“What was the Iroquois Theater Fire?” by S.M. O’Connor

The Iroquois Theater Fire in downtown Chicago was one of the worst disasters in the history of the city.  Over 600 people died in the calamity, which was about twice as many as had died in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which killed around 300 people but left approximately 300,000 people homeless.  The brand new Iroquois Theater, advertised to be a fireproof, stood at 24-28 West Randolph Street, between State Street to the east and Dearborn Street to the west.  In 1903, Eddie Foy, Sr. (1856-1928) returned to Chicago for a tour of Mr. Bluebeard (1903).[1]   This was the inaugural theatrical company for the Iroquois Theater.[2]  At 3:15 p.m., on Wednesday, December 30, 1903, during the second act of a matinee performance, when the orchestra began to play the waltz “Let Us Swear by the Pale Moonlight,” the backstage caught fire.[3]  The audience consisted of about 1,700 people, mostly mothers and children.[4]  It was the middle of the Christmas holiday, so children were out of school.  What seems to have happened is that an arc lamp used for a moonlight effect on the left side of the stage overheated, which “ignited a paint-saturated strip of muslin on a drape.”[5]  The flame ran up the muslin strip into the fly space above the stage.[6]    [The stage crew at a theater uses a fly system (theatrical rigging system) to raise drapes and scenery into the fly space above the stage and lower them down onto the stage.]  The audience began to panic.[7]  Eddie Foy, Sr. stepped forward to the footlights and called out, “Please be quiet, there is no danger.”[8]  Foy gave a nod and the orchestra began to play.[9]  According to Vaudeville Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, after his cast mates and the musicians fled, Foy stepped forward to the footlights and pleaded with the audience to calmly evacuate.[10]  Burning fabric began to fall upon the stage.[11]

Singers, one with a costume ablaze, ran offstage.[12]  As the performers escaped, they left a stage door open and a skylight fell in, with the result the fire was being fed by a draft of air.[13]  A fireball flew over the footlights and ignited a red velvet curtain.[14]  Stagehands tried to lower an asbestos curtain to protect the audience, but, in the kind of real-life event that inspires horror movies, it got stuck in the air, a few feet off the stage floor.[15]  Flames leapt into the orchestra pit and the theater dome.[16]  Part of the stage collapsed.[17]  As the electric lights shorted out, the building fell into darkness, with the only light supplied by the flames.[18]  Audience members on the main floor had little chance to escape, those in the balconies had almost no chance at all.[19]  This was due to aisles being overly narrow.[20]  The Iroquois Theater had twenty-seven exits, but some of them were hidden behind drapes and some were locked to thwart gate-crashers. [21]   There were no emergency lights over the exits.[22]  One side of the building faced an alley and the windows of that wall let out onto fire escapes, but too many people tried to use it simultaneously.[23]  Two hundred people died on one staircase.[24]  Some people who made it to the roof escaped across planks of wood laid over the alley to the next building.[25]

Foy escaped through the sewer.[26]  Young newspaper reporter and future editor Walter Crawford Howey (1881-1954) was walking along a street when he saw a manhole cover open and a stream of hundreds of people poured out. [27]  They were survivors of the Iroquois Theater Fire. [28]   They had sought shelter in the cellar, which connected to the sewer. [29]

Firemen arrived within fifteen minutes.[30]  Longstreet wrote, “When the firemen and others fought their way into the interior, they found a scene from woodcut illustrations to Dante’s Inferno.  A few hard-guy reporters fainted.  Dead and dying bodies were dragged out and laid in rows on marble-topped tables.  Those surely dead were wrapped in blankets patterned in series along the curb.”[31]

In Chicago 1860-1919, Stephen Longstreet stated, “Five hundred ninety-six human beings died at the Iroquois that December afternoon, crushed, burned, trampled, stomped flat, suffocated.”[32]  Most sources state 602 people died.  The Chicago Tribune reported on Thursday, December 31, 1903 that the fire had killed 571 people and injured 350.[33]  More recently, the Chicago Tribune’s Bob Secter related that over 600 people died as a result of the conflagration, 575 of whom died that day and another thirty of whom died later, with hundreds more injured.

In Chicago Tribune: The Rise of a Great American Newspaper, Lloyd Wendt explained, “All of the Chicago papers covered the story with the kind of journalistic skill that was the trademark of Chicago publications, but it was [Managing Editor James] Keeley who most effectively evoked the true horror of the tragedy.  ‘I want the names,’ he told city editor [Edward] Beck.  ‘I want all the names.’  It seemed an impossible assignment.  The hundreds of dead and injured were in scores of morgues and hospitals.  Most of the victims were women and children, less likely to have personal identification with them, and many were from out of town.  But the entire editorial staff of the paper participated in the effort to obtain names and addresses while also obtaining the details of the fire, interviews with survivors, pictures, and a dozen side stories.”[34]

The New York Times reported, “Attorneys for the Fire Department secured from five witnesses corroboration of charges that a wrecking crew of the Fuller Construction Company had destroyed the stage skylights on the day after the disaster.”[35]  Fire Inspector Fulkerson said, “It was the intention that these skylights should open automatically to allow the escape of heat and smoke and create a draught which would draw them to pass over the audience in case of fire.  But from the information I have I am positive that the opening of the skylights was impossible because beneath each section of the lights had been placed pieces of scantling which remained there until removed by employees of the Fuller Construction Company on Thursday afternoon.”[36]

Architect H.B. Wheeler, whose windows overlooked the roof of the Iroquois Theater, told Fire Inspector Fulkerson that “remained securely fastened down” (as the New York Times journalist put it) on Wednesday during the fire.[37]

Thursday morning, he said, a wrecking crew in charge of charge of Superintendent Jones of the Fuller Construction Company appeared on the roof and removed a number of scantlings that held down the vents and opened the vents.  The architect declared that he was surprised at the proceeding, as he knew the property was in the hands of the Coroner, and that no one had any right to make any alterations pending the Coroner’s investigation.[38]

Secter related, “The theater’s managers and several public officials were indicted in connection with the fire, nit none were punished.”[39]  On Monday, January 4, 1904, the chief usher, George M. Dusenberry, was arrested and charged with manslaughter.[40]  According to the anonymous New York Times journalist, “many people” alleged the ushers closed the doors and initially refused to let people exit.[41]  The journalist gave the example of Benjamin Solomon, a boy who had been seated in the upper balcony “to-day declared that all the ushers and attachés closed the doors and shouted to the spectators to remain seated, as there was no danger.”[42]

Deputy Coroner Buckley and the Coroner’s jury toured the Iroquois Theater on Monday, January 4, 1904, to sift through the debris and they could locate neither the asbestos curtain nor the wire cables on which it was said to have been hung.[43]  Nor could they locate the proscenium lights which multiple eyewitnesses had said (somehow) prevented the asbestos curtain from being lowered beyond a certain point.[44]

The journalist explicated, “Windows of the theatre through which many people might have escaped were closed and covered with heavily bolted sheet-iron doors, according to Mrs. Maud Nickey, who to-day for the first time was able to relate the details of her escape.  She says that more than half a dozen windows within easy reach of those occupying seats in the orchestra circle were closed and covered on the outside by iron doors whose bolts had rusted or would not loosen.”[45]

Longstreet recounted, “Building and fire inspectors had failed to inspect, or worse, had taken a bit of graft.  Building inspectors accepted bribes as low as a few free tickets.  When important people, theater managers, were indicted, including the mayor, Clarence Darrow, the great liberal cynic, pleaded, with a rueful shrug, for them in court, ‘It is not just to lay the sins of a generation upon the shoulders of the few.’”[46]

After being remodeled, the Iroquois Theater re-opened as the Colonial Theater.  It was demolished in 1926 to make way for the Oriental Theatre, a movie palace designed by Rapp & Rapp that opened on Sunday, May 9, 1926.[47]

One of the victims of the Iroquois Theater Fire was a young girl who was buried at Montrose Cemetery on Pulaski Road in Chicago.  At his own expense, Andrew Kircher, who had founded Montrose Cemetery in 1902, and whose descendants continue to own it, erected a monument to commemorate the disaster in 1908 because he realize none existed anywhere else.

Lorado Taft (1860-1936), a famous local artist who was a faculty member of the School of The Art Institute of Chicago, sculpted Sympathy, a bronze bas-relief tablet, that measures four feet wide and six feet high, which was in the lobby of Iroquois Memorial Hospital on Wacker Drive from 1912 until that building was demolished in 1951.[48]  The bas-relief tablet was thought to be lost but it had been placed in storage in the Department of Public Works in City Hall.[49]  It was reinstalled in City Hall near the LaSalle Street entrance in 1960.[50]  The Union League Club of Chicago donated an explanatory plaque which was installed in time for rededication of the bas-relief on November 5, 2010.[51]  Taft’s granddaughter, Dr. Jean Brandler; Alderman Ed Burke and other members of the Chicago City Council; and members of the Union League of Chicago attended the ceremony.[52]

Foy’s survival of the Iroquois Theater Fire was recreated for the film The Seven Little Foys (1955), which focused on his act with seven of his eight children.  Bob Hope (1903-2003) played Eddie Foy, Sr.

 

[1] Vaudeville Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, Volume I.  Edited by Frank Cullen, Florence Heckman, and Donald McNeilly.  New York, New York: Routledge (2007), p. 409

Stephen Longstreet, Chicago 1860-1919. New York, New York: David McKay Company, Inc. (1973), p. 416

[2] Cullen, p. 409

[3] Cullen, p. 409

Longstreet, p. 416

Bob Secter, “The Iroquois Theater fire,” Chicago Tribune (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/politics/chi-chicagodays-iroquoisfire-story-story.html) Accessed 04/09/18

[4] Cullen, p. 409

[5] Bob Secter, “The Iroquois Theater fire,” Chicago Tribune

See also Longstreet, p. 416

[6] [6] Bob Secter, “The Iroquois Theater fire,” Chicago Tribune

[7] Bob Secter, “The Iroquois Theater fire,” Chicago Tribune

See also Longstreet, p. 416

[8] Lloyd Wendt, Chicago Tribune: The Rise of a Great American Newspaper. Chicago: Rand McNally & Company (1979), p. 354

See also Longstreet, p. 416

[9] Wendt, p. 354

[10] Cullen, p. 409

See also Secter

[11] Bob Secter, “The Iroquois Theater fire,” Chicago Tribune

See also Longstreet, p. 416

[12] Bob Secter, “The Iroquois Theater fire,” Chicago Tribune

See also Longstreet, p. 416

[13] Longstreet, p. 416

[14] Bob Secter, “The Iroquois Theater fire,” Chicago Tribune

See also Longstreet, p. 416

[15] Wendt, p. 355

See also Bob Secter, “The Iroquois Theater fire,” Chicago Tribune

[16] Wendt, p. 354

[17] Bob Secter, “The Iroquois Theater fire,” Chicago Tribune

[18] Longstreet, p. 416

See also Bob Secter, “The Iroquois Theater fire,” Chicago Tribune

[19] Longstreet, p. 416

[20] Longstreet, p. 416

[21] Bob Secter, “The Iroquois Theater fire,” Chicago Tribune

See also Longstreet, p. 416

[22] Longstreet, p. 416

[23] Longstreet, p. 416

[24] Longstreet, p. 416

[25] Longstreet, p. 417

[26] Cullen, p. 409

[27] The Associated Press, “Legend in News World – Death Ends Colorful Career of Walter Howey,” The Kansas City Times, 22 March, 1924, p. 4

[28] A.P., “Legend in News World,” The Kansas City Times, 22 March, 1924, p. 4

[29] A.P., “Legend in News World,” The Kansas City Times, 22 March, 1924, p. 4

[30] Longstreet, p. 417

[31] Longstreet, p. 417

[32] Longstreet, p. 417

[33] Wendt, p. 355

[34] Wendt, p. 355

[35] “Fire Inquiry Disclosures,” The New York Times, 5 January, 1904 (https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1904/01/05/101383636.pdf) Accessed 04/09/18

[36] “Fire Inquiry Disclosures,” The New York Times, 5 January, 1904

[37] “Fire Inquiry Disclosures,” The New York Times, 5 January, 1904

[38] “Fire Inquiry Disclosures,” The New York Times, 5 January, 1904

[39] Bob Secter, “The Iroquois Theater fire,” Chicago Tribune

[40] “Fire Inquiry Disclosures,” The New York Times, 5 January, 1904

[41] “Fire Inquiry Disclosures,” The New York Times, 5 January, 1904

[42] “Fire Inquiry Disclosures,” The New York Times, 5 January, 1904

[43] “Fire Inquiry Disclosures,” The New York Times, 5 January, 1904

[44] “Fire Inquiry Disclosures,” The New York Times, 5 January, 1904

[45] “Fire Inquiry Disclosures,” The New York Times, 5 January, 1904

[46] Longstreet, p. 418

[47] David Balaban, Images of America: The Chicago Movie Palaces of Balaban & Katz. Chicago, Illinois: Arcadia Publishing (2006), p. 60

[48] Allen Stuart Weller, Lorado Taft: The Chicago Years. Edited by Robert G. La France, Henry Adams with Stephen P. Thomas. The University of Illinois Press (2014), p. 181

See also “Historic City Hall Plaque To Be Rededicated,” W.B.B.M., 4 November, 2010 (http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2010/11/04/historic-city-hall-plaque-to-be-rededicated/) Accessed 04/09/18

[49] Weller, p. 181

[50] Weller, p. 181

[51] Weller, p. 309

[52] “Historic City Hall Plaque To Be Rededicated,” W.B.B.M., 4 November, 2010

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