The Iroquois Theater Fire (December 30, 1903 in Chicago, Illinois) was the deadliest single-building fire in U.S. history. The blaze took 571 lives within 20 minutes, and including those who died in the hospital, the death count climbed to a total of 602.
The Iroquois Theater, at 24-28 West Randolph Street, on the north side between State and Dearborn Streets, was advertised as "Absolutely Fireproof" on its playbills. Yet the construction and opening of the theater had been rushed in six months to take advantage of the holiday crowds with much being incomplete. The theater opened on November 23 and burned 37 days later on December 30. Versus the 1,724 seating capacity, nearly 2,000 patrons, mostly women and children on the holidays school break, were in attendance at this Wednesday matinée showing of the popular musical Mr. Bluebeard starring Eddie Foy and Annabelle Whitford and a performance troupe of 500.
At about 3:15 P.M., late in the second act, an arc light shorted and ignited a muslin curtain which then spread to the backdrops, high above the stage, where thousands of square feet of painted canvas scenery flats were hung. The backstage glow of the fire was mistaken by some in the audience as special effects. The 6 canisters of firefighting equipment on hand were ineffective, and the protective asbestos fire curtain between the stage and the audience could not be lowered at first as its operator was hospitalized that day and the substitute was not versed in its use. And then it failed to drop completely, sticking midway on its wooden rails as it caught on the pre-deployed trolley-wire for the flight of the fairy above the audience.
Comedian Eddie Foy was hailed as a hero for attempting to calm the crowd. According to Foy, "It struck me as I looked out over the crowd during the first act that I had never before seen so many women and children in the audience. Even the gallery was full of mothers and children." Foy's role in this disaster is recreated by Bob Hope in the film The Seven Little Foys.
Still performing up to the point the fire went out of control, the actors and dancers fled through a huge double scenery backstage door, and the influx of near-zero Chicago chilled winter air fueled a huge fireball blowing past those on the main floor but incinerating those still in the gallery and the balcony 50 feet (15 m) away. The rooftop ventilation duct work was still incomplete. However, when people opened doors and windows to aid their escape, air began to flow upwards out of the building, and the theater, with its 60-foot (18 m) high ceiling, became like a chimney and the flames spread.
According to the architect, Benjamin H. Marshall, the theater was replete with elegant marble and extra mahogany wood trim, and for aesthetics many of the fire exit doors in the auditorium were hidden behind curtains and were not marked.
As was the custom at the time, all of the doorways opened inwards, but more importantly, the metal doors of the fire exits were equipped with bascule locks. Bascule locks were used in European theaters but were virtually unknown to Americans and required the operation of a small lever. The few patrons who found the doors were unable to open the locks. One patron had a bascule lock in his home and was able to open one door, another was broken by brute force, and a third opened when patrons were trying to force it open and an explosive blast caused the door to finally give way.
Most of the lobby doors were locked. The balcony stairs were blocked by locked gates. Despite the holiday overcrowding, with over 200 patrons left standing in the aisles and behind the last row, the gates were still locked by custom during the show to prevent the balcony patrons from sneaking down to the more expensive seats.
Unfinished fire escapes of this six-story tall building prevented many people from escaping alive or without injury, over 100 bodies lay in the alleys after the fire, but their bodies ending up saving the lives of many as they cushioned the landing of those who were pushed or jumped. Because of the flames and heavy smoke, the attending firefighters and many of the jumpers were unable to make good use of the safety nets.
Students from the Northwestern University building across from one alley tried bridging the gap with a ladder and then with some boards between the rooftops, saving those few able to manage the makeshift cross over.
Corpses were piled 10 bodies or 7 feet (2.1 m) high, around the doors and windows, having clambered over each other only to succumb to the flames, smoke and gases; 575 people died that day, and hundreds were hurt. Another 30 would die from their injuries in the following weeks. Many of the victims were buried in Montrose, Forest Home and Graceland cemeteries.
Of the 300 or so actors, dancers, and stagehands, only an aerialist (Nellie Reed), an actor in a bit part, an usher, and two female attendants died. The aerialist's role was as a fairy. She was to fly out over the audience on a trolley wire, showering them with pink carnations. She was trapped above the stage while waiting for her entrance, and though rescued, died of her burns a couple of days later.
In New York City on New Year's Eve some theaters eliminated standing room. Building and fire codes were subsequently reformed, theaters were closed for retrofitting all around the country and in some cities in Europe. All theater exits had to be clearly marked and the doors rigged so that, even if they could not be pulled open from the outside, they could be pushed open from the inside.
After the fire, it was revealed that fire inspectors had been bribed with free tickets to overlook code violations. Accusations began to appear that the asbestos curtain was not asbestos. The curtain had disappeared, which meant it was either viewed as incriminating evidence and removed or had burned, in which case it could not have been asbestos, which does not burn. Regardless, the mayor ordered all theaters in Chicago closed for a week after the fire.
As a result of public outrage, many were charged with crimes, including Mayor Carter Harrison, Jr., some with involuntary manslaughter. But most charges were dismissed three years later because of the delaying tactics of the owners' lawyers and their use of loopholes and inadequacies in the city's building and safety ordinances. The only person convicted was a tavern keeper charged with robbing the dead. By 1907, 30 families of the victims were financially compensated for their loss, receiving a settlement of $750 each (~$17,117 in 2008 dollars).
The exterior of the Iroquois was largely intact and reopened as the Colonial Theater, which was torn down in 1926 to make way for the Oriental Theater.
The screams of the children for their mothers and mothers for their children I shall carry in my memory to my dying day.— Frank Slosson, Secretary-Treasurer of the Bain Wagon Works, survivor
On the afternoon of December 30, 1903, during a sold-out matinee performance, a fire broke out in Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre. In the short span of twenty minutes, more than six hundred people, two thirds of whom were women and children, were asphyxiated, burned, or trampled to death in a panicked mob’s failed attempt to escape. A century after the fire—the deadliest in American history—Nat Brandt provides the only detailed chronicle of this horrific event to assess not only the titanic tragedy of the fire itself but also the municipal corruption and greed that kindled the flames beforehand and the political cover-ups hidden in the smoke and ash afterwards.
Advertised as “absolutely fireproof,” the Iroquois was Chicago’s most modern playhouse when it opened in the fall of 1903. With the approval of the city’s building department, theater developers Harry J. Powers and William J. Davis opened the theater prematurely to take full advantage of the holiday crowds, ignoring flagrant safety violations in the process. During the matinee on this particular Wednesday, all 1,724 seats were filled and an additional two hundred people were standing.
Midway through the second act, a spark from a defective light ignited a drop curtain and the blaze spread quickly to the scenery. Roof vents designed to handle smoke and heat were sealed off, and the fire curtain snagged before it could shield the audience from danger. A blast of gaseous fumes shot across the auditorium from an open stage door and asphyxiated hundreds of theatergoers almost instantly. Others were trampled or burned to death in the panic that ensued as they struggled to escape through locked exits, succeeding only in piling body upon body as the flames closed in.
For days afterward, Chicago mourned as relatives and friends searched hospitals for missing loved ones. The aftermath of the fire proved to be a study in the miscarriage of justice. Despite overwhelming evidence that the building was not complete, that fire safety laws were ignored, and that management had deliberately sealed off exits during the performance, no one was ever convicted or otherwise held accountable for the enormous loss of life.
Lavishly illustrated and featuring an introduction by Chicago historians Perry R. Duis and Cathlyn Schallhorn, Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903 is rich with vivid details about this horrific disaster, captivatingly presented in human terms without losing sight of the broader historical context.
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.
The charred interior of the Iroquois TheaterLocated 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.
Quickly the 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.
The Iroquois Theater, the newest and most beautiful showplace in Chicago in 1903, was believed to be "absolutely fireproof". The Chicago Tribune called it a "virtual temple of beauty" but just five weeks after it opened its doors, it became a blazing death trap.
The new theater was much acclaimed, even before it opened. It was patterned after the Opera Cominque in Paris and was located downtown on the north side of Randolph Street, between State and Dearborn. The interior of the four-story building was magnificent, with stained glass and polished wood throughout.
The lobby had an ornate 60-foot-high ceiling and featured white marble walls fitted with large mirrors that were framed in gold leaf and stone. Two grand staircases led away from either side of the lobby to the balcony areas as well. Outside, the building’s front façade resembled a Greek temple with a towering stone archway that was supported by massive columns.
Thanks to the dozens of fires that had occurred over the years in theaters, architect Benjamin H. Marshall wanted to assure the public that the Iroquois was safe. He studied a number of fires that had occurred in the past and made every effort to make sure that no tragedy would occur in the new theater. The Iroquois had 25 exits that, it was claimed, could empty the building in less than five minutes. The stage had also been fitted with an asbestos curtain that could be quickly lowered to protect the audience.