of the longest, strangest legal free-for-alls to ever hear see the inside of a court room.

 Several members of both the Mr Bluebeard cast and the theater's management team were arrested and jailed to ensure they'd be present when the Coroners Inquest took place (A very common tactic after a major incident back in the day) while over two hundred other witnesses...from audience members to firefighters and police officers to other cast and crew members..were subpoenaed to appear before the inquest.

Chicago's chief coroner, John Traeger presided over a six member panel when the Inquest kicked off at 9AM on January 7th, 1904 at Chicago City Hall...a week and a day after the fire...and even though it was seriously cold outside, it was a hot, smoky nightmare inside. The building had central steam heat, of course, but this was long before modern HVAC systems, with the emphasis here on the 'V'.

The boilers were likely cranking wide open to heat the big old building, which was sealed up as tight as a drum, or at least as tight as buildings of that era could be sealed, against encroaching cold air. It was not only warm inside the council chamber, it was downright steamy...and that was before they added the body heat generated by the three hundred or so people to the heat generated by the hissing radiators.

To make matters even worse, back in that era pretty much every man of any influence smoked cigars, and there were absolutely no 'No Smoking' regulations, which meant they could smoke them anywhere they wanted to. So, not only was it hot in the not-all-that-well-ventilated council chamber, thanks to a couple of hundred simultaneously smoked cigars, a permanent cloud  of cigar smoke was hanging in the chamber like a noxious fog bank.

Add all of that together, and you ended up with a truly, truly unpleasant place to spend a few hours. Per Day. For what was originally scheduled as a six day inquest, but ended up being a month long ordeal for the two hundred or so witnesses who had been called to testify.. Despite the discomfort, a huge crowd of citizens also showed up to the inquest, which was open to the public, and they were joined by a few dozen representatives of the Media wielding boxy cameras and flash pans.

 During those hours, days, and weeks the panel, spectators and Media alike heard a bewildering number of often contradictory reports. Several different causes of the fire were quoted, from an exploding hydrogen tank to a gust of wind to the actual, all-but-proven cause. Ushers were described as everything from heroes to cowards, and Eddie Foy even contradicted himself, as to exactly where he was when the fire started.

But even with the confusing and contradictory stories, some downright disturbing facts came to light. Theater manager Thomas Noonan admitted that he never trained any of the staff on what to do in case of fire, or on how to prevent panic, even though that responsibility was very much in his job description. (This actually came to light before the inquest started.). During the same interview that bombshell was revealed in, it was discovered that no one knew who had the authority to open the roof vents (OK, this was admittedly somewhat of a moot point, considering the things were inoperable in the first place). What these revelations did do was prove just how incompetent the theater's management actually was. And it only got worse. The inquest would soon reveal that the much of Chicago's city government was not only just as incompetent, some of it was downright corrupt.

 All of the higher ranking fire department officials got raked over the coals, big time, and Deputy Coroner M. Lawrence Buckley really let CFD Chief of Department Musham have it. Chief Musham put himself behind the eight-ball right out of the gate, when he informed Lawrence that he absolutely did not have to confer with anyone in the building department about whether any given building met fire codes, and that, while he understood that there were certain things that were required in theaters (Like, oh, I dunno, sprinklers), that these requirements had nothing to do with the fire department or him. He also testified that he had absolutely nothing to do with the the many problems at the Iroquois, because that was the Building Department's domain, not the Fire Department's

His answers as to why he didn't require Sallors to report to him weekly (As law required) were equally weak, ending with saying that he really wasn't familiar with the various codes and ordinances pertaining to fire safety, up to and including telling the Deputy Coroner that he didn't realize that he had the authority to shut down the Iroquois if it wasn't safe for occupancy (?????).

These answers, needless to say did not exactly cast him in a good light.

Battalion Chief Hannon didn't fare much better...in his testimony before the inquest he revealed that he apparently did personally inspect the theater a few weeks after Paddy Jennings made his report...after it opened...and found the very same defects that were reported to him by Captain Jennings a month or so earlier...before it opened...but he didn't kick it further up the food chain either time because he hadn't been ordered to.

Sallors testified that he didn't report anything because of fear of losing his job, and because no one ordered him to. This 'I received no orders to do my job' thing seems to have been a common theme here.

Paddy Jennings is the only one who came out of the fire-department-coal-raking in fair shape. He, after all, did try. He reported  the theater's unsafe condition to Chief Hannon. And Chief Hannon had made it more than clear that he didn't intend to take it any higher. Going any higher himself would have been jumping chain of command...then, as now, a serious policy violation in every fire department world-wide, one that, at the very least would see him get a career-stalling transfer to a slow company out in what passed as 'The Boonies' in early 20th Century Chicago.

Though no record exists of Jennings' testimony, I can't help but think he said something to the effect of  'I tried guys...God knows I tried.'

The building department fared even worse than the fire department. Everyone from that department who testified claimed that they were only responsible for the building's actual structure and that every other detail had it's own department whose own inspectors were specifically tasked with inspecting such items as sprinklers, electrical wiring, fire escapes, etc. Therefore they had done their job...it was everyone else who was negligent.

The head of the building inspections department stated that he signed off on the approval of the theater...submitted by inspector Edward Loughlin...because he supposed that this meant that the building was complete, and that all necessary safety features were in place and operational. He also noted that he was not yet at all familiar with the ordinances that pertained to his job because he had just been appointed. He didn't read said ordinances until after the fire. As for Laughlin, he's the one who first stated that his approval was only for the actual structure of the building.

Even worse, an off duty building inspector who tagged along with Laughlin when he inspected the Iroquois took note of every one of the theaters many violations...but he didn't report any of them because he wasn't there in an official capacity (The free tickets to Mr Bluebeard for the inspectors and their families, I'm sure, had absolutely nothing to do with the building's approval as Safe for Occupancy being pretty much rubber-stamped.)

Theater owners Will Davis' and Harry Powers' testimony was interesting in a couple of respects. First, when one of them was testifying, the other was forbidden to be present in the Council Chamber. And this may have been very good for Harry Powers health, because Will Davis just may have attacked him had he heard Powers' testimony.

See, Powers tossed Will Davis slam under the bus. Powers stated that he was merely a silent partner, with no say what so ever in the running of the Iroquois, while Will Davis was the active partner, who handled all business affairs. He, Powers continued, acted in only an advisory role.

Then Davis was called to testify. He pretty much pushed himself even further under the aforementioned bus when he testified that he really had no idea what features the building codes required, fire safety wise...he simply trusted Fuller Construction to build the building in compliance with local codes and ordinances.

And no, he had not a clue about fire equipment, or what fire equipment was required, or even if any fire equipment was installed in the Iroquois in the first place, though he assumed it was.

On being asked what brought him to that conclusion, he stated that there was a fireman assigned to the theater (Sallors) and that Sallors had not requisitioned any equipment or apparatus, therefore, he had assumed that none was needed.

Then, in what was possibly the most incriminating testimony heard in a nearly month long run of incriminating testimony, Fuller Construction foreman Dave Jones admitted to embarking on a Mission Impossible class plot to destroy evidence...which, of course, he claimed not to be destroying.

Probably within hours of the fire being tapped out a cordon of cops and Pinkerton guards was thrown up around the theater to keep unauthorized people out of the building. They apparently forgot about the building's roof.

Thomas and his band of miscreants went into action as soon as they could be notified and come up with a game plan...likely with-in 24 hours of that first tiny flame being spotted.  He and his crew made their way across a half-block or so worth of roof tops to access the theater's roof, and were busily removing boards form the boarded up roof vents when they were caught by a contingent of cops and Pinkerton guards.  Whether they made this startling discovery while making a regular round or heard the Fuller crew's labors and went to investigate has been lost to history, but which ever it was, they stopped Thomas and crew before they finished, leaving one of the vents still boarded up.

When asked just what they thought they were doing by the at-that-point weary and more than a little disgusted panel, Fuller replied that they were absolutely not destroying evidence...they were simply making the building safer for the investigators by removing glass from the skylights so it wouldn't fall on said investigators and injure them. The panel didn't even begin to buy that one.

As the inquest drew to a close, the panel had no trouble determining a cause...they ruled that it was accidental, caused by the sparking arc light, and that there was no malicious intent associated with the actual start of the fire or the deaths involved. They also ruled that corruption and incompetence subbed for actual malice very handily. They ruled that pretty much every possible fire code associated with fire safety in theaters had been thrown out the window in the rush to get the theater open, that the 'fire curtain' was a sick joke, and that just about everyone involved with inspecting or managing the theater was criminally responsible.

Likely mentally face-palming as one, the panel held eight people over to appear before the Grand Jury.

Facing possible indictment were Mayor Harrison, Chief Musham,  Owner Will Davis, Building Commissioner Williams, Building Inspector Loughlin, Fireman Sallers, Stage Carpenter Cummings, and light operator Bill McMullen.

Davis was accused of ignoring his responsibility to know the laws and ordinances pertaining to fire safety, to see that they were complied with, and to see that his employees were properly trained on what to do if a fire should occur. The Honorable Mayor was held responsible for basically letting his department heads do what-ever-the-heck-they-wanted. Chief Musham and Commissioner Williams were accused of gross neglect and neglect of duty, Inspector Loughlin of official Malfeasance, Sallers of basically, criminal incompetence, and McMullen got tossed in simply because he was in charge of the light that started the fire in the first place.

All were arrested and posted bail, and to a man they, at first, refused to speak to the press (Some things haven't changed in 115 or so years...). Commissioner Williams probably really circled the wagons when, just shy of two weeks after the inquest ended, several of his inspectors were arrested for taking bribes...allegations that Williams said were false, a story that fell apart when an entry was found in the ledgers belonging to one of the companies offering bribes. And just what was that ledger entry, you may ask.  An expense account entry listing a thousand bucks, budgeted yearly, to be used as favor-buying funds. Yep...the bribes were in the budget.

As for Mayor Harrison, when the press finally buttonholed him, he used an excuse that's pretty much been a boiler-plate excuse for high ranking officials caught in less-than-ideal circumstances for well over a century. He said that the allegations towards him were politically motivated untruths told by bitter rivals.

The Press...locally and nationwide...pilloried the whole bunch of them as they waited for the Grand Jury to return indictments, with the majority of the scorn aimed at Mayor Harrison. It was stated...not inaccurately...that no matter what he did, he was incriminating himself. A good example is his virtual lock-down of places of public assembly after the fire.. To simplify their comments greatly, they asked the somewhat rhetorical question 'If he could enforce the relevant ordinances now...why couldn't he have done so before the fire?

Political cartoonists had a field day after the Iroquois Theater Fire. This is just a very tiny sample of the hundreds of political cartoons that were generated by the fire, the majority of them targeting the corruption that allowed the fire...and the deaths...to happen.

This cartoon by renowned political cartoonist John T. McCutcheon, really tugged at the newspaper-reading public heart strings. It's very likely based on the family of Mary Holst, from Chicago.  Mary Holst and her husband had four kids, one of them a infant son, only six months old in  December '03. She had promised the other three kids...8 and 10 year old daughters, and a 13 year old son...that she'd take them to see Mr Bluebeard that afternoon, with dad volunteering, or possibly being volunteered, for    babysitting duties at home. 

Tragically, Mary Holst and all three of the older children died in the fire, leaving her husband and the baby behind.  As you can imagine, Mr Holst was absolutely devastated by his family's death, and John T. McCutchon captured his devastation and grief in this cartoon to hammer home the fire's absolute horror. 

Political cartoonists...in particular The Tribune's John T McCutcheon...had a field day with the embattled mayor, as well as the other department heads facing indictment, and the Press was licking their collective lips, just waiting for the indictments to be handed down, and the actual criminal trials to begin. Predictions were made that several long prison sentences would ultimately result, while lawsuits (Several had already been filed.) would drain the responsible parties not indicted of every
cent and valuable.

As greatly deserved as that would have been, it wasn't gonna happen....

Why? You may ask...Read on, say I.

The Grand Jury first noted that, as the coroner's Jury had stated, ordinances had been all but ignored, costs had been slashed via omitting required items (Sprinklers and proper standpipes) and substituting sub-standard materials for the real thing (The soon-to-be-infamous fire curtain), and on top of that, the theater was opened before it was finished...in particular before any fire protection was installed. All of this, they also noted, was done willfully in order to maximize profits. They also noted that everyone's extreme overconfidence in the building's 'fireproof' construction led them to assume that the building construction alone would protect the theater's occupants if a fire should start. and that the building's much-touted safety features could be worked on and completed at their leisure.

 The theater's manger and owners, obviously didn't factor in the building's contents, the fact that you can't breath smoke, or the effects of panic in their estimation's of how safe their new gem of a theater was. In effect (And the Coroner's panel stated this) they had built a brand new, 'fireproof' fire trap.

And just who was responsible for the catastrophic loss of life on that frigid Wednesday afternoon?...America waited, holding their breath for the Grand Jury to release the indictments.

The indictments were finally released on February 23rd, 1904, noting that it was the moral and legal responsibility of the theater management to follow ordinances and provide proper fire protection for the theater, and adequate means for any occupants to remove themselves from peril without injury or harm.  They also noted that it was the duty of Fire Department and the Building Department to see that the various ordinances were complied with.

Indictments were handed out to theater manager Thomas Noonan, owner Will Davis, and stage carpenter James Cummings, charging them with multiple counts of manslaughter. Also indicted were
Commissioner of Buildings Williams, and inspector Laughlin, both for 'Palpable Omission of Duty.

Off the hook were Chief Musham, Fireman Sallers, and Bill McMullen...charges were dropped against them due to lack of evidence.

Most surprising of all, charges against Mayor Harrison were also dropped...but he wasn't completely off the hook. Though they didn't say this in so many words, the Grand Jury's opinion was pretty obviously along the lines of 'Unfortunately, incompetence isn't illegal'. Harrison's rebuttal to the press was, basically, ' The important thing here is not that they feel I did my job improperly, it's the fact that they didn't have any evidence that I did anything illegal.

But the Grand Jury had found evidence that five individuals did indeed commit crimes, three of them...Noonan, Davis, and Cummings...charged with manslaughter. and the resultant trial would end up being one of the longest, most drawn out legal battles in Chicago history.

This brings us to a Richmond, Va born lawyer by the name of Levy Mayer who had decided on a law career early in life. He moved to Chicago with his family in the 1860s (His parents quickly grew weary of the drama created by a little tiff called the Civil War and headed for more stable climes), entered Yale Law School at sixteen, and generally kicked butt and took names all the way through Law School, graduating second in his class. Once he passed the Illinois Bar, he and a partner founded a law firm that exists to this very day, and Mayer quickly earned a reputation as a tough as nails attorney with an uncanny knowledge of the ins and outs of the law that made him an  outstanding litigator who was vigorously loyal to his clients. He also became well known for diving right in and defending unpopular clients in controversial cases.

Mayer was retained to defend The Theatrical Trust's interests by lunchtime on New Years Eve, 1903...less than 24 hours after the fire. True to his well-earned reputation, Mayer jumped right on in.

To convict any of the three primary defendants of Manslaughter, the prosecution would not only  have to prove that the death of any specific individual was caused by a specific violation of law or ordinance, they would also have to prove that the pertinent ordinances were valid in the first place.  The problem the prosecution was going to have was the fact that the bodies were recovered before any attempt to ascertain the specific reason that at least one specific person couldn't escape from the theater, and whether that inability to escape directly caused that person's death.

Huh??? You say. Yeah, I know, we all know that anyone who died in the crush at, say, the main Dress Circle exit died because that exit was partially blocked and they couldn't escape before the the products of combustion suffocated them. But the law of the time demanded that the prosecution prove that a specific person who died because the exit was blocked be named in order for a conviction of manslaughter to be obtained.  There was absolutely no way that the State could prove, with out any doubt, where any of the deceased met their untimely death, and Mayer knew it. He also had a feeling that he might not even have to prove that the State couldn't connect any given person's death to a specific violation of Ordinance, because he had a sneaking suspicion that he could prove the the ordinances weren't even valid and legal in the first place. And if he could prove that, the prosecution's case would unravel in a heartbeat.

With that thought in mind, the very first thing he had his defense team do was start combing the city's building codes.

While all this research was going on, Mayer used the outrage against his clients in his favor to  request a change of venue, Stating that there was a huge level of prejudice against them in Chicago-land, and that a change of venue was absolutely essential if they were to receive a fair trial. He actually had a valid point here, and the request was granted, moving the trial to Peoria, Illinois. Almost in the same breath as the Change of Venue request came a request to dismiss the charges against Will Davis...

Now, before we get to the result of that request, we're going to take a look at the biggie that Mayer was counting on...the fact that, as they say, 'Time Heals All Wounds. He figured...rightly...that if he delayed the case long enough before trial, other newsworthy events would push the Iroquois Disaster out of everyone's conscious memory, diluting the outrage against his clients. And it was working as new events and horrors...not least among them them the Sino-Japanese War, and the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904...displaced the Iroquois both in the headlines, and in the minds of the populace.

On top of that, then as now court calendars were packed full, and the courts had to take into consideration the complexity of this case...this was no minor trial for, say, disturbing the peace. This trial would require a huge outlay of resources and time, therefore a large block of calendar-time had to be reserved far enough in the future that it didn't interfere with other cases. This scheduling process was likely already underway in Chicago. The Change of Venue turned the process on it's head, delaying the trial even further as, now, that block of time had to be found in the Peoria County Court Calendar, delayed the trial even further.

Mayer's delaying tactics were working like a charm. The change of venue wasn't granted until September 1904, nine months after the fire, and the decision on quashing Will Davis' charges wasn't handed down until February '05, over a year after the fire.

When that decision was handed down, Will Davis breathed a sigh of relief...the judge granted  the dismissal, clearing him of all charges. The trial hadn't even started yet, and the State's case had already taken two very damaging hits.  Then came the crowning blow.

Judge Kersten, in Chicago, delivered the opinion that the ordinances did not specify who was responsible for providing the proper appliances and apparatus for fire protection, nor did they specify who was responsible for keeping such appliances and apparatus in good working order, therefore no one could be charged with manslaughter, because it was impossible to determine who was responsible in order to charge them.

As if that wasn't enough to derail the State's case,  Judge Greene, in Peoria opined that the deaths were not caused by the theater's complete lack of fire safety, but rather by the fire itself, and therefore by the sparking of the Arc Light.

And with that, the prosecution was dead in the water. All of the charges were dropped, at least for the time being. Mayer stated that, thanks to the various decisions handed down thus far, any new indictments wouldn't be worth the paper they were written on. The trial ended before it even got underway...they didn't even get to seat a jury

Davis immediately regaled the press with his relief at having the charges dropped, and the unfairness of being indicted in the first place. The public was not sympathetic at all.

Nor, as you can imagine, was the Prosecution moved to say 'Oh, well...That's the ballgame', and just let it go. Even as Davis was publicly complaining about the unfairness of it all, the State was working on getting all of those who were considered responsible for the fire to appear before a second Grand Jury. It took 'em under a a month to do just that.

On March 7, 1905 The Grand Jury re-indicted Will Davis, Building Inspector Laughlin, and Building Commissioner Williams. None of the other major players in the disaster were re-indicted due to insufficient evidence.

Mayer once again moved to have the indictments quashed, but this time, again due to The State of Illinois' overloaded court calendar he and his clients had to wait almost another year to find out if his request was sustained or denied...January 13, 1906 to be precise. This time, all of the indictments were sustained, and Mayer was finally able to begin preparing his defense as the  preparations for the trial got underway.

 Of course, this delay would also work for his clients, as the fire slipped further and further back into the past to be over-shadowed by more current news, even as Mayer repeated yet another tactic from the previous trial by asking for a change of venue, producing 12,000 affidavits attesting to the fact that there was no way his clients could get a fair trial in The Windy City.

And as this request wound it's way through the legal system, the Iroquois Disaster was overshadowed both on the front pages and in the minds of the citizens by yet another disaster when, on April 18, 1906,  one of the worst earthquakes to hit the North American continent slammed San Francisco with a double-whammy, first collapsing many of the city's buildings, then setting the ruins on fire.

So, when the Change of  Venue was granted in June of 1906, it barely made a squeak in the papers, relegated to being a filler on a back page somewhere. And the trial would again be delayed further, this time by both crowded dockets and Mayer's delaying tactics...it would be three years and change after the fire before a jury was seated and a trial date set, this time 134 miles south of Chicago, in Danville, Ill.

Rumor had it that The State was planning to produce as many as two hundred witnesses, all either injured victims of the fire, or grieving relatives who had lost loved ones. As the trial neared, the Iroquois story began to edge its way back towards the front page. This, it was surmised, was going to be one of the longest, hardest fought trials of  the century

Thing is, only one of those two hundred witnesses would get to testify. Mayer was about to blind-side the State with yet another twist on an already-used tactic.

The trial was finally scheduled to begin on March 7, 1907. An overflow crowd was packed into the Vermilion County courtroom when The Honorable Judge E.R.E. Kimbrough smacked his gavel down and called the court into order., He...and the rest of the court officers, as well as any spectators with any knowledge of Courtroom Protocol...knew something was up when Mayer declined to make an opening statement, stating he'd make his opening statement at the close of the State's evidence.

The State swung right into the ball game, calling as it's first witness Mrs Maude Jackson, the mother of 16 year old fire victim Viva Jackson. Mrs Jackson began her testimony bravely, State's Attorney John Keesler setting up background, asking the grieving mother about her daughter...

...And four questions in, Mayer rose and called 'Your Honor I Object! This entire line of questioning...the State's entire case...is built on invalid assumptions...The City of Chicago did not have the power to issue or enforce the great majority of the fire safety ordinances that the case was built on.

Ok, I know, I know...they didn't exactly try to enforce them in the first place...but the wild thing is, according to the way the law was written at the time, technically at least, he was right.

The whole legal argument he used is far, far too complicated to go into here...Mayer introduced a 134 page legal brief outlining his argument...but the gist of it was, in Illinois (And very possibly the majority of the states at the time) The City Council didn't have the power to issue or enforce ordinances unless those powers had been granted to them by the State Legislature.

So, his challenge to The State was, basically and stripped down to it's simplest terms, show The Court where The Great State of Illinois granted the Chicago City Council those powers. Spoiler alert...they couldn't, because it hadn't.

Davis couldn't be required to abide by ordinances that were invalid, nor could he be convicted of criminal negligence (If he was even charged with it) because, without the ordinances, he wasn't required to take every possible precaution against fire...only those that would be taken by a 'Reasonable and prudent individual'. Likewise, Williams and Laughlin couldn't be expected to enforce ordinances that were, technically, illegal themselves.

Yeah, it was a very, very technical argument, but it was still valid. And...much to his chagrin...Judge Kimbrough had to accept it. And in accepting it he had to dismiss the Manslaughter charges against all three defendants, He didn't like it...and he made it more than clear that he didn't like it...but he had to follow the law.

The Long Drawn Out, Hard Fought Trial Of The Century was over and done with in two days flat. Rather than just dismissing the charges outright, Judge Kinbrough directed the jury to return a 'Not Guilty' verdict (I think a little judicial ass-covering may have been afoot there), the jury did as directed, and the three defendants were free to go.

Once again, Will Davis spoke of his relief ...this time both of his acquittal, and of the fact that the criminal trial was finally over, while Mayer very bluntly stated that 'The judge had no other choice...the law was against the State'. The State's Attorney stated to the press that it had been a close decision, hinging, of course, on the validity of the ordinances.

The State's witnesses, however...the surviving victims and family members who'd lost loved ones...felt like they had been screwed royally, and for good reason...they had. While laws of that era required that the public be protected when attending events in places of public assembly (That the various fire protection devices and exits, for example, be present and operational), they didn't specify who was ultimately responsible if those devices failed.

This was a major fail for the legal system that allowed the obviously guilty parties to smugly declare that they weren't at all responsible for a single one of the over 600 deaths caused by the fire.  Then, taking 'We're not responsible' to yet another level, they declared that the deaths...and the fire that caused them...were simply an Act of God. And no, I'm not kidding...the fire was equated to 'A hurricane lifting the roof off of the building.

As if the victims and grieving family members didn't get screwed over badly enough by the criminal trial, they were in for yet another shellacking in the inevitable civil trials resulting from the fire.

The early 20th Century wasn't even a tenth as litigious as the present day, but there were still over 200 lawsuits filed by injured survivors as well as by the families of deceased victims, and given the level of greed, incompetence, and plain long criminal shenanigans that caused the fire, you'd think that the theater owners would get slammed in Civil Court, even though they were acquitted in the criminal trial. After all, it'a not that unusual at all for those who were acquitted in a criminal trial to still get their butts handed to them in a civil trial.

OK...it's not that rare for that to happen today. Back in 1903, things were a bit different. The truth of the matter is, the great majority of the claimants weren't awarded a single red cent. They had a couple of things working against them from the git-go.

The theater's liability insurance (Carried by Maryland Casualty Company) had a coverage limit of  $10,000 (Just shy of $300,000 today) for any one occurrence, and $5,000 (About $150,000 today) for the loss of any one life...but here's the kicker. The policy didn't pay out at all in the event of loss of life by explosion or fire. This meant that the theater's policy explicitly denied liability coverage for injury or death resulting from the most common type of loss facing early Twentieth Century theater owners...fire.

No biggie, you may think... the principles in the ownership and operation of the Iroquois were all wealthy people, and The City of Chicago, whose actions made them at least partly responsible for the injuries and deaths, had plenty of money. Sue the crap out of them, and drain the deep pockets...it'd be far more satisfying to make those directly responsible for the deaths pay up rather than accepting a check from an insurance company, anyway...

...Not so fast, gang. First lets look at a prior court case...and those pesky ordinances were the culprit once again. Federal Judge Kenesaw Landis held that the ordinances didn't place any responsibility to provide and install the proper equipment on the theater owner directly, and only provided for a fine if said equipment was absent or inoperative, and did not provide for liability or consequences arising from said absence or fault. In other words, the ordinances didn't demand any restitution for deaths or injures resulting from the violation of the ordinance. The courts took this very literally.

On top of that, the prevailing legal opinion of the day held that, by buying a ticket granting admission to a place of public assembly, the ticket holder accepted any and all risks that might arise from attending the event.

Or, to put it in simpler terms, you know that theaters have a tendency to burn, therefore by buying a ticket to a play, you accept the risk that the theater might catch on fire while you're attending that play, and as a result, you might be injured or killed.

Oh, that wasn't put down in writing anywhere, but civil law at the time was most definitely favored the business owner over the customer. Which meant that the victims of The Iroquois Theater Fire were pretty much screwed. The very great majority of the civil cases were dismissed outright because of this very principal.

That, of course, definitely didn't keep people from trying to hold the owners of The Iroquois financially as well as criminally responsible, but they might as well have been trying to put out a forest fire with a bucket brigade. One excellent example of this was attorney Henry Shabad, who lost both of his kids in the fire. He tried his best to have indictments brought against Klaw and Erlanger, with no success. Then he tried bringing suit against them, but they likely declared that they were not the principal owners and that even if they were, the above quoted...and now thankfully long overturned...legal principal protected them.

Speaking of Klaw and Erlanger,  rumors persisted for years that they paid off several families despite that theory of accepted responsibility, but this was never confirmed, and apparently no record of said payments exists...anywhere.

Two women did sue Fuller Construction for $50,000 (Just shy of 1,4 Million in 2017 dollars) but there's no record of how that trial turned out, if it, indeed, ever went to trial. If it did go to trial, they may have had a marginally better chance of winning because it was known that Fuller Construction not only didn't finish the roof venting system, they attempted to destroy the evidence proving that it wasn't finished. All the plaintiff's attorneys had to do was subpoena the records from the coroners inquest. And this actually may have happened...six years after the fire.

The last news of the civil cases resulting from the fire came in 1909, when wire services reported that Fuller Construction had made out of court settlements of $750 ($20,765 today) apiece to thirty families who had lost loved ones in the fire. Thirty out of six hundred.

Had this fire happened today, someone would have gone to prison, and millions would have been paid out in Civil trials, but as I noted above, attitudes were far, far different in the early 20th Century, though the level of outrage caused by the deaths, and more importantly the perceived cause of the deaths, was pretty much on a par with what we would have seen today.

That outrage, in fact, is why Mayer immediately started working to delay the trial while petitioning for a Change of Venue. He well knew that if he defended his clients in front of a Chicago jury seated only a couple of months after the trial, he'd be facing a serious up-hill battle. I'm convinced that if that had happened, at least one of his clients would have been convicted.

The civil trials, sadly, would have likely yielded the same results no matter when the trials were held, simply due to the very pro-business owner..and anti-consumer...attitudes that the Civil Courts held at the time.

It would be nice to think that the same outrage that prompted Mayer to delay the trials and ask for changes of venue  also inspired immediate change in the both the law and the legal attitudes of the time, but that didn't happen either. It took  decades for the principal of assumed risk to completely disappear from the civil courts, and likely took nearly as long for the laws regarding Manslaughter and responsibility for same to morph into the modern laws we have now. Examples of both the Iroquois Fire era Civil and  criminal legal principles still existing well into the middle of the Twentieth Century still popped up, as we'll see as I cover other disasters from that era.

One thing that did change for the better was theater fire safety, though that was still like pulling teeth. After all you were asking business owners to spend money in order to make their buildings safer...but ultimately that did  happen as theaters installed actual fire curtains (Many higher end theaters installed steel 'fire curtains' that were actually true fire doors that closed off the stage from the auditorium). Sprinkler systems that were mandatory on paper became mandatory in actual fact. Regulations and codes on exits, seating, required fire apparatus were finally paid more than a passing glance.

While it wasn't...and indeed isn't...perfect (We'll take a look at that in 'Notes, too) something must've worked. While, sadly, the Iroquois was far from the last large loss-of-life structure fire in U.S. history, it was almost the last one to occur in a theater in the U.S. There was one more large loss of life theater fire...the Rhoads Opera House fire, in Boyertown, Pa., in January 1908, which resulted in 171 fatalities. That was the last major lost of life theater fire the U.S. has seen, though, and there are those that argue that this wasn't actually a theater as such, an argument that actually has a great deal of merit.

Of course, the Iroquois Theater Fire could claim one thing that neither of the nation's other two big loss-of-life theater fires could claim...the building didn't burn down. CFD, in fact, made a pretty awesome stop on it. Not only did it not burn down...it was repaired and back in use with-in less than a year.

The theater was repaired, remodeled, and reopened as a vaudeville theater called Hyde and Behman's Music Hall, operating under this moniker for about a year. Apparently Hyde and Behman's didn't do all that well. In 1905 it closed, to be acquired by (Drumroll, please!!) Klaw and Ediger's Theatrical Trust. The Trust completely remodeled the theater (And we can only hope, included functional fire protection features and equipment this time) and reopened it as a legitimate playhouse called The Colonial Theater.
The Colonial apparently did do fairly well...well enough to stay open at any rate...but it was still sold by The Theatrical Trust in 1913, to be purchased by the Jones, Linick, and Schaefer Theatrical Syndicate, who immediately remodeled it yet again, keeping the name Colonial and turning it into (Again) a vaudeville house, but they added something else...a movie theater. Just how long it lasted as this second coming of The Colonial, I'm not sure, but by 1924 it was closed, all but abandoned, and becoming dilapidated.

That was also the year that The Colonial...along with most of the block it was on...was purchased by the Masonic Temple, and demolished to become the site of the United Masonic Temple Building, which would also be home to The Oriental Theater. The Oriental...still open to this day...has a pretty interesting, if thankfully less deadly, history of it's own...but we'll tackle that in 'Notes'.

How well has The Iroquois Theater Fire been remembered?

Today, The Iroquois Theater Fire is better known than the Brooklyn Theater Fire...but that's because The Brooklyn Theater Fire has been all but completely forgotten, not because The Iroquois is so well remembered. Trust me on this, if you ask a hundred people who aren't theater history geeks, or fire buffs, or in the  fire service if they've ever heard of the Iroquois Theater, ninety-nine of them will say something like 'No...What's it, an Indy house or something????'

This is actually kind of interesting  because, compared to The Brooklyn Theater Fire, the Iroquois Theater Fire passed into history with barely a whimper, while the Brooklyn theater fire kept piling on the memories for nearly a month after the fire itself.

Unlike the victims of the Brooklyn Theater Fire, all of the Iroquois victims were buried by their own families at private funerals. (Though there was some question as to whether every family burying a loved one got the right body, as many of the bodies were either trampled or burned beyond recognition). Because of this, and again unlike the Brooklyn Theater Fire, there is also no actual major memorial anywhere today for the Iroquois Theater victims as there is for both the Brooklyn Theater Fire and The Richmond Theater Fire victims (The Richmond Theater Fire victims, in fact, were memorialized with an entire church, built on the theater site, with most of the fire victims buried in a crypt in the church basement). There was a hospital built as a memorial for the victims of the Iroquois Theater Fire...and I'm going to look at it in some detail in 'Notes'...but it's been gone for almost seventy years, and is even more forgotten than the fire it was built to memorialize.

By 1935, only those directly involved with the fire, be they injured victims and families who lost loved ones, or firefighters, and the Mr Bluebeard cast, really remembered the fire. It wasn't completely forgotten by those who were alive but not actually involved when the fire occurred, (Especially those who lived in Chicago at the time) but it had definitely been filed in one of those dusty file drawers in a little-used backroom off of a dead end corridor of memory that was only accessed when something...say the yearly spate of 'Anniversary Articles' that any major disaster yields...reminded them of it. The articles would be read, the obligatory 'That was so awful!' comments would be made, and then the fire would be forgotten again, often before the newspaper with the anniversary article was thrown out, until late December of the next year rolled around.

As the people with direct knowledge of the fire aged and passed away, the fire dropped further and further back into the murky depths of time-gone-by. By the mid 1960s even the youngest of the survivors were all pushing seventy years old. One of the last living survivors, who was also very likely the one of the last living souls with any direct knowledge of the fire, was Harriet Bray, who was eleven at the time of the fire.  Her dad was likely on par with Superman in her eyes for the rest of her life...he's the dad who broke open a balcony fire escape door, then jumped from the lowest landing of the balcony fire escape so he could catch her.  She passed away in 1978, at the age of 86.


WOW...This post took me far longer than I thought it would, becoming the first (And hopefully, the last) post to take over a year to get published while it was at it. But then again, it also ended up being way more complicated than I thought it would be, which is saying something, because I went in to this post knowing I was digging into a pretty convoluted, complicated incident.

Befitting it's title of 'Post That Took Forever To Write', this post also blew past the Brooklyn Theater Fire early in the ball game to become the longest post so far as well as the first to bust a hundred pages. This, BTW, is after I went through it several times trying to cut unnecessary and overly florid prose, get rid of redundancies, and generally fool everyone into thinking I knew what I was doing.

It also ended up being a far longer read than I intended for it to be, and I thank each and every person who hung on and made it this far.

All of that being said, and despite headaches, frustrations, and life occasionally getting in the way of progress, it was also a hoot to research and write, and the very fact that it was such a complicated subject is the reason why.

 Every answered question seemed to yield two more that were unanswered, a few of which will very likely remain unanswered. I'm going to try and delve into some of them...both the answerable and the unanswerable...here in 'Notes'

The fire itself, tragic as it was, was pretty straight forward, both cause and firefighting wise. If you, for a very brief moment, set aside the rescue problem and the huge death toll, along with the body recovery operation those deaths created, the fire itself was actually a pretty routine backstage fire in a theater, a type of fire that occurred dozens of times annually in the US during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. In fact, had this exact fire occurred during an afternoon rehearsal before the play opened, with no audience, no rescue problem and no delayed alarm, it's a good bet that the backdraft wouldn't have occurred, the fire wouldn't have extended to the two balconies, and that CFD's guys would have held it to, at most, a second alarm with even less damage to the building than actually occurred. Take away the audience (And the deaths), this was not a complicated fire.

The events leading up to and following the fire, however, were. Not only complicated, but interesting, especially the events occurring after the fire. A law and trial buff would have a field day digging through those transcripts!! I just hit the high spots on the legal wranglings that occurred over the two or so years following the fire, trust me on this.

Then we have the stories from inside the theater...there were around 2000 or so of them of them, and a huge number of those stories have been recorded thanks to a single web site in particular. I am forever indebted to Judy Cooke, Owner, Webmaster, and as she puts it, Chief Cook And Bottle-Washer of the absolutely phenomenal http://www.iroquoistheater.com, which is the absolute go-to site for anything having to do with the Iroquois Theater Fire. The site has over 560 pages of info, and is still growing. Judy has done a phenomenal job of researching the fire and the many people involved. I'll expound even more on the awesomeness of this site in 'Links'. Suffice it to say that a huge percentage of my research was accomplished by simply going to Judy's site.

The nice thing about researching the Iroquois Theater Fire was the amount of info available...There are loads of sites and articles, Judy Cooke's site chief among them, about every facet of the fire, meaning there are entire on-line libraries of info available....so much, in fact, that I had to pick and choose what I was going to include (A far sweeter kind of frustration than having to figure out how to expand a minuscule amount of info into a decent length post.). But what's even more interesting about this one...and more than a little frustrating from a historian and/or a fire-buff's point of view...is some of the stuff that's not available.

As anyone who's read my posts knows, I try to delve into the firefighting operations more deeply than most sites do. Firefighting is my love and passion, and I like to know how the fire was were fought. Fairly easily done for an incident occurring within the last half century or so. Not so much for an incident...even a legendary incident...occurring 115 years ago.

Written fire reports were most definitely generated by every incident in salaried departments... especially those of major cities...well before 1903, and they very likely followed much the same basic format as modern fire reports (With additions made as time passed for such things as EMS, Hazmat response, etc) and you'd think that the fire report for a legendary and tragic incident such as the Iroquois Theater Fire would have been preserved. Didn't happen. And, while human nature would love to attach a more sinister reasoning for the report's absence, there is very likely a very good if far more mundane, and even very practical reason why it no longer exists.

Anyone want to try and make a guess as to just how many fire reports were generated by the Chicago Fire Department annually in the years before such reports went digital?  A huge amount of physical storage would be needed to store them, even if the reports were all put on microfiche...remember, were talking over  a century of hard-copy, hand and typewritten fire reports from a fire department that had 101 engine companies and was was already averaging several thousand runs annually nearly a century and a quarter ago. They simply didn't have room to hang on to everything.

The fire report for the Iroquois ended up being just another old piece of paperwork taking up valuable storage space, and was likely thrown out well over three quarters of a century ago, in one of the many purges of old paperwork that every department performed annually for years. There was likely a maximum number of years old fire reports were kept, and once that magic number was reached, they were taken...very likely and more than a little ironically...to an incinerator. Trust me, I wish it wasn't so, because I would have loved to have seen that fire report. Without it, I had to do loads of speculating as to the actual firefighting operation.

Inspection reports were among the missing, too, of course, but I have a feeling they went missing long before any maximum number of years of retention was reached. If they ever existed at all.

Trial transcripts may or may not have been easier to come by, and I know for a fact that details pertaining to both the Coroners Jury inquest and both criminal trials were easy to come by because, well, I found them. Actually read about them, in both of the excellent books about the fire that I ordered, as well as on Judy's site, so I can pretty well vouch for the accuracy of the trail information I posted...any mistakes are mine, probably out of either laziness or working on this thing after getting off of a midnight shift.

The two books I mentioned are Tinderbox, by Anthony P Hatch, and Chicago Death Trap by Nat Brandt...I literally kept both close at hand the entire time I was working on the post. I also kept Iroquoistheater.com conveniently open in another tab as I worked on this 'Epic Tome'.

I've prattled and pontificated far too much here, so, as always, hopefully I've made this an informative and interesting read...on to 'Notes!


Lets kick this off with the basic Iroquois Theater facts and figures...Iroquois 101 if you will.

The theater was located at 24-18 West Randolph Street, on a 'L' shaped double lot near the corner of Randolph and Dearborn Streets, in Chicago's legendary 'Loop'. It cost 1.1 Million dollars to build (Just shy of 30.5 million in today's dollars), and had 17,430 square feet of floor space (stage: 5,790, foyer: 5,400, auditorium: 5,790)

As noted in the body of this post, it incorporated just about every piece of early 20th Century era high-tech convenience and safety equipment that existed at the time, very likely one of the first times this had been done in any building in the U.S. If all had gone as planned, the Iroquois would have been a benchmark to be emulated by builders world wide.

Of course, as it turned out all of the convenience features (Elevator, electric lights) worked as planned..(Oh, wait, that one arc light)...And literally none of the safety features worked at all.


If you take a look at The Brooklyn Theater Fire and The Iroquois Theater Fire side by side, so to speak, you realize there are an almost eerie number of parallels between the two (As well as a few triple-parallels between those two incidents and the Richmond Theater Fire). 

Lets take a look at the things all three fires had in common first:

*All three occurred in December.
*All three were started by a piece of lighting equipment.
*All three fires involved the fly gallery before extending into the auditorium.
*The greatest loss of life occurred in the balconies in all three.
*Almost everyone on the first level escaped in all three.
*Inadequate exits caused theater goers to become trapped in all three (This, BTW, is a factor in almost every major loss-of-life fire.)

And now for the factors common to both the Brooklyn Theater Fire and The Iroquois Theater Fire:

*Both theaters were considered to be the finest in their respective cities at the time they burned.
*Both fires were ignited by a piece of lighting equipment.
*Both fires started on the Stage Right side of the stage.
*A curtain was the initial ignition point in both fires.
*The fire raced up the curtain into the fly gallery in both fires.
*The stage crew unsuccessfully attempted to extinguish the fire it's the early stages in both fires.
*The show's star tried to calm the crowd and convince them to remain in their seats in both.
*Firefighting equipment had either been removed or had never installed in both fires.
*The stage door was opened during the fire, intensifying it exponentially in both fires.
*The greatest loss of life occurred in the top-most balcony in both.


While doing research for possible topics for this blog I was amazed as well as saddened at the number of major loss of life incidents that took place in December, a month that should be full of joy  and merrymaking and fellowship. 

All three of the nation's worst theater fires (The Richmond, Brooklyn, and Iroquois theaters in Richmond,Va, Brooklyn, NY, and Chicago, Illinois) occurred during December, in the years 1811, 1876, and 1903 respectively. I counted nineteen major loss of life incidents between 1811 and 2000 in just the US, Canada, and the UK. This is just major loss of life structure fires, by the way....such incidents as major transportation accidents, building collapses, etc aren't counted in that total, though there are a bunch of 'em. 

Granted I didn't go through and count those in the other months...I just went down a couple of pretty inclusive 'Lists of major building fires' and marked all of the December incidents. To be realistic, the total number of incidents is probably fairly evenly distributed among the 12 months, but December is, in my mind, the the most tragic month for any death, much less a catastrophic incident that takes dozens or hundreds of lives.


We're also going to deal with a bit of long term controversy...or at least confusion...right out of the gate. Hard as it may be to believe, no one knows for sure just how many people were in the Iroquois when the fire started, nor are they absolutely sure exactly how many people died...this despite official records that allegedly nailed down both.

Before I start, I'm going to throw a quick little caveat in here...I've found three different sources that quote three different totals for the number of tickets that were actually sold for the fatal performance. Thankfully, one of them was the official figure, straight from the Coroners Jury Inquest, so that's the one I went with.

Depending on where you read it, and who you believe, there were as many as two thousand people attending the play...a full four hundred more than the theater's actual seating capacity, but not legal capacity. The Iroquois officially had a seating capacity of 1,606 (698 on the first level, 421 on the second level, 447 on the third level, and 32 in the box seats) plus standing-room for an additional 119, or about 40 standees along the back wall of each level if they were divided equally among the three levels of seating. If the theater had a legal, standing-room-only full house, there would have been 1725 tickets sold, and according to the transcript of William Noonan's testimony from the Coroner's Jury there were actually only 117 standing room tickets sold, for a total of 1723.

The ticket-bearers wouldn't have been the only ones in the audience, though.  Eight employees of neighboring theaters were allowed in for free...we're up to 1733 in the audience. Another eighty...probably family of cast members...had free passes, for an official total of 1,811 in the audience...just under a hundred over legal capacity, and still way shy of the 2000 plus tickets that source after source insists were sold. 

The ticket-holding standees weren't distributed equally, so we're not sure just how many people were on each level. If the transcript of the Coroners Jury Inquest are accurate, we know how many standing room tickets were sold (Or, at any rate, how many were recorded as sold)..117. There were actually two types of standing room tickets...one that allowed access to both the Parquet(First)level and Dress Circle, and the other, less expensive ticket allowed access to only the Gallery. There were only 21 of the Parquet/Dress Circle Standing Room tickets sold, and 95 Gallery standing room tickets sold, putting an unknown exact total number of ticket bearing occupants on the theater's first two levels and 542 ticket-holders in the Gallery, so the Gallery could very well have been grossly over-crowded.

I can't see any of the owners/management of the Iroquois dedicating a block of 80 seats to free passes, so we can just about bet that the 'Freebies' that were handed out were likely also standing-room, adding an additional eight-eight standees. Now we don't know where they were standing, but I'll also bet that as many as could fit went to the back of the Parquet level...it was the least crowded and had the best view of the stage.

SO lets say that fifty of them stood at the rear of the Parquet level and another thirty-eight stood at the rear of the Dress Circle, with the twenty-one ticket-holding standees roving form the Parquet Level to the Dress Circle.  That creates a level of overcrowding that wouldn't happen today, and should have even given fire marshals from that era gas, but still wasn't unsustainable in an emergency, assuming (And this is a biggie!) that all of the exits are functional, all of the safety equipment functions as designed, and panic is avoided.

OF course, none of the safety equipment functioned at all, most of the exits weren't functional, and panic ran rampant, and this meant that even that lower official number of audience members made a difference in the fire's outcome.  There were, potentially, seventy extra people per level trying to make it out of a very limited number of very small exits, making the fire's tragic aftermath all but inevitable.

But what if 2000 tickets actually were sold?

Two thousand tickets would have been 275 extra tickets...91 additional standees per level, plus the 'legal' standees for a potential total of 130 or so standees on each level (Ok, I got lazy and distributed them equally this time.). This is before the freebies are added, for another thirty, for possibly as many as 160 standees per level.

This would have redefined 'Unsafe', and definitely shouldn't have happened but it's not impossible. For this to have actually happened, though, the ticket sellers may have had to have gotten a bit creative. The ticket office was given instructions to 'Keep selling standing room tickets', possibly after the show was, legally, sold out. The problem facing the ticket-sellers, though, was that 'Sold Out means just that...there are no more tickets of any kind to be had.

In order for the ticket sellers to abide by those 'Keep On Selling Tickets' instructions, they had to take money, then issue some kind of 'token'...perhaps a sheet torn from a notepad...as a substitute for a ticket stub. And it's a good bet that, if that was the case, that the ticket takers in the lobby were issued instructions not to record the 'unofficial' tickets. The theater's management wouldn't have wanted a record of massive overcrowding to exist, no matter how corrupt Chicago's city government was. Many sources note that there were people standing/sitting in the aisles, so there could very well have been a grossly overcapacity crowd in the theater that day.

But there could be another explanation for that 'Two Thousand Plus in the audience' figure...what if all of these sources confused the terms 'Occupants' and 'Audience'. There were people in the theater who actually worked there. And, even more importantly, numbers-wise, performed there.

The Iroquois had 30 employees inside the theater that night. That number was dwarfed by Mr Bluebeard's cast and crew, though...350 strong. Hmmm...350 plus 30 for 380...add that to 1723 legal ticket-holders and 88 freebies and pass-holders and we're up to 2166, or 166 more occupants than the universally claimed '2000 in the audience'.

SO either way you look at the figures there were well more than 2000 people in The Iroquois when  that arc light shorted out on Dec. 30, 1903. And at least 602 of them lost their lives. And that was beyond tragic no matter which figures you use.


Now for the death toll. The official figure's been 602 ever since a final toll was publicly released a couple of weeks after the fire. Problem is, no ones sure that's absolutely accurate.

Officially, 591 bodies were recovered from the theater the evening of the fire, and another eleven, according to the official death toll, died in hospitals over the next week or so. That should nail it down, right?

It should...and officially, it does, But the problem is, just about every agency that had anything what so ever to do with  investigating the fire came up with a different total. That 'official' total is from the National Fire Protection Association, and is actually the highest of the numerous totals that various agencies came up with, with the lowest total coming from the Chicago Daily News Almanac. (475) while the Coroner's Office...who should have had the official, absolute, accurate total...listed just shy of a hundred more deaths (571).The Fire Department's total was 601...just one fewer than the NFPA's official total.

 So, just how did we come up with so many different totals? Could there, possibly, have been errors in counting the bodies?

Oh, yeah. Loads of them. Lets take a look at just where errors could have occurred, and most importantly, how probable it is...or isn't...that they did occur.

The first, and IMHO, most likely place that counting/logging errors could have been made was at the scene. Remember this was an intensely active and complicated incident scene, with lots going on. Bodies were being staged in two different places (Couch Place, at the rear of the theater, and Randolph Street, at the main entrance.) and I can't guarantee for sure that there was someone with a clipboard logging each and every one as it was removed, or that he manged to log each body as it came through the doors.

 Then at least two totals had to be tallied and added (Couch Place Sector, and Randolph Street Sector). It would have been well into the Oh Dark Hundred phase of the operation by the time that tally was finalized.  So, errors could have been made in tabulating, transcribing and logging, and a body or two or three may not have been logged before it was removed to one of the morgues.

But an error logging bodies at the scene, in theory, should  have been caught later. The body count was actually made several times...at the scene as the bodies were removed and logged, at the various morgues as they were brought in, and by the coroner's office as burial permits were issued. Of course, the more times the bodies were counted, the more opportunities there were for error.   Remember there were possibly as many as thirty funeral homes and morgues receiving bodies, each using their own system to log them in, and some handling more bodies in a single night as they usually handled in a year.

Errors could have been, and in fact, most definitely were made in the process, compounding any errors made in the count at the scene. Numbers were probably inadvertently skipped, and just as likely (And in a couple of cases, confirmed) two bodies were assigned the same number.

There were other types of logging errors, too. Some bodies were logged twice not because of a numbering error, but because of multiple possible spellings of the same name. In other cases, bodies were misidentified as theater-goers who later turned up very much alive, and the names weren't removed from the list.

Then there are those who feel that there could be even more deaths than the official 602 because of unreported deaths, and it's possible...some parents found the bodies of their children, and removed them from the scene, very possibly before they were officially logged. Of course, then as now, there was a bureaucratic procedure that had to be followed before a body could be buried. A representative of the Coroner's Office first had to view the body and determine the official cause of death, then the family had to apply for a burial permit, which had to be approved before the family could take possession of the body for burial. The absolute only way such a death might go unrecorded is if the family buried their loved one in a private cemetery on their own property.

This process should even have cancelled out any skipped numbers, 'double numbering' or any other type of error at the morgues. If all was done properly, there would have been one burial permit for each body. The number of burial permits should have been the same as the official death toll.

It's pretty obvious, though, that errors did manage to slip through, and the multiple reported totals are proof.  The body count kept changing...not always increasing, but actually see-sawing by ten or so deaths...daily for a week or so as errors were caught and corrected, which could well account for the many varying reported totals.

And, as I noted at the start of this note, we're still not absolutely sure exactly how many deaths the fire caused other than 'far, far too many.


There are dozens of stories about parents struggling to find their children's bodies so they could take them home, but two stuck out to me, both of them among the many heartbreaking stories in Tinderbox, both of them confirmed (And made more accurate) by info from Judy Cooke's siteThe first of the two proves that shoddy reporting by the media is most definitely not a new thing. The second proves that errors on recording did indeed happen...and this particular error lead to one of the most bazaar episodes to come out of an already profoundly tragic incident.

The first story involves Marshall-Fields employee Harry Blackman, who's 13 year old daughter Ethel had attended the play along with her younger brother and sister, the three of them accompanied by their Aunt Florence (Their Mom's sister). They were seated in the Dress Circle, and when the audience began evacuating, Florence herded the kids towards one of the fire escape doors. She and the two younger kids made it out and down, but Ethel got separated from them, and never made it out.

Florence went to Marshal-Fields, where the kids' dad Harry Blackman was a freight manager, and informed him of the fire and the fact that Ethel was missing. After taking the younger kids home, Harry Blackburn, Florence, and Harry's brother in law William set out on that heart-rending search that multi-victim incidents subject parents and loved ones to to this very day, finally finding Ethel's body in the umpteenth morgue they searched.

Harry claimed his daughter's body only a few minutes before the morgue was to close for the night, and in one of the most heart-rending episodes among dozens of heart-rending episodes, Harry Blackman wrapped his daughter's body in a coat, hailed a cab and had the driver take them to the North-Western train depot at Wells and Kinzie Streets, where he caught a train back to their home town of Glenview, Ill, just north of Chicago...holding on to his daughter's body the entire ride. That's the kind of tale that puts your heart in a bench-vice and tightens it down about five turns. The family should have been allowed to grieve in peace...

And then the The Media got hold of the story...then as now, The Media just loved a sad story (They call them 'Public Interest Stories) because they bring more attention to that particular Media outlet. Today such a story boosts views and ratings. Back in 1903, a sad story sold more papers, and the tragic tale of Harry Blackman holding the blanket-wrapped body of his oldest daughter on that train ride ended up being one of the stories that the papers keyed in on (And, in fact, it ended up being the only 'Parent Finding Their Child's Body and Taking Him/Her Home' story that was covered in any detail.)

It was bad enough that reporters hounded the family during what should have been a private time of mourning...then one of the most renowned newspapers in the country completely botched the story.

The Chicago Inter-Ocean, a daily paper that was published from 1865 until 1914, got the story mostly right...they got the boy's name wrong, and added a bit of drama, but they got the gist of the story right, which means that one of the Inter-Ocean's reporters apparently actually made the 18 mile train ride to Glenview, searched out the Blackmans, and interviewed someone (Right in the middle of one of the saddest, most private times a family can experience) in order to get (Most of) the facts right. And all of this was done, very likely, on New Years Eve...the day after the fire, because the Inter-Ocean published the story on Jan 1, 1904...two days after the fire.

The legendary Chicago Tribune, however, apparently didn't bother to do any research of any kind, because when they covered the story on Jan 3rd, a full four days after the fire, they only got two things right...there was a fire and a young girl lost her life in it. Note I didn't say Ethel Blackman, because that's one of the things The Trib. got wrong...they got her first name wrong, printing it as 'Edith' rather than 'Ethel, then printed the family's last name as 'Blackburn' instead of 'Blackman. While they were at it, they also listed her age as 17 rather than 13

They also got her dad's first name wrong, printing it as 'James' rather than 'Harry' and apparently made the story up as they went because the story printed in the Trib...which reported that Ethel attended the play with her dad, who escaped, then went back in the burning theater and found his daughter's body, removed it from the theater, and took it home...bore absolutely no resemblance what so ever to what really happened.

Ironically, The Trib's shoddy reporting and unintentionally fictionalized version of the Blackman Family's tragedy very likely finally gave them a bit of privacy simply because, by mis-identifying the family, they hid them in  plain sight. Think about it...anyone asking where 'James Blackburn' lived would simply be met with blank stares.

This shoddy reporting even had an effect on modern literature. In one pretty well known book about the fire, the author was limited to the resources he could find at the time he was working on the book. And he apparently grabbed the tragic story of 'James and Edith Blackburn' from the Trib's archives, and published it, just about error-filled word for error-filled word.


In the second story of relatives searching for loved ones, things took a turn towards the shady, and down right weird.

Thirty two year old LuLu Greenwald and thirty five year old Mathilda Goss were likely neighbors and possibly what's referred to today as 'BFF's, and their kids...Ten year old Leroy Greenwald and the Goss Sisters, thirteen year old Verona and five year old Helen, likely played together regularly. Their moms decided to give them a treat for Christmas...a trip into Chicago to see Mr Bluebeard at the city's newest and coolest theater..

Getting glammed up and blinged out when you go out is not a new-age thing BTW...people have been doing it for centuries, and LuLu Greenwald loaded herself down with bling for the trip, to the tune of $1000 worth of jewelry (That'd be just over 27.5 Grand worth of jewelry today, folks).

The two Goss sisters made it out, but sadly, LuLu and Leroy Greenwald and Mathilda Goss all died in the fire. Mathilda's body was identified the next day. LuLu and Leroy were still missing six days later, leading their husband and father, Frank Greenwald, to hope they were in a coma, and therefore unidentified, in one of Chicago's numerous hospitals, or possibly under a doctors care in the home of a charitable stranger. Pleas for any such person to come forward were made in the Chicago papers, giving one very identifiable feature shared by both mother and son as an identifying feature. Both had a pair of syndactyly (Webbed) toes on one foot.

What had actually happened was even stranger. First, Leroy's body was misidentified, and claimed by another family, who buried the child, thinking they were burying their own son. That's horrible enough, for both families. But it got worse.

Then, someone apparently found out that another victim's body had a large sum of money on it, intentionally misidentified both that body and LuLu's body as that of a relative who didn't even exist, tried (And failed) to take possession of the first body in order to get hold of the money, then claimed and buried LuLu's body as his nonexistent relative so he could cover the theft attempt. Or maybe take possession of all that jewelry. Or maybe even both. Told ya it was gonna get weird. And shady.

That 'someone' was one John Mahnken, a con man of some (ill) repute who, by means to this day unknown, had discovered that the body of fifty-nine year old Emelia Mueller been brought to Jordan's Funeral Home with $500...that'd be 12 grand and change today...on her person. Her body had yet to be identified or claimed, and had simply been issued the number '34'. And here's where the logging errors I noted earlier come in, because LuLu Greenwald's body was also issued the number '34'.

Now, apparently Mahnken knew nothing of the jewelry that LuLu's body had come in with, but he was determined that he would get the $500 that Emelia Mueller's body had on it. Mahnken quickly claimed 'Body Number 34', identifying it as his fictitious fifty year old Canadian aunt Elizabeth Kouth,  He was issued a burial permit for Body number 34, then went to a Dearborn Street storefront that had been set up as a collection point and claim center for personal belongings...where he claimed neither money or jewelry, though he did obtain the services of  undertaker Bernard E. Arntzen, proprietor of Arntzen's Funeral Chapel, to bury his fictitious aunt, promising to pay when he met up with, er, other wealthy relatives. He was apparently planning to take possession of Emelia Mueller's body, also taking possession of the $500 when he did so, but he never got the chance. 

While Mahnken was setting up the theft, Emelia Mueller's actual relatives claimed both her body and the money...and the reason that the double claim wasn't caught, very likely, was because there were two Body #34s.  

Mahnken found out that his 'Aunt Elizabeth's' body had been claimed by Emelia Mueller's real family, and, nonplussed, he snagged both a loan and a ride back to Jordan's from Arntzen, where he promptly claimed LuLu Greenwald's body. Arntzen then removed the body from Jordan's, and took it to his own facility, embalmed, and buried it.

My question here is why did Mahnken even bother with doing that...he , IMHO, would have been better off to cut his losses and go anywhere that wasn't Chicago for awhile, because he'd been all but busted. Unless he was, indeed, trying to claim LuLu Greeenwald's jewelry, which no one knows what became of all of to this day, though though it is known that she was buried still wearing two of the four rings she'd been wearing. All of the other jewelry...a solitaire diamond ring, a wedding band, a ring bearing a ruby surrounded by diamonds and a ring with twenty stones including diamonds, emeralds and opal, along with a sunburst broach with an amethyst in the center...disappeared. 

Still yearning for that $500, Mahnken would contact Arnbtzen's lawyer and try to persuade him to compel the Muellers to turn over the 500 dollars to him by convincing them that they had buried the wrong body...an attempt that only managed to (Finally!) make Arntzen and his attorney begin to smell a rat, especially when Mahnken could give no details of where his aunt had been staying. Mahnken apparently finally decided it was time to quit Chicago...

Meanwhile, as all of this was going down, Frank Greenwald was enduring a sad, traumatic, search for the bodies of his wife and son, a trauma the likes of which no one should ever have to endure. He did his own detective work, and pretty decent detecting it must have been because it led him to the Muellers, Arntzen, and his attorney. Stories were exchanged and checked out, 'Aunt Elizabeth' was disinterred, and a check of her toes confirmed her identity.

But what about Leroy. His body was easier to find, but it's disappearance and rediscovery just added another layer of bizarre to the whole situation.

Leroy's disappearance was a case of a legitimate and honest mistake. His body had been trampled badly, to the point that it was unrecognizable, as had the body of another boy his age...Norman Corbin...and both boys were apparently wearing similar clothing, because Norman's uncle identified Leroy's body as that of his nephew. Leroy was interred...as Norman...in a family vault at Mt Hope Cemetery.

Descriptions of missing bodies were being published in the Chicago papers, and Norman's uncle read Leroy's clothing description, and realized how similar that description was to the clothing his nephew had been wearing, and thought '...Ya don't think???'  It bugged him enough that he contacted the proper authorities, who contacted Frank Greenwald. Leroy's body was disinterred, and a check of his toes proved that he was, in fact, Leroy and not Norman. The Corbins went in another search for Norman, finding his body at the same morgue where they had misidentified Leroy.

Frank Greenwald finally got to bury his wife and son on Feb. 13,1904, a month and a half after the fire.

OK, I know...you're not going to let me finish this up without letting you know what happened to Mahnken. CPD's assistant chief, a pretty decent cop, apparently, named Scheuttler, made it his pet project. He tracked down Mahnken, and nabbed him with a classic switch and bait by sending a general delivery letter to him, and waiting for him to pick it up at the post office, where he was, as today's media outlets would report 'Apprehended without resistance'.

Upon being questioned, Mahnken gave them a convoluted (And patently false) story about crooked doctors and will-invoking drugs, and a doctor George something or other who injected him with the afore mentioned drug, oh and by the way, he had a wife and hungry children back in New York who he committed the crime to feed.

No one believed any of it (Though there was a crooked M.D....he just wasn't connected to this particular plot, other than being known to Mahnken, apparently thereby inspiring the creation of Dr. G. Somethingortheother.). Mahnken even provided addresses for the good Doctor...one of which was a public school, with any others being equally bogus. NYPD even watched Mahnken's house, hoping the elusive Dr G.S. would show up. Needless to say, he never did.

 Mahnken ended up standing trial charged with perjury and being convicted....and after that the trail hits a sheer cliff...there is no info about a sentence, or anything else that may have happened to him.

As for what should have happened to him for what he put Frank Greenwald through, I believe it would be considered unconstitutional on the grounds of cruel and unusual punishment.


Those infernal accordion gates!

The accordion gates. No one knows for sure just exactly where the things were, but you can see here that they were on a 90 degree stairway landing, and the 'hanging landing' between the Gallery and Dress Circle is the only place I could see where one of those existed.

Where ever they were, given enough time, one or two people at a time could have gotten around the gates by lowering themselves from the flight of steps above the gates to the one below them.  In a panic situation with hundred of people trying to get out as the building filled with smoke, however, those gates should have just created another pinch-point where hundreds of bodies were found...but they didn't.

While a few bodies were found near the gates, most of the Gallery occupants who died did so long before they made it to the gates.

As I noted in the body of the post, accordion gates...a more ornate version of the exact same type of gate that closes off school corridors during high school and middle school basketball games and Drama Club plays to this very day...were locked across stairway landings between the Gallery and Dress Circle after the performance started to keep people from scoring better (and more expensive) seats than they paid for. These gates actually didn't end up being as big a factor in the death toll as you might think because just about everyone who died did so before they could even get that far.

These gates do raise a pretty frustrating issue for history buffs and historians wanting to accurately document the fire, though. You see, no one can figure out where the things were. Everyone who's got an interest in the fire has their own ideas as to where they were, but, even though there are photos of the gates themselves, there are no photos showing the exactly where they were located.

There seem to be two favorite trains of thought as to where they were, though.

One theory...and the one I like best...is that they were on either side of the hanging landing between the Dress Circle and the Gallery. This would make sense considering that the reason the gates were there in the first place was to keep the people in the gallery from grabbing better seats in either the Dress Circle or the Orchestra section. Also, if you look at the first pic, you can see that the gates were closed across a 180 stairway landing, and the hanging landing is the only place I can see in any of the pics of the lobby where such a landing existed.

This pic of the lobby illustrates the two favorite theories on where the accordion gates were. The two red circled locations are on the 'hanging landing' between the Gallery and Dress Circle. The blue circles are the entrances to the stairway leading down form the Gallery.

Theory two is that the gates were on the third floor promenade, closed across the top landing of the stairway coming up from the hanging landing, but I have a problem with that theory...there is no 180 degree landing there.

No matter where the gates were, it begs the answer to an important question. While a great majority of the people in the Gallery died, quite a few...somewhere around 220 people...did  make it out. With the gates blocking the stairs, where ever they may have been, how did the people who made it out get past the gates?

Ok, forty of the Gallery survivors were rescued over the plank bridge, and a very few, likely following the lead of Harriet Bray and her dad, may have jumped from the lowest part of the Gallery fire escape onto Couch Place, but this still leaves somewhere between 160 and 180 survivors from the third floor. So, how did they get out over those gates?.

It wasn't impossible to get around them...if you weren't being pushed by a couple of hundred panicking people while you yourself were panicking as the building filled with smoke. All you had to do was climb over the stairway banister just above the gate and lower your self to the  flight of steps just below the gate. This would require some physical agility and, most importantly, time, but it was possible...for one or two people at a time. But 180 people trying to climb around those gates while in a blind panic as the building filled with smoke would have lead to a huge jam-up, resulting in dozens of bodies piled up at the gates, just as had happened at several Dress Circle and Gallery exits. Thing is, not only did that not happen, in actuality, very few bodies were actually found at the accordion gates.

There was another promenade on the west side of the theater that basically mirrored the more infamous east side promenade, right down to having a stairway on the end nearest the front...but that stairway, according to floor plans of the theater, seemingly ended in an alcove behind the ticket offices, where anyone using it would have found another, very likely, locked door.

Could some people have made it out of that door? Certainly. They wouldn't have faced the same problem as the Strong party as they would have been below the smoke at the bottom of the stairway. But (there always seems to be one of those) there are no actual reports of anyone making it out that way, and I'm not even absolutely certain that the west side stairway actually led directly from the west side promenade to the first floor in the first place.

So that's yet another mystery about this fire that just might go unsolved.

What we do know is that, while over half of the fatalities came from the Gallery, two hundred and twenty or so people did somehow make out of that Hell-on-Earth alive. and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, had they not done so, the death toll would have been even more horrific than it already was.


While the number of deaths at the Iroquois was absolutely horrific, there were several miraculous escapes as well.

If the story of their rescue is accurate, a young lady named Ruthie Thomson...the daughter of Thompson's Restaurant owner John Thompson...along with one of her aunts and her grandfather, came with-in seconds of being under that massive pile of burning scenery when they, somehow, exited through the scenery door. 

They were attending the play, along with another of Ruthie's aunts and her little brother, and were seated on the theater's first level, near the front of the orchestra section. The Thompsons remained seated when Eddie Foy begged the audience to do  just that...at least until the stage became fully involved, the fire curtain hadn't dropped yet, and it became obvious that the fire was beyond any hope of control. They decided the time had come to leave the building at about the same instant as everyone else in the theater, and were instantly caught in the crush as the audience went into panic mode. The Thompson clan immediately became separated.

 One of Ruthie's aunts tried to hang on to Ruthie, but lost her grip to be swept towards the parquet level exit by the terrified throng of terror-driven theater goers. She managed to make it out of the auditorium into the lobby, and exited through the main entrance, convinced that she had lost her niece forever. Ruthie's little brother was picked up by someone and passed, from person to person, over the heads of the crowd until he, too, made it out of the main entrance.

Meanwhile Ruthie glanced around madly, looking for one of her aunts or grandfather as she, too was swept along...then she stumbled and almost fell. All she remembered about the next couple of minutes was someone picking her up,  then seeing 'What looked like black cloth rolling above her (Obviously the heavy smoke rolling from the backstage area,) and the next thing she remembered was being outside, behind the theater, where she hid beneath the scenery entrance loading dock until someone found her and carried her over to her dad's restaurant, where she was soon joined by the rest of her family. One of her aunts and her grandfather  (Who was found with the spectators in Couch Place, watching the firefighting efforts.) also escaped through the scenery door. They were later joined by her other aunt and her crowd-surfing little brother. All made it out unscathed. 

 To be honest, I think Ruthie was carried out of the Couch Place stage door...the 'Wicket Door' that was embedded in the scenery door...well before the backdraft occurred and the burning scenery fell.  But, if Ruthie 
was carried out of the scenery door itself, after it was opened, she, along with her unknown rescuer,  missed being in the middle of the backdraft by mere seconds, as did her grandfather...and if that is how it happened it was one of the few instances of good timing that entire night.

Personally, I have no idea if that's the way she actually got out of the theater...but the important thing is that she, along with the rest of her family, did make it out, and her dad...who, after being told she was missing and was convinced that he'd lost her, got his own miracle when he found her in his office, none the worse for the wear.

There was at least one other miraculous escape...

Nineteen year old Emil Von Plachecki was seated in the rear of the gallery, and decided the time to leave had come as the smoke grew heavier and the temperature rose past the 'Bake-Broil' range. From all accounts he made it out of the Gallery just as or much more likely, just before the backdraft occurred. He managed to bull his way through one of the exits only, like James Strong, to find the stairways blocked by accordion gates. Earlier, he had visited one of the washrooms...on the promenade, near the front of the theater...and remembered that there were skylights in the washroom ceilings.

He ran down the east side promenade...the same one used by James Strong and Party...even as smoke rolled from the Gallery and Dress Circle exits, rapidly filling the upper part of the theater with heat and smoke, visibility and breathing both worsening by the second. He made it to the restroom on the east side...very near where the Strong party was dying in the utility stairwell...pushed inside, and found it, thanks to it's heavy door, relatively smoke free. The skylight was operated by a heavy cord so, with no ladder available, he probably climbed up on a sink, then grabbed the cord and pulled himself up, hand over hand, seventeen feet until he reached the skylight. With no other tools to break it, he hung on for dear life with his left hand, made a fist with his right, and punched through the glass (Cutting himself badly in the process). Then he pulled the rest of the glass from the frame, and pulled himself onto the roof, where he made his way to an adjoining roof (Either the Delaware Building or, most likely, Thompson's Restaurant...no one's sure which) and made his way to the ground via a fire escape. Once down he was taken to a nearby drug store for treatment of both the burns he'd received as he raced the fireball, and the cuts he received taking out the skylight.


While we're on the subject of John Thompson and Thompson's Restaurant, let's take a quick look at that restaurant chain, and more specifically, the Randolph Street location's role in the fire.

...John Thompson owned an extremely popular chain of lunchrooms in Chicago, with dozens of locations, one of which was right next to the Iroquois. Lunchrooms were the great-great-grandfather of today's fast food restaurants, serving up sandwiches such as hot tongue, cold ham and cheese, and the ever popular 'Frankfurter', and was just the kind of place theater-goers would hit to grab a bite to eat before or after a performance. All of the locations were clean, well run, and served good food with good service, making them extremely popular.

I'm not sure if the Randolph Street Thompson's was the firm's headquarters or not, or if John Thompson just happened to be there because his kids and sister/sister-in-law were attending Mr Bluebeard, but he was indeed there when the fire started, and even as he worried about his kids, he quickly went into action, turning Thompson's into a first aid station/triage area. OK, true Triage hadn't actually been developed yet, nor would it be for decades, but Triage of a sort was indeed taking place as several medical students from a nearby teaching hospital were brought to the restaurant, and began treating patients, and sending the worst injured to hospitals. Yeah, that pretty much sounds like the Webster's Definition of Triage to me.

Once all of the living patients were cared for and cleared out, it became a morgue as some of the bodies lined up outside were brought inside the building. I also have a feeling that, late in the operation, the restaurant also became the Fire/Police Command Post, simply because it was warm, had food, and most importantly, hot coffee inside...remember, temps were hovering right around 0 degrees Fahrenheit during the fire...and it  also very likely served as a forerunner of what we'd call 'Rehab' today as firefighters ducked inside for a few minutes to warm up for the exact same reason.

By the next day, it had been cleaned up and had reverted to being a restaurant, very likely serving lunches to the army of investigators who descended upon the Iroquois.

What of the restaurant chain itself? It became one of the largest early restaurant chains with well over a hundred locations in Chicago, New York City, and even up into Canada. The chain would run into controversy in the mid twentieth century for refusing to serve Afro-Americans, finding itself the subject of more than a few lawsuits over this policy, including one fairly well known...in legal circles anyway... Washington D.C. case that went all of the way to the Supreme Court, which found for the plaintiffs.

Thompson's bought several other chains and was bought several times themselves before fading away.

 They have a pretty fascinating history, even without their connection to the fire. Go take a look!


One of the best known stories from the fire is the oft-related tale of Eddie Foy staying on stage and trying to calm the audience until after the scenery fell. There's a reason that I referred to the story as a 'Tale'. I think that just may be what it was.

Don't get me wrong here, I'm not trying to cast any shade on Eddie Foy. He very probably did try to calm the audience, and likely stayed until he decided that he needed to get out of the building lest he leave his son...who he also rescued as you may recall...fatherless and his wife a widow. But you guys know I'm not going to just leave it at that.

First let me give you guys my reasoning on why I think he was out of the theater well before the scenery collapse...short form, if he hadn't been, he would have ended up being one of the fatalities because he would not have made it out of the theater. In fact, I don't think he would have survived the fireball.

 If he had still been on stage when the backdraft occurred, if the fireball hadn't gotten him, the falling, burning fire curtain would have. First, the fireball. It was as wide as the stage when it blew out of the proscenium arch, and was moving fast. There would have been no Hollywoodesque diving out of its way or diving into the orchestra pit to get under it as it rolled upward because it would have been on top of him before he could even begin  to consider trying to dodge it. Before anyone quotes certain laws of physics at me, while it's true that the fireball rolled upward as soon as it was clear of the arch, it was still generating more than enough radiant heat to set his clothes on fire. Had Eddie Foy been on stage he would have almost definitely burned to death. And he would have actually had two chances to do so...remember the 'fire curtain'?

An instant after getting hit by the fireball, the fire curtain lit up and fell, and when it fell, it would have fallen on top of him, burying him under many square yards of burning cloth. It fell before the scenery collapsed, so he would have had to have been missed by the fireball, dodged the falling, burning curtain, stayed on stage long enough not to be caught under the collapsing scenery, and then made it back stage and out.

But for the sake of argument, lets say he did manage to get under the fireball. Dodging that burning curtain would be the next problem...the thing was huge and there is no way he could have dodged it. He would have, at the least, been seriously and probably fatally burned when it fell on him.

But let's say, for the sake of that same argument, he did manage, somehow, to dodge both the fireball and the curtain. Then we have problem three. He wouldn't have hung around on stage. He would have made a bee-line for a stage door. Just about the time the scenery collapsed. Putting him under tons of burning, falling scenery. 

Ok, we can explain that one away, somewhat...let's say the curtain lighting off and burning, and the scenery collapse happened all but simultaneously (Which isn't at all improbable).

So he got under the fireball,  dodged the curtain and wasn't under the collapse...how would he have made it to either stage door to get out after the collapse?

If the collapse took out the switchboard, it's just about a sure bet that it also blocked the Dearborn Street stage door. This would have been a huge pile of burning debris, already nearly the size of the backstage area itself, and it would have 'pancaked' a bit when it struck the stagethe bottom of the pile spreading so it did cover the entire back stage floor area.

.And it would have been burning.. While the collapse partially snuffed out the burning scenery flats...that's just it, it only partially snuffed it out. There was still a good bit of fire, much of it was just temporarily buried, which meant that the pile of collapsed scenery (Like the pile of leaves I discussed to demonstrate the 'Snuffed itself out' concept) would have been pumping heavy, dense smoke and extreme heat out into the back stage area like nobody's business.

Eddie would have had to have worked his way around and through all of the burning debris on stage, and made it to the scenery door.


Likely...not so much.

We'll never know exactly what did  happened, of course, but my bet's that Eddie Foy was outside of the theater before the backdraft occurred. He was very likely on stage, trying to calm the crowd for a while, but I have a feeling that, when the curtain jammed, he ducked under it and made a run for one of the stage doors. If he was on the Stage right side, and I believe he was from the descriptions I've read, he likely headed for the then still unblocked Dearborn Street door.

The thing is, the story didn't need to be exaggerated, because staying on stage any length of time after the fire hit the fly galleries required some serious cojones. And Eddie did do some good, or at least tried. Besides calming the audience, he had the orchestra conductor rally the musicians who hadn't bailed and get some calming music going, and he tried to get the fire curtain (Useless as it ended up being,, but he had no way to know that) lowered. SO, truthfully, the story didn't need to be puffed up for Foy to be portrayed as a hero. 

Of course, he actually wasn't the only person trying to calm the audience. Several people hung back for several minutes in an effort to calm the audience and get the fire curtain lowered. The others, though, were described by Audience members as 'workers. AKA 'Stagehands' . Due to the fact that Foy was in costume and the star of the show, he was just the most memorable. And when then story was retold and re-re-told, the others on stage got left out, very possibly for the sake of simplifying the telling of the story.

The reason Eddie Foy's role in the fire got puffed up is the very same reason that the tabloids love to ...er...exaggerate stories about today's celebs. The fans and the public love a good story. Whether it's true or not. 

Another big factor in the story's likely exaggeration is equally likely the fact that it would sell more papers. Eddie Foy's fans wanted to believe that he was the hero of the night. He was one of the most popular actors of that era, and had a huge and rabid fan following, and, with the above fact in mind, the story of Eddie Foy initially staying on stage got grabbed by the media, and as the story was retold he became the only person who was trying to calm the audience, and as the tale spread, he was on stage longer and longer, until he basically became all but super-human in the eyes of his fans.

The Media took the 'Eddie Foy As Superhero' version of the story and ran with it, and his fans ate it up. As Judy Cook noted in one of the E-mails we exchanged as I was researching this post,  Foy was so beloved in Chicago that, had he claimed to have put out the fire by spitting on it, they’d have given him the benefit of the doubt.

And this, of course, is the version  of the story that's been told for 115 years.


A(nother) quick word or two about the 'Fire Curtain'. To me that thing really represents both the corruption and incompetence that hung over the fire like a second pall of toxic smoke. 

The curtain may have worsened the death toll (I can hear everyone going 'No DUHH, Rob), but not in the way you're thinking. That curtain's the reason why Eddie Foy and several of the stage crew were trying, at first, to persuade the audience to stay in their seats.

They were convinced that the curtain was a legitimate, wire reinforced, mostly asbestos fire curtain, and that if they could get it lowered it would hold the fire back stage and make evacuating the theater a simple matter of walking out of the doors. And, had the thing been a real fire curtain, and had it been lowered successfully in the first minutes of the fire, they just may have been right.

This very understandable belief that the curtain was the real thing probably lulled them into a false sense of security (All we gotta do is lower the fire curtain and we're good to go...) in those critical first five or so minutes of the fire, when what should have been happening was some serious theater evacuation. You know, actual, calm evacuation rather than the panicked kind that tramples people and piles bodies to the top of door frames.

We'll look briefly at three possible scenarios.
 (1) The curtain isn't lowered but the evacuation starts immediately after the fire starts.
 (2) The bogus fire curtain is lowered successfully early in the fire, and
 (3) A legitimate fire curtain was lowered early in the fire.

(1) If someone had told the crowd that there was a 'problem' back stage immediately after the fire started, and that everyone needed to leave calmly, more people would have definitely made it out, even without the fire curtain being lowered...but it would have still been bad.

 By the time smoke began entering the auditorium several minutes into the fire, the evacuation would have been well under way, and the main exits of the Dress Circle would have probably been opened correctly, so both the Orchestra and Dress Circle would have likely been nearly completely evacuated.

More people would have made it out of the Gallery, but, unfortunately, would have still found themselves trapped on the promenades by the accordion gates. Sadly, the same people who were trapped on the Gallery fire escape, would have still been trapped there by the frozen lower fire escape section, so when the backdraft occurred, the horror that occurred on the promenades and in Couch Place would have still happened just as it did anyhow. So there would have still been a horrendous death toll, but it wouldn't have been as high as the deaths would have probably been confined to Gallery occupants.

(2) What if the curtain that they did  have hadn't jammed, and had been lowered early in the fire?

I think even if they had successfully gotten the bogus 'fire curtain' lowered in the first couple of minutes of the fire it would have made a difference. It would have bought the audience a critical five or so minutes by greatly reducing the amount of smoke in the galleries, allowing an orderly evacuation to be well under way by the time the back draft occurred. The Orchestra Level and maybe the Dress Circle would have been evacuated, if they were able to get that deadly main Dress Circle exit opened.

Of course, the backdraft would have still probably occurred, and when it did, the 'fire curtain' would have still burned through just as quickly...the fireball would have rolled into the auditorium a split second later than it did anyhow, which wouldn't have made a bit of difference to the people who would have been trapped on the Gallery promenades and fire escapes.

So there would have still been a horrendous death toll.

(3) What if that fire curtain had been the real thing?

Lets say that all of the other hazards except the fire curtain existed just as they did anyhow, and the fire curtain was the real thing. An actual, legitimate, wire reinforced fire curtain would've blocked smoke from entering the auditorium. The evacuation of the orchestra level would have been a calm, ordered affair without trampled victims and separated families. Up in the Dress Circle the audience would have had time to get the main exit opened properly. In the Gallery, someone may have even remembered that the accordion gates needed to be unlocked, allowing the Gallery occupants to just walk down the two grand stairways. In short, almost everyone would have probably made it out.

A legitimate fire curtain may have even held when the backdraft occurred. And, yes, I think the backdraft would  have still occurred, if not because of someone opening the scenery door, when the glass skylights finally blew from the heat (I'm actually amazed that this didn't happen fairly early in the fire anyway.).

 Conditions back stage would have been just as bad if not worse...the smoke would have mushroomed all of the way to the floor of the stage much more quickly rather then venting out of the proscenium arch and into the theater...and the stage crew and actors would have been just as panicked, so there would have possibly been more deaths among the performers and crew. The burning scenery flats, of course, would have still fallen once the ropes holding them burned through.

Of course, the curtain they did have was a useless sheet of wood pulp-derived cloth with a few threads of asbestos fiber sewn in so they could use the word 'asbestos' in advertising the theaters safety features (Wouldn't want any false advertising!). Then the thing jammed when they finally lowered it, rendering it even more useless than it already was.

And, because of that useless fire curtain, Eddie Foy and the stage hands who were begging the audience to stay as they tried to get the fire curtain lowered were actually unknowingly signing their collective death warrants.


Memorial-wise, it's hard to beat the one erected for the victims of The Richmond Theater Fire...
They, after all, got an entire church, erected on the site of the fire, with the majority of the victims interred in a brick crypt in the church basement.

The memorial to the Iroquois fire victims came close, however...they got a hospital. Only thing is, that memorial no longer exists and has been all but completely forgotten.

The idea to erect some kind of memorial to the those who died in the fire likely took root before all of the victims were buried, but I found absolutely no record of how the idea came to be, nor how the decision 'Let's build a hospital!' was made. In fact, I found very little about the hospital itself...the absolute only places I found anything about the hospital, in fact, was at Judy Cook's site, and at chicagology.com, where some of the newspaper stories related to the fire were detailed..

Robert T Crane, who lost two cousins in the fire, headed up the hospital's board, and Maude Jackson, who lost her daughter Viva in the fire, then had her testimony in the second criminal trial interrupted by the defense objection that ended the case, was named as head of the hospital's women;''s and Children's department.

Construction on Iroquois Memorial Hospital probably started about six years after the fire, because the hospital was opened at 87 Market Street...today's East Wacker Drive... in 1910, and was officially  dedicated and turned over to the city's Health Commissioner in December of that same year.

It was a four story, 60 bed hospital, and was small for a hospital building, reassuring only 81' by 20 ', with the first floor used as an ambulance station. the second floor as a dispensary, and the third floor dedicated to what would today be called the surgical suite. The 60 patient beds were likely in a pair of big multi-bed wards on the top floor...one for men, one for women.

This building at 87 Market Street...Today's East Wacker Drive...housed the Iroquois Memorial Hospital.

The hospital was conceived and built as an 'Emergency Hospital' to treat accident victims in Chicago's legendary 'Loop',  and was used in this capacity for just over twenty years, and it was a busy place during that two decades and change.  It's biggest claim to fame was treating 250 patients from yet another infamous Chicago disaster....the Eastland disaster in 1918 (And yep I plan to cover that one, too), but it also treated a cornucopia of injuries and ailments before being converted to a tuberculosis sanitarium in the mid 1930s..

The TB Sanitarium was closed after WW II, and the building sat empty until 1951, when it was torn down. Today, if you look at a Street View of that stretch of E.Wacker Drive, you cant's see a building under about twenty stories anywhere...not s single solitary sign that the hospital ever existed...

But that's not quite the end of the story...when the hospital was dedicated in 1910, a six foot high Bass Relief bronze tablet, designed by Loredo Taft, was also dedicated, to be mounted in the Hospital waiting room.

The tablet was still there in 1951, when the hospital was demolished, and as the building was still owned by the city of Chicago, they city took possession of the tablet...and immediately lost it. Or at least forgot about it.

The tablet was rediscovered in the basement of City Hall decades later, cleaned up, and remounted on the wall of the LaSalle Street entrance to City Hall, where it still is, thankfully accompanied by an eye-level plaque inscribed with an explanation of the tablet's context and a memorial to the fire's victims.

The bronze memorial tablet that was placed in the hospital's waiting room, designed by Loredo Taft, was removed from the hospital in 1951, when it was torn down, and put in the basement of Chicago City Hall, where it sat, unnoticed for decades, before being rediscovered and mounted on the wall above City Hall's LaSalle Street Entrance. Then it sat unlabeled for a good while until the Chicago Union League commissioned the plaque seen here was mounted below it, at eye level,  inscribed with an explanation of the tablet's context and a memorial to the fire's victims.

With the exception of the hospital, no major memorial has ever been erected. The Iroquois Memorial Association...which was formed to provide relief to those who'd lost loved ones as well as survivors...erected a small diamond-shaped monument in Chicago's Montrose Cemetery in 1908, and a small brass plaque was placed in the lobby of an office building near the theater, only to disappear when the building was torn down many years later.

The small memorial in Chicago's Montrose Cemetery was erected and dedicated the the fire victims in 1908...it still stands at the cemetery, which is located at 5400 N. Pulaski Rd in Chicago

The Iroquois Memorial Hospital tablet at Chicago City Hall and the small monument in Montrose Cemetery are the only marked monuments of any kind left. Unfortunately, the great majority of people entering Chicago's City Hall are too busy to even notice either the tablet or it's explanatory plaque, and you pretty much have to know about the small monument in Montrose Cemetery to find it.


While we're on the subject of hospitals, The Iroquois Theater fire has a connection to a modern entertainment phenomenon, though, admittedly it's a pretty weak one.

One of the hospitals that received  the injured and dead from the theater was Cook County Hospital...the very same teaching hospital that (In more modern form, of course) the fictional County General Hospital in the long running medical drama ER was based on.


The Oriental Theater was incorporated into the Masonic Temple's story United Masonic Temple Building in 1924, when that building replaced the former Iroquois as well as most of the rest of the North side of West Randolph Street's '10' Block. The new United Masonic Temple Building itself replaced the Masonic Lodge's ornate 21 story tower at Randolph and State Streets, which was built in 1892, and was Chicago's tallest building when constructed.

The Oriental opened amid great fanfare on May 8, 1926 as one of several very ornate deluxe movie houses operated by the firm of Balaban and Katz, who operated a slew of high-end movie palaces in Early-20th-Century-Chicago.  The theater was designed by the architectural firm of Rapp and Rapp.  and had a seating capacity of 3,259, with the auditorium actually located behind the United Masonic Temple Building's 24 story tower, and the main entrance, ticket windows, and grand entrance occupying a good hunk of the tower's first floor.

The former United Masonic Temple Building...now the Cambria Hotel...and the Oriental at night.

The United Masonic Temple Building, which replaced the Iroquois (In fact, replaced most of the '10' block of Randolph Street.) as it appeared shortly after construction (L) and today (R). The Oriental's lobby and grand entrance take up much of the left side of the building's first floor. The tower itself was recently remodeled and converted to the 15 story Cambria Hotel.

The Oriental's entrance and marquee, at 24 W. Randolph Street...the same address which had been assigned to the Iroquois.

The Oriental had the same street address as The Iroquois...24 W. Randolph Street...and, also like the Iroquois it fronted on Randolph Street, and Couch Place (Which had already been given the nickname it bears to this day...Death Ally'). The interior of The Oriental managed to outdo the Iroquois without even breaking a sweat.The place was gorgeous inside, with decor inspired by the art of India and the Far East. It was richly and beautifully detailed, with many of those details being beautifully gilded. 

While the motion picture industry was still on the tail end of 'The Silent Movie Era' when the Oriental opened, the theater opened well in time for 'The Jazz Singer', which was both the first feature length
'Talkie' and a major hit, to to open there in October 1927.

The theater showed major first run movies for over forty years, then switched over to live shows in the early 1970s . And when I say live shows I mean the likes of  Stevie Wonder, and Gladys Knight And The Pips.

And then the bottom fell out. The exact same thing happened to The Loop that happened to the down town areas of many major cities in the '70s...businesses fled to the suburbs and the areas declined. And as they declined, they became more dangerous. And as the became more dangerous, attendance at businesses such as theaters nose-dived.

The live shows didn't help as much as you'd think. Though the Oriental's 3,250 seat capacity was huge for a movie theater, it was small for a music venue, and lots of major artists wouldn't perform there simply because, even with a full house, the venue likely didn't generate the profit they (Or actually their management) was looking for. Major acts stopped booking the Oriental, then the second, third, and tenth tier acts that followed quit playing there as well.

The Oriental then suffered the dreaded end-life fate of many a down-town movie house, reverting back to being a movie house for a couple of years in the late '70s/early 80s. These were not the kind of movies you'd let your eighth-grade son take his first date to, however. The Oriental showed....er... adult themed movies for a couple of years, then closed in 1981, and sat empty for a decade and a half, sliding further and further into decline and disrepair.

The place likely became one of those vacant buildings that firefighters in The Loop companies (Including Engine 13, which I'm pretty sure was still located in the same house on Dearborn Street when the Oriental closed) just knew was going to come in at Oh Dark Hundred one night and become a deluge set and ladder pipe intensive 'Surround And Drown' operation...but thankfully that never happened.

We still almost lost the Oriental, though. Even though it had been added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1978 (Ironically, just before it's thankfully very brief stint as an adult movie house), when the City of Chicago started to get serious about revitalizing The Loop in the mid-late 90s, restoring the Oriental was not originally part of the game plan. Developers were looking at the site, licking their money-hungry chops as they pictured a two story, 50,000 square foot shopping mall, complete with a 1600 seat movie theater.

I have a feeling that theater buffs the nation over were horrified, but it looked like the Oriental was on borrowed time and a new mall (Ya just know the place would have been named something like 'Oriental Square' to 'Pay Homage' to the once beautiful old theater) was all but a done deal.

Then more legal and financial maneuvering took place, and a Canadian theatrical firm firm named Livent bought the theater, and conspired with Chicago City officials to restore the grand old movie house to it's former splendor...but this was a good conspiracy.

See, Livent wasn't going to restore it as movie theater...they were going to convert it to a stage theater. The City of Chicago pledged 13.5 million to the project, and then Ford Motor Company entered into a partnership with Livent and the City...for the pittance of one Million yearly, and their name on the venue, they'd sponsor the project.

This was pretty much like having a money faucet available if a major influx of funds was needed, so the deal was made and contracts signed almost before the idea fully formed. It became what's sadly rare these days...a match made in heaven.

So major restoration and renovation work began. As the theater was built as a movie house it didn't have a real backstage area, so that was one of the first problems that was tackled. The Oliver Building at 159 North Dearborn (Built shortly after the fire for the Oliver Typewriter Company, and occupying the vacant lot that had been on the corner of Couch Place and Dearborn) was purchased and gutted to give the theater a huge back stage area...and, consequently, make it 'L' shaped just as the Iroquois had been. The Oliver Building was also a beautiful old building, so Livent's plans included preserving it's unique facade.

The Dearborn Street facade of the former Oliver Building, at Dearborn and Couch Place. The building occupies the vacant lot that was located at that intersection in 1903,  and was gutted by the crew who restored the Oriental in order to give the theater a usable back stage. The crew who did the work took great pains to preserve the Oliver Building's unique facade.

Note the posters advertising coming plays at the Oriental in the first floor windows.

To restore the interior of the Olympic Theater to it's former glory, Conrad Schmitt Studios, along with with architect Daniel P. Coffey and Associates, Ltd. and consultants Roger Morgan and Associates, researched the Oriental's original decor and detailing...and went to work. . In the process of patching, painting, gilding and glazing the interior details they used 4000 gallons of paint, 62,500 sq. ft. of aluminum leaf, and 12,500 sq. ft. of gold leaf. The results are awesome...they redefine awesome in fact.

A composite photo showing just how beautiful the entrance foyer and grand staircase of the Oriental is. Looking at these, I can understand the statistics noted in the paragraph just above. Photos by Eric Allix Rogers

Another composite photo, showing the Oriental's  auditorium as viewed from the stage Left, and the stage as viewed from the stage left side of the top balcony. Again, you can see just how absolutely beautiful the interior of the theater is. No expense was spared when it was originally built, and the crew that restored the theater  and converted it from a movie theater to s stage theater did a truly top-drawer job.

Note one other interesting little fact about the two angles shown here...interestingly, both of these shots are from nearly the exact same angle as two of the investigative photos of the interior of the Iroquois, taken after the fire.  Photos by Christian Dion

The seating capacity was downgraded by 1000 seats to 2,253, the interior was immaculately and completely restored to it's former beauty, the latest technology of all kinds, safety included, was either repaired or installed, employees were hired, advertisements ran in papers, and on electronic media, and the City of Chicago held it's breath, waiting...waiting...(Sounds familiar, don't it?)

The theater opened to much deserved fanfare as the Ford Center For The Performing Arts Oriental Theater on October 18, 1998 with the Chicago Premiere of Ragtime. The theater and the play were both hits.

The only minor glitch was Livent filing for bankruptcy protection in November 1998...a month after the theater's Grand Reopening...but the company's assets were snapped up by SFX Entertainment, and that firm has apparently done a bang-up job running the joint. Major Broadway productions play there while on tour on a regular basis. To packed houses I might add.

I'm not even a theater geek and I hope the place is around, in it's present awesome state, for another century or so.


Hello Dolly's being performed at The Oriental this month (November, 2018), and just for the fun of it, I checked ticket prices...they range, depending on the day you want to attend, where you want to sit, and just how much you want to pay, from $56.00 to $538.00. A far cry from the prices on the tickets to Mr Bluebeard even if  you factor in inflation...that $1.50 Orchestra Level ticket to Mr Bluebeard would have only cost you $41.00 in today's money.


Remember that vacant lot at Dearborn and Couch Place? Well, Klaw and Erlanger had some plans for that, too. Originally, they were going to erect a hotel there, but those plans fell through when the Iroquois burned. The Theatrical Trust sold the property to the Oliver Typewriter Company, and that firm had the the Oliver Building built on the lot, then added a couple of floors around 1920. As noted above, The Oliver Building was gutted to provide the Oriental with backstage and dressing rooms, leaving the facade restored and intact.

That Hotel idea didn't completely die though...it just took about 112 years or do for it to happen.

A few years back the former United Masonic Temple Building was renovated and converted to the 150 room Cambria Hotel to cater to those attending plays at The Oriental and other Chicago theaters.

Theater-goers staying at The Cambria enjoy a far, far better deal than those who would have stated at Klaw and Erlangers abortive hotel would have gotten. The Cambria features a restaurant, roof-top bar, valet parking, and those attending a play at the Oriental don't even have to go outside to get to the theater.


It's all but inevitable that a tragedy of this magnitude would generate a ghost story or rumor of a haunting or two. The ghost stories started early in the ball game, when the first investigative photos started appearing, most particularly that panoramic view of the the auditorium, taken from the stage. Several ghostly, translucent beings are seen in their translucent glory, apparently watching the investigators at work.

This one was refuted easily and quickly. The lighting in that particular shot is pretty good, actually, but the thing in, flash units capable of creating such good lighting were decades in the future back in 1903. The shot required a lo-o-o-n--g exposure time...several seconds at least...to achieve that quality. And the photographer couldn't exactly ask the team of investigators to freeze while he took the shot. (Or possibly shots, as this may have been several shots stitched together.). These 'ghosts' were simply people who'd moved while the picture was being taken, creating a blurred, translucent image.

There are a few other ghost stories, however, that aren't quite so easy to refute...and the favorite haunting ground of these ghosts even has a name...or at least a nickname...that all but demands that spirits reside there, if they do indeed exist.

Couch Place occupies the exact same strip of real estate today that it did on Dec 30. 1903, and the 125 people who died in the ally inspired the nickname Death Ally, which it also bears to this day. And at least some of those 125 people are said to be roaming around the ally as ghostly specters today.

A composite photo of Couch Place as it appears today (Left) and as it appeared the morning after the fire (Right). The two pics were taken from the same angle, over a century apart, though the photographer who took the modern photo is standing further down the ally than the guy who took the 1903 shot...which, as I earlier, is likely the best known photo of the fire.

Considering the scene straight out of Hell that the ally hosted, if ghosts do indeed exist, that would be a perfect place for them to take up residence, and according to those who do  believe, there is a raft of evidence out there that they've done just that. There are more than a few people who swear that, as they were walking or working in the ally, they felt someone brush by them or grab their arm and others have claimed to feel 'cold spots' in the ally...sudden patches of air so chilly they shivered for a second, even in the middle of a humid Chicago summer.

Others have claimed to see a ghostly specter or two roaming the ally on chilly nights, and a few others have taken pictures in the ally to discover a shadowy figure photo-bombing their shot...a being who they say didn't appear in their viewfinder when they framed the shot.

Interestingly enough, all of this paranormal activity doesn't seem to ramp up on the dates you'd expect just that to happen...Halloween, or the adversary of the fire, but rather seems to be a year round activity...a fact that mildly disappoints the show-runners of  a couple of 'Haunted Chicago' tours that charge a fee to take ghost-hunters on tours of The Windy City's spookiest sites. My bet is this oversight on the part of our ghosts doesn't hurt business too much though...these tours are likely still packed come Halloween.

And to close out this note, I'll let you in on a personal opinion...I think one young lady who, IMHO, is among the most likely to haunt the former Iroquois theater has been overlooked...and she doesn't hang around outside, in Couch Place.  Even though The Iroquois...or most of it...is long-gone, the Oriental Theater itself has played host to a ghost of it's own. Apparently one basement wall remains from the Iroquois, and a young girl's crying has been heard in the Oriental's basement. 

Personally I can't help but wonder if everyone who assumed this was an unidentified young fire victim sobbing misinterpreted this one. Aerialist Nellie Reed was found in the basement, horribly burned, before she was taken to the hospital, where she later died. After being inadvertently abandoned, trapped above the fire, to die a horrible death, she has every right to haunt the place. If, of course, ghosts do exist, and hauntings do occur. If they do, I'm convinced the crying young woman in the basement is none other than Nellie Reed.


Somehow you wouldn't think that a play based on the Iroquois Theater Fire would become a hit, much less a Chicago Holiday tradition, but there is such a play, and it's managed to become both.

The play's called 'Burning Bluebeard', and was authored by an uber-talented gentleman named Jay Torrence...who is also one of the show's stars...and originally produced by an experimental theater company known as 'The Neo-Futurists when it  premiered in 2011.  Now produced by a troupe known as The Ruffians, it tells the story of a group of clowns who died in the fire, and spend eternity performing in the burned out theater,  trying to bring about the happy ending that never happened.

As the play kicks off, hazy theatrical smoke drifts around the stage, partially obscuring the body bags that are scattered around the stage. Five of our clown emerge, tattered and soot-stained, from the body bags to gaze around the fire-seared stage, then face the audience...one of them hits the first line hard...

“You know how when you go to most Christmas shows and you’re sitting there and they don’t catch you on fire? Well, we did the opposite of that.”

...And it's at this point that said audience knows for sure that this is no normal play. Our five clowns are soon joined by the not-so effervescent, potato chip addicted Fairie Queen, who leads them in their quest to bring about the play's happy ending.

This not-so-typical Holiday Tradition plays during the week between Christmas and New Years each year (With a matinee performance every year on December 30th...the fire's anniversary...at 3PM.) , and has managed to pack the small theaters it plays in without even breaking a sweat.

Not only has the play been popular with audiences, it's also struck a positive note with critics. (No mean trick, considering that many a critically acclaimed work, be it film or stage, is all but shunned by the viewing public's). In his review Chief Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones, for example, called the play "...The most distinctive holiday show in the entire city,” praising its “ragtag, outré aesthetic” and “emotional, existential echoes.”, giving it a solid 3.5 out of 5 while he was at it.

 I did a little research on Mr Jones and he's pretty highly thought of in the theatrical community, and knows his stuff...as of 2014 he also heads up the Eugene O'Niell National Theater Critic's Institute, in Waterford Conn. Trust me when I say that this  was no small praise.

There is one thing, though, the The Ruffians would like to do that they, so far, haven't managed yet. They want to perform Burning Bluebeard at the site of the fire it was based on...on the stage of the Oriental Theater. I hope they manage to do it.


While discussing this fire with a few people, the question 'How come the backdraft didn't blow the back wall of the theater out?' was asked.

This is a valid question. I've been on the scene of two backdrafts. One, in a paper plant, blew out about 100 feet of cinder block wall. The other leveled a long, narrow, windowless dental office building, boosting a 500 or so pound roof mounted air conditioning unit over an aerial ladder rig and out about 75 feet into the parking lot while it was at it.

 The backdraft at the Iroquois was every bit as powerful as those two, if not a bit more so, but there was a big difference. Those two were in completely confined spaces, so the explosive force had nowhere to go. So it blew the walls out...or in the case of the dental office building, blew the building apart..

 The Iroquois backdraft, on the other hand, was able to vent a good bit of it's energy downward and out into the auditorium, greatly reducing the pressure exerted against the walls of the building...and there was still enough energy left to blow several of the locked fire exits open.

It was still a near thing though...I read at least one source stating that the upper rear wall of the theater was bulged outward a couple of inches and had to be rebuilt when the building was repaired.


Nearly three decades passed between the Brooklyn Theater Fire and The Iroquois Theater Fire, and much as the movers and shakers of the theater industry tried to give the impression that they had learned their lesson about theater safety...well, they hadn't. Oh, they took the classes and they may even have done some of the homework, but they didn't pass the final exam. 

And because of that, 602 people died. 

And that brings us to an important question, one that's especially given that, as I finish this post up, the Christmas mega-hit season...both stage and screen...is right around  the corner. 

What about today

Have we finally learned that lesson over the last nearly 115 years.

Oh, hardware wise we've definitely learned that lesson. Theaters are hundreds of times safer today than they were in 1903...or even, likely 1963. Buildings are usually sprinklered throughout. Seat upholstery, carpets , wall coverings, and curtains have to meet a strict fire resistance standard before they are installed. Theaters are riddled with well-marked exits and those multi-screen megaplexes that are so the rage now have at least two and usually more exits from each auditorium that lead directly to the outside.

Stage theaters are equipped with automatic fire curtains that have a minimum fire rating dependent on the codes of the municipality where it's located, and the codes vary from locality to locality, but rest assured that no matter what locality the theater's in, the curtain will stop smoke and fire long enough to let a full house evacuate calmly without breaking a sweat. Standpipes and hose-lines are usually available. Ditto fire extinguishers.  Fire alarm systems have been hooked in to either a monitoring agency or directly to the dispatch center since the early part of the 20th Century. And all of this stuff is inspected...properly...so it has  to work.

Maximum capacities are posted prominently in theaters (And indeed, all public buildings and businesses) and overcrowding shouldn't happen, because fire inspectors have no problem at all with  making a spot inspection, and shutting a performance down if the theater is over-crowded.

And all of this must work, because we haven't had a multi-fatality theater fire in the US since the Rhoads Opera House fire in 1908. (Yep...that ones on the list to be covered, too). And there have been fires in theaters...both stage and movie...during performances that have been handled with no injuries or fatalities what-so-ever.

So, again, all of the new codes and technology must work. But all of that high tech hardware, and all of those strictly-enforced codes miss one important factor...the factor that has the very real potential to derail any and all of that new tech, just as it did on Dec 30, 1903. The human one. And both some things I've read and one minor incident I know about personally shine a kind of scary spotlight on the human element.

Fire lanes escapes and fire exits still get blocked...say to unload supplies or scenes, or even by a limo or tour bus bringing the Artist Of The Moment to the venue. Those automatic fire curtains are usually connected to the building alarm, so if the curtain drops, the alarm activates. And if that happens falsely during a performance more than a time or to, you can bet some yo-yo will pull the breaker so the performance won't get interrupted again. 

Fire doors get blocked open for the sake of convenience, then left open after that need for convenience is satisfied. Combustibles get stacked where they shouldn't be in the hurry to get a play on-stage. Managers still try to circumvent regulations (Much less successfully today than back in 1903) both for convenience sake and to save money.

And staff training is sometimes questionable...especially in those afore-mentioned megaplexes.

 I won't say what theater I was in, but several years ago I got a taste of just how well movie theater employees are apparently trained in things fire-safety, and it wasn't encouraging. 

About a quarter way through the movie I was watching, the strobes started flashing, accompanied by the brash, shrill tweeting of the fire alarm. No smoke or sign of fire (It ended up being a trash compactor fire on the other side of the food court) and at first everyone just sat there even as I got up and headed for one of the fire exits (Rescuing my large popcorn and large soda, which, of course, cost about the same as a small yacht). I headed outside (Being stared at by many in the audience) as the movie still played and the lights stayed down. It was a couple of minutes before people started trickling out of there...same with the other auditoriums. Movie still playing....I could hear it.

 I had a handheld scanner back then, and had turned it on, so I knew what was happening and that the theater wasn't involved, so I stuck my head back inside. There were still people sitting there watching the movie. Not an usher or employee in sight. Movie finally stopped and lights came up a good five minutes after the alarm activated. Several people exited back into the inside of the theater. 

No one directing anyone anywhere.  

Of course there were no injuries or trauma what-so-ever, other than to the theater's bottom line when they had to give everyone a free movie pass, but I can't help but wonder what would have happened if the fire had been, say, in a deep fryer in the concession stand in the theater lobby. I didn't ask anyone if they had been trained, but I did mention the seeming confusion during the evacuation to the fire department's prevention division.

So it could happen again. Not to the scale of the Iroquois Theater Fires horrific death toll, but a smoky backstage fire in a theater where the breaker for the fire curtain's been pulled and a limo or box truck's blocking the bottom section of a balcony fire escape could induce a panic and a death toll the likes of which haven't been seen in a theater fire in over a century. Again, not to the level of horror that was seen at The Iroquois, but bad enough to...as has happened in other places of public assembly a couple of times a decade for that same century and change...to make us sit up, wide eyed and say 'Damn...haven't we learned anything...'


It's always nice when you have almost more material than you know what to do with, and I definitely enjoyed that quantity of research material...both on and off line...on this post. Trust me when I say that this is not always the case, even when researching the most famous/infamous incidents.

It would literally be impossible to list ever link I've found dealing with the Iroquois, and unnecessary to boot...they tend to get a bit repetitious after a while. So I'm going to list the best of the ones I've found.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iroquois_Theatre_fire  The All-But-Obligatory Wikipedia page.

http://www.iroquoistheater.com/  Judy Cooke's awesome website about thye fire. This site is a virtual encyclopedia of facts about the theater, the fire, and hundreds of people who were involved with the fire. Probably 75% of my research for this post came off of her site. You can very literally find yourself here for hours exploring the site.

https://www.facebook.com/IroquoisTheater/ Judy also has a Facebook page that syncs up with her 

https://chicagology.com/notorious-chicago/iroquoistheatre/ Choicagology page with reproductions of several period newspaper articles about the fire.

http://chicagology.com/PDF/IroquoisProgram.pdf  Yet another Chicagology page featuring the entire Mr Bluebeard program. It's a PDF file, so you need a PDF reader to view it, but it's also downloadable. A seriously interesting read. Like most programs of any kind, to this day, it's mostly ads, but these are ads from 1903.You can spend an hour or so just looking at them.

http://bighoststories.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-iroquois-theater.html  Another...much much shorter...blog post about the fire.

http://mysteriouschicago.com/the-iroquois-theatre-fire-or-how-bad-was-mr-blue-beard/  Mysterious Chicago page about the fire.

https://oregonnews.uoregon.edu/lccn/sn83025138/1904-01-01/ed-1/seq-53/ A period newspaper article about the fire, from the Jan 1, 1904 Morning Origonian, that includes a victim list.

http://topofshow.com/2013/12/30/110-years-later-lessons-still-not-learned-lest-we-forget/ A sobering article from Top Of The Show' that makes you wonder whether we've really learned the lessons taught by The Iroquois...or not. An interesting, and again, sobering read.

https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/30/theater/burning-bluebeard-becomes-a-holiday-tradition-in-chicago.html  New York Times article about Burning Bluebeard. Goes into a little more detail than my note about the play does.

http://www.hellenicaworld.com/USA/Literature/Various/en/ChicagosAwfulTheaterHorror.html Full Text of 'Chicago's Awful Theater Horror', a book written about the fire in 1904

https://www.flickr.com/photos/dionnemusic/albums/72157624160598457  Photographer Christian Dion's Flickr album of theater pics. There are over 250 pics of American theaters here, including a
 bunch of the interior of the Oriental. This guy's a photographer. I take pictures. There is a big difference!  Definitely worth a look.

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