The Iroquois Theatre Fire

The Iroquois Theatre was billed as “absolutely fireproof.” It went up in flames less than six weeks after opening.

Chicago Daily News, December 30, 1903. Image courtesy of Anthony P. Hatch.

As ticket holders entered Chicago's Iroquois Theatre for a matinee performance of Mr. Bluebeard on December 30, 1903, they were handed playbills with the words “Absolutely Fireproof” in capital letters at the top right-hand corner of the cover. In all likelihood, it's an inscription that few noticed, as for most patrons it was their first time inside the new theatre, a house that had been praised far and wide for its beauty and opulence. For the city, the Iroquois was not just a new venue, it was an attraction that positioned Chicago to surpass New York as the center of the theatre universe. Mixing the best of the Old World with the latest innovations in lighting and design, the Iroquois was, as they say, “the talk of the town.” When a fire broke out above the stage during that afternoon's show, many attendees simply assumed the red glow was one of the special effects.

In hindsight, it's easy to compare the “fireproof” Iroquois with the “unsinkable” Titanic. “Both were considered the epitome of 20th century technology, comfort, and above all, safety,” says Anthony P. Hatch, author of the new book “Tinder Box” (Academy Chicago)—an exhaustive account of the catastrophe that draws much of its insight from a handful of first-person accounts recorded by Hatch in the early 1960s. Ignoring warning signs of potential disaster the operators of the Iroquois rushed to open the theatre while it was dangerously incomplete, with unfinished ventilators and fire escapes, and conspicuously absent exit signs. In the end, upwards of 600 people perished in the blaze, and today it remains on the records of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) as the deadliest single-building disaster in U.S. history.

Act I

The dedicatory performance at the Iroquois took place on November 23, 1903, an occasion ownership commemorated with a self-congratulatory souvenir program that highlighted the handiwork of the principal developers. At the top of this list was a 29-year-old architect, Benjamin H. Marshall, who had boldly proclaimed to the media that in order to avoid design errors, he had studied every theatre disaster in history. What he neglected to mention was that the builders had cut corners; the construction phase took just six months and several important safety features were compromised. Among other things, the theatre lacked a backstage phone or fire alarm system, and the fire fighting equipment (six canisters of Kilfyre, a dry chemical product) was embarrassingly inadequate. 

To make matters worse, Marshall, who ostensibly knew better, had in fact deliberately sacrificed safety for appearance, obscuring exits with heavy drapes and using an inordinate amount of wood trim. “[Afterwards] he said to reporters he would never again design a theatre with as much wood in the interior,” notes Hatch, “but he admitted, amazingly, that one of the main reasons the theatre didn't have exit signs was that he thought they would spoil the look.” 

On December 30 an overflow crowd of 1,840 people—mostly women and children enjoying the Christmas break—poured into the Iroquois, easily surpassing its capacity of 1,602 seats. “The theatre was illegally overcrowded. There were people in the aisles and people four-deep behind the last row of seats,” notes Hatch. 

As the show began, the pre-teen and teenage ushers (there were no child labor laws at the time) locked the doors to the auditorium, standard operating procedure at the Iroquois. “Management was afraid that people would sneak down and take the empty seats. Although that day there were no empty seats whatsoever,” reminds Hatch. 

Act II

The performance was uneventful until the second act was well underway, when flames ignited the drapery above the stage during an ensemble musical number. The source of the fire (according to eyewitnesses and later the fire examiner) was a spotlight that had short-circuited. Stagehands immediately noticed the sparks, but without fire fighting materials they were reduced to patting the flames with their hands. 

At this point, the audience was still mostly oblivious, but panic soon set in among cast, crew and orchestra, who gamely stayed in character until it became obvious the fire would not be contained. Looking up at the flames from the stage several cast members wondered why the fire curtain was not being deployed. What they didn't know was that the stagehand normally responsible for the curtain was hospitalized that day, and his substitute could not determine which drop should be lowered. 

Meanwhile, the star of the show, Eddie Foy—in his dressing room preparing for his next scene—heard the commotion and came out to investigate. After making his way to the stage he urged the audience to stay in their seats. But as the scenery began burning he changed his tune, saying, “Don't be frightened, go slow, walk out calmly. Take your time.”

Before long most of the audience was in a state of pandemonium, scrambling to find exits, only to find themselves locked in, soon to be trampled by those following. “The doors leading away from the gallery and balcony, where the greatest loss of life occurred, those doors were locked and bolted,” notes Hatch. Since all the doors were designed to open inward even the few that were unsecured hindered the crowd's ability to exit quickly.

Eventually, the crew began lowering the fire curtain, but it quickly became stuck, never reaching the floor on either side. The remaining cast and crew then escaped through the huge double scenery doors, saving their lives, but sealing the fate of those still in the auditorium. “The construction company, in rushing to complete the theatre, had left the ventilators over the stage nailed shut and the ventilators over the auditorium open,” says Hatch. In effect, they created a natural chimney, causing a backdraft when the scenery doors were forced open. “It became a huge flamethrower,” continues Hatch. “It just whirled up into the balcony and the gallery. Those who decided to hold back and not get involved in the human rush [towards the exits], those people were incinerated where they sat.”

Many of the people who managed to get out of the theatre did not escape with their lives. One portion of the audience forced its way out onto a fire escape high above the alley behind the theatre. However, with the fire escape still unfinished they found themselves on an isolated platform without a ladder to the ground, flames licking at them from behind. “People were being pushed off, or jumping if their clothing was on fire,” relates Hatch. 

Some of those out on the fire escape were saved when students from the Northwestern University building across the alley came to their rescue. At first, the students tried to bridge the gap between buildings with a ladder, but the first man across lost his balance when the ladder slipped on the ice that ringed the rooftop. He fell to the cobblestone street below, taking the ladder down with him. The students then put boards across the divide, which allowed for a safe, albeit dizzying crossing. Meanwhile, firemen arrived on the scene with nets and began encouraging people to jump. That tactic met with mixed results, as in the increasingly thick black smoke many jumpers missed the nets. “There were at least 125 bodies picked up from the Couch Place alley that afternoon,” says Hatch. The next day's newspapers referred to the scene as “Death Alley.” 


In the aftermath of the fire there was a rush to assign blame. The Iroquois' owners fired the first shot in the blame war, citing the ineffectiveness of the Kilfyre. But no one was safe from finger pointing. The theatre owners, the mayor of Chicago, the city administration, the leaders of the Chicago fire department and the construction company took the brunt of the criticism, but the fire curtain and the highly combustible scenery were also identified as contributing factors. The owners even pointed a finger at the audience. “They said if the audience had listened to Foy—to remain calm and keep their seats and walk out slowly—they would have been able to get out,” says an incredulous Hatch. In the end, only the firemen and police officers that responded to the scene were immune from criticism, as they conducted daring rescues and managed to save the building's superstructure. For his part, Foy became an international hero for his efforts to stop the panic.

Meanwhile, the ripple effects of the disaster were immediately felt across the live entertainment industry. “In New York City on New Year's Eve some theatres eliminated standing room. And theatres were closed for retrofitting all around the country and in some cities in Europe,” notes Hatch. 

Just eight days after the fire, the coroner's inquest began, with a six-man panel taking testimony from 200 witnesses. The inquest revealed lapses in oversight by the leadership of the city, buildings department and fire department, among others. Arrest warrants on involuntary manslaughter charges were issued for the theatre's co-owners, the city's building commissioner, and carpenters involved in the construction process, as well as a number of stagehands. Not surprisingly, it wasn't long before lawsuits were being filed against the various parties.

However, the law firm hired by the owners did its best to delay the trial and find loopholes in the city's building and safety ordinances. Three-and-a-half years later, theatre co-owner and manager Will Davis was found not guilty, nor was anyone else found criminally liable. “Since the ordinances were proven to be invalid that ended the State of Illinois' attempt to bring manslaughter charges against the defendants,” says Hatch. 

Not surprisingly, many felt justice was not done. “The case was very much criticized in the pages of the Illinois Law Review in 1907, which claimed that the delays and the manipulation that was going on really fought against justice,” says Hatch. In the end, only 30 families of the victims were financially compensated for their loss, receiving a settlement of $750 each. 

The victims, however, did not die in vain. Among other changes, building and fire codes were subsequently reformed, and posted floor plans now make exits more easily identifiable. Yet, accidents still happen, as evidenced by the deadly fire at The Station in West Warwick, Rhode Island this past February during a performance by the rock band Great White. 


In the Windy City it seems most people have forgotten the Iroqouis fire. “When people who were involved in the tragedy were [still] alive Chicago held an annual service at City Hall,” reports Hatch. "But the city no longer has any commemorative service, and this year, on the 100th anniversary, has nothing planned. I do believe there is still great sensitivity in Chicago about this disaster. That may explain why the city does not plan to have any commemoration," he continues. 

It might also explain why the lone memorial to the victims—a bronze bas-relief by sculptor Laredo Taft—now sits without any identifying markings inside the LaSalle Street entrance to City Hall, and why the Chicago Historical Society is unwilling to display the spotlight that reportedly started the fire. According to Hatch, an examination of the spotlight by a trained expert might reveal exactly what caused it to spark. “Someone could look at that spotlight and say, based upon this scorched metal that the fire started with these wires or whatever,” notes Hatch. “But it remains in the vaults of the Historical Society.” 

At the moment, Hatch is in the process of organizing (in conjunction with the Chicago Fire Museum), a memorial service that will be held in early December at St. Gabriel's Roman Catholic Church in Chicago. Hatch says the inspiration came from a man who lost his mother and two sisters in the fire, and contacted him in an effort to locate the cemetery where his relatives were buried. “Afterwards, I received a very moving e-mail from him saying, ‘You've found them. You've helped fill a partial void in my life.’ It moved me to the extent that we're going to try to do something and invite people who may have lost loved ones in the disaster,” he reports. 

But Hatch also hopes the memory of the Iroquois Theatre will encourage government officials and the public to become more vigilant about fire safety. Otherwise, complacency and a lack of accountability might lead history to repeat itself. “That's another reason why I think Chicago would like to forget about this story,” says Hatch. “There was a lot of blame, but when all was said and done nobody was found guilty of anything.”

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