It was a chilly
Wednesday, December 30th, 1903. Downtown Chicago had been hit squarely
with the icy fist of winter. People hurried about their day, filled
with dreams and hopes of what the coming year would bring. The past
year had been plagued with numerous strikes, economic depression,
and ever-increasing crime. Children were out of school for the holidays
and looking forward to an enjoyable matinee performance at the newest
theatre in town, The Iroquois Theatre. In fact, the six-story tall
Iroquois had only been open for five-weeks and was described as
a magnificent palace of marble and mahogany, a "virtual temple of
beauty", and had been advertised as "absolutely fireproof". The
theater was equipped with an asbestos curtain, which could be lowered
to separate the audience from any fire on stage.
Located on 24-28 W. Randolph Street, between State and Dearborn,
the theater could seat 1,724 customers. But today's matinee, 1,900
people filled the theater to 'standing room only' capacity to see
vaudeville comedian Eddie Foy, Annabelle Whitford and a performance
troupe of 500, in the musical comedy, "Mr. Bluebeard". Foy, ridiculously
dressed in drag, kept the audience laughing happily through the
frolicking first act. After a short intermission, Joseph Dillea's
pit orchestra struck up the first bars of a tune called "In the
Pale Moonlight" as the second act started about 3:15pm with the
chorus on stage, singing and dancing.
Out of sight,
suspended by ropes high above the stage, were thousands of square
feet of painted canvas scenery flats. On a catwalk, amid the scenery,
stagehand William McMullen saw a bit of the canvas brush against
a hot reflector behind a calcium arc spotlight. A tiny flame erupted.
McMullen tried to crush it out with his hand but it was two inches
beyond his reach.
fire spread. The on-duty fireman tried desperately to stop the blaze,
but was only equipped with two tubes of a patent powder called Kilfyres,
which was completely ineffective on the fire. Foy had just walked
onstage when an overhead light shorted and sparked, splashing rivulets
of fire onto a velvet curtain and flammable props.
When a bit of burning scenery fell among the singers, they fled
from the stage in a rush. The orchestra played on as Foy ran to
the footlights and tried to calm the crowd. "Everything is under
control," he said just as a mass of burning debris fell at his feet.
He shouted to the stage manager to drop the theater's asbestos curtain.
To his horror, the protective curtain snagged a projecting light
fixture and jammed in its wooden tracks. The frightened singers
and dancers, waiting backstage, fled from the stage door at the
rear of the theater. That singular act sealed the Iroquois' doom.
The sudden draft of icy air rushed in through the open door, billowing
the flames under the partially-lowered asbestos curtain. The fireball
reached over the heads of those on the first floor like the arm
of a demon, spanning the 50-foot gap to the balconies. Everything
combustible ignited instantly. With one accord, the audience made
a rush to the doors.
"A sort of
cyclone came from behind," Foy reported. "And there seemed to be
an explosion." As the stage started collapsing, the audience bolted
for the twenty-seven exits, only to find many of them with iron
gates covering them. Some of the gates were locked, while others
were unlocked but opening them required operation of a small lever
of a type unfamiliar to most theater patrons. Other doors opened
inwards. Those in front were trampled and crushed against the doors
by the onrush of humanity.
In darkness, the living clawed over bodies piled 10 high around
doors and windows, especially in the stairwell area exits from the
balcony to the main floor. Other fatalities occurred as fire broke
out underneath an alley fire escape, causing people above the fire
to jump. The first to jump died as they hit the hard pavement. Later
jumpers landed on the bodies and survived. Patrons also jumped from
the balcony to the main floor of the theater with the same effect.
Within fifteen minutes, it was all over. By the time firefighters
arrived, the auditorium was silent. Firemen snuffed out the blaze
within half an hour, but hope did not survive.
and seventy five were dead; at least 27 more would die from their
injuries. Families were devastated and torn apart, women and children
suffering the most. Among the 500 performers and backstage personnel,
only the tightrope artist caught high above the stage died. A temporary
morgue was set up nearby to allow friends and relatives to identify
the victims. Many of the victims were buried in Montrose, Forest
Home and Graceland cemeteries in Chicago.
fire, with 602 casualties, was the deadliest blaze in Chicago history,
second in the United States and fourth worldwide. In the United
States, the disaster was unmatched even by the Great Chicago Fire
of 1871, which killed 250, or the 1942 Coconut Grove night club
blaze in Boston, which claimed 490 lives.
inquest began within a week. Over two hundred witnesses testified.
It was a national sensation, exposing unbelievable laxity on the
part of the theater and city officials charged with public safety.
Hearings revealed that 'complimentary' tickets motivated city inspectors
to ignore the fire code and let the theater open. Theater principals,
building owners, Chicago Mayor Carter H. Harrison and others were
indicted, but those cases eventually were dismissed on technicalities.
The only person to serve a jail term was a tavern keeper whose nearby
saloon was used as a temporary morgue. He was convicted of robbing
Not one of
the injured survivors or victims' relatives ever collected a cent
shut down 170 theaters, halls and churches for a months-long re-inspection
that left 6,000 people unemployed. Under the new laws, the fire
code was changed to require theater doors to open outwards, to have
exits clearly marked and fire curtains made of steel. Also, theater
management were now required to practice fire drills with ushers
and theater personnel.
which sustained only light interior damage, was repaired and reopened
less than a year later as the Colonial Theater. In 1926, it was
torn down to make way for the Oriental Theatre.