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The Great Chicago Iroquois Theater Fire of 1903


December 30th falls on a Friday this year but it was a Wednesday on the afternoon of December 30th in 1903 that an audience consisting mostly of women and children filled seats of the Iroquois Theater.  It was a matinee performance of the musical "Mr. Bluebeard" and the advertisement for the production during the joyous Christmas season was, "Don't fail to have the children see Mr. Bluebeard".

The Iroquois opened with "Mr. Bluebeard" just a month previous and was hailed as a "fireproof structure".  It is odd that someone would have so bold a claim so soon after Chicago was nearly laid to waste in the great fire only 32 years before.

Nobody in the theater had any reason to suspect anything was amiss.  There were ushers and five men in city uniforms in the aisles as well as plenty of exits.
The theater was darkened for the song, "Pale Moonlight" as eight chorus girls and eight dashing men in costume strolled across the stage.

Suddenly the spot light that gave the pale moonlight effect sparked and lit a fire in the curtain near the rigging.  Theater groups and the musicians were accustomed to the occasional spark and small fire and did not miss a beat in the production.  Surely someone would extinguish the fire before it got out of hand.  The fire, however, had a different plan in store.  It spread quickly in the upper part of the rigging and spread from curtain to curtain.  The audience had now noticed that there was a problem and some started to stand in anticipation of making a quick exit.  Eddie Foy, a comedian and lead actor in the play, came to the front of center stage and urged audience members to remain calm.  It was then that the lines that held the hundreds of pounds of scenery gave way and the heavy timbers crashed to the now empty stage. 

The call was put out to lower the fire curtain.  The fire curtain was meant as a last resort and made of asbestos.  The idea being that whatever fire was on the stage would and could be extinguished quickly although the show would more than likely need to be rescheduled.  The problem was that the fire curtain had seemingly been hung up on something and never descended.  Meanwhile the performers had opened a rear door of the theater in a very successful escape attempt which unfortunately and unwittingly had sealed the fate of the audience.   Anyone who has ever seen the movie "Backdraft" could envision the seething wall of flame that exploded out into the already terrified audience members. At first it appeared as though the entire production company had escaped safely but it was later discovered that Nellie Reed, the leader of the "Flying Ballet" died of her injuries at Cook County Hospital.

There was a mad dash to the exits and initially the ushers who were now fleeing themselves, had attempted to keep people from leaving in an attempt to keep everyone calm but it was all lost!  By some accounts half of the doors leading to safety were blocked and audience members began smashing through the doors.  Miraculously almost everyone on the first floor made it to safety save the few who were trampled.  The poor souls in the upper balcony and gallery areas were not so fortunate.  Doors leading to fire escapes were locked or soon blocked by the mass of humanity all trying to fight for their lives.  Stairways leading to exits converged on each other creating a deadly bottleneck of carnage.  Some managed to make it to the fire escape in the alley behind the theater only to have flames explode out the windows underneath turning the fire escape itself into virtual roasting spit.

Facing scorching flames from both behind and below, people threw themselves off of the upper levels of the fire escape only to meet instant death as the slammed into the cold pavement below.  As morbid as it sounds the first hapless souls that leapt or were pushed to their deaths by frantic audience members behind them formed a human cushion of corpses in the alley which allowed others to escape with their lives.

Across the alley from the theater were the offices of the schools of law and dentistry of NorthWestern University.  This was also the old Tremont House.  Workmen who were cleaning up after a small fire themselves saw the calamity unfolding across the alley and by some miracle were able to lower planks from their window to the edge of the fire escape.  The boards became extremely slippery and many who first attempted to traverse the bridge met with death below.  Although a valiant effort few individuals successfully crawled across the "alley of death".  Much later the fire department would lay ladders across and managed to move roughly 100 bodies out of the theater in this manner. 

It is hard to believe, but in the matter of fifteen minutes it was all over.  By the time the fire department had arrived the fire had consumed all that it could and was folding in on itself.  It became a mad dash to find survivors in the charred twisted mass of humanity that brought even hardened firefighters and policemen to tears. 

The Bishop Samuel Fallows of the Reformed Episcopal Church became a hero of the fire in that he happened to be walking down Randolph St. at the time of the fire and the firemen had allowed him in to help.  Bishop Fallows was also a former Brigadier General with the Union Army during the civil war and he later commented that in all of the carnage of the civil war he did not behold anything so terrible as what befell him that December 30th.

The aftermath of the fire was significant with the official death toll at 602 making it one of the worst theater disasters in history.  For comparison the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed 17,450 buildings but only 250 to 300 people were killed.of course those numbers have been disputed by historians due to the fact that many entire families may have been killed by the Great Chicago Fire and nobody was alive to report anyone missing!

The scene that met the first responders was unimaginable.  Locked doors, iron-gated stairways, no on-site fire alarm, standing room only crowd, lack of firefighting equipment, grossly inadequate "fireproof curtain" and nailed down skylight vents all contributed to the mass of humanity piled at times 10 feet high next to exits that were not exits at all.  Bodies were not just piled up where the individuals fell but twisted and mangled together as individuals fought to their last breath.  It took every ounce of energy the firefighters had, and then some, to pry the bodies apart from each other in an attempt to locate possible survivors.  One couple had grasped each other so tightly in death that they had to be carried out together.  Most were burned beyond recognition with the exception of the children who were the first trampled and were found most times face down or covered by the bodies of their mothers in a futile last attempt at saving their children.  Though a morbid thought the children's faces were mostly spared because of this and aided in later identification. 

John R. Thompson's restaurant was just east and adjacent to the theater.  At 3:00pm that day it was a restaurant.  At 3:20pm is was a makeshift hospital to attend to the severely injured and dying.  At 4:00pm it was a morgue and by 7:30pm it was a restaurant again except for the sweeping up of charred remains of human flesh, pieces of skull and human hair.  John R. Thompson's young daughter Ruth only 7 years old was attending the theater and was thrown back into the theater twice by the panicking crowd.  She escaped by running back into the fire, over the stage and through a rear stage exit into the alley.  She appeared in the restaurant passing by the dead and dying without a scratch on her and asked her father how her grandparents were.  She saw her grandfather weeping over the body of her grandmother but John Thompson considered himself the luckiest man alive!

Bushels full of women's purses and valuables were collected by the police and if you can believe it looters were actively attempting to steal the valuables of the victims before they had all been extracted from the burning death trap.  Carts of every type were pressed into service as ambulances and hearses and victims were collected outside the theater, in a saloon annex across the street, taken to the women's emergency room at the Marshall Field's store and those that could walk or be dragged were taken to physician offices at the Masonic Temple. 

Identification of all of the bodies took several days and to make matters worse there were actually individuals trying to claim bodies of individuals and misrepresenting the bodies as relatives in order to profit from false insurance claims.  One actually went so far as having a body buried as a relative only to have the body exhumed and proven otherwise by the police.  The body was identified by the actual relative because of the victim's "webbed toes".

The city of Chicago was again in the news for another fire and the owners and managers of the theater as well as city officials up to and including Mayor Carter Harrison were on the "Hot Seat" (no pun intended, honestly!)

By New Years day the Coroner’s Jury was hard at work and 12 members of the Theater company were under arrest for manslaughter.  They were; William Carlton, stage manager, William Plunkett, assistant stage manager, Frank Polin, electrician, Frank Jandrow, carpenter, Max Mazzanovich, carpenter, Fred Pigeon (alias Nolan), carpenter, Edward Engle, stagehand, Thomas McQueen, stage hand, William Stack, actor, Samuel Bell, actor, Victor Bozart, actor, and Edward Wines, actor.  Arrest Warrants for theater managers Will J. Davis and Harry J. Powers as well as City Inspector George Williams on the charge of manslaughter were sworn out by Arthur E. Hull of 244 Oakwood Boulevard.  Mr. Hull had lost his wife, three children and a maid in the fire.  The Warrants were served by Chicago Police on January 2nd.

The Coroner's Jury later determined that the following persons be held to a Grand Jury for criminal proceedings stemming from Gross Neglect to Neglect of Duty: Mayor Harrison, Building Commissioner George Williams, Building Inspector Edward Loughlin, Fire Marshal William H. Musham, Iroquois Fireman, William Sallers, Electric Light Operator, William McMullen, and Stage Carpenter, James Cummings

By far the greatest shame of the entire story is that fact that with all of the gross neglect, shoddy design and overall indifference to the safety of the theater patrons not a single person ever was successfully prosecuted for any wrong doing although the legal cases went on for almost four years.

The theater was rebuilt and re-opened as the "Vaudeville" theater and later the Colonial Theater until the Colonial shut its doors on May 17, 1924 and was demolished on May 26th to make way for a 21 floor Masonic Temple including a 5,000 seat auditorium which is now the Ford Center for the Performing Arts at 24 W. Randolph Street.

Of course with any tragedy of this nature there are stories associated with paranormal activity surrounding the site of the ill-fated "Iroquois".  I have heard stories of people having a sense of doom or depression when walking through "Death Alley" behind the theater.  I have personally walked down the alley and had experienced a "sad" or "melancholy" feeling but then again I had already known the story of the fire and probably felt more of a feeling of remorse or respect for the sheer number of lives cut so short during a normally festive holiday season. 

I had recently spoke with Adam Selzer of Chicago Unbelievable and Dale Kacmarek of the Ghost Research Society briefly about the Iroquois shortly before a roundtable discussion of The Resurrection Mary Legend.  Adam had said that during one visit many years ago to the theater when it was closed he recalled hearing the voice of a little girl giggling in the basement of the theater.  I asked him if he knew if any parts of the old Iroquois remain and he believed that there is one basement wall remaining from the old building. 

Although I have yet to contact the Theater, I plan on doing so for an upcoming book I am writing on haunted Chicago architecture.

In the meantime, I have located the name of one victim that was not originally included in the memorials surrounding the theater and plan on helping to add her name to the Iroquois memorial site.  Her name is Emma Bartlett and she was 13 years old at the time of her death.  Her mother and younger brother Arthur were also killed in the fire but were included.  I currently live in Brookfield, IL and if you believe in coincidences, Emma lived in West Grossdale in 1903 which is now the Congress Park neighborhood of Brookfield less than a mile from where I live!