December 30th, 1903 – The Iroquois Theatre Fire

Today-In-History

The Iroquois Theatre fire happened on December 30th, 1903 in Chicago, Illinois. It was the deadliest theater fire and the deadliest single-building fire in United States history. At least 602 people died as a result of the fire, but not all the deaths were reported, as some of the bodies were removed from the scene.

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On December 30, 1903, a Wednesday, the Iroquois presented a matinee performance of the popular Drury Lane musical Mr. Bluebeard, which had been playing at the Iroquois since opening night. The play, a burlesque of the traditional Bluebeard folk tale, featured Dan McAvoy as Bluebeard and Eddie Foy as Sister Anne, a role that let him showcase his physical comedy skills. Attendance since opening night had been disappointing, people having been driven away by poor weather, labor unrest, and other factors. The December 30 performance drew a much larger sellout audience. Tickets were sold for every seat in the house, plus hundreds more for the “standing room” areas at the back of the theater. Many of the estimated 2,100–2,200 patrons attending the matinee were children. The standing room areas were so crowded that some patrons instead sat in the aisles, blocking the exits.

At about 3:15 that afternoon, shortly after the beginning of the second act, eight men and eight women were performing In the Pale Moonlight. Sparks from an arc light ignited a muslin curtain, probably as a result of an electrical short circuit. A stagehand tried to douse the fire with the Kilfyre canisters provided, but it quickly spread to the fly gallery high above the stage. There, several thousand square feet of highly flammable painted canvas scenery flats were hung. The stage manager tried to lower the asbestos fire curtain, but it snagged. Early reports state that it was stopped by the trolley-wire that carried one of the acrobats over the stage, but later investigation showed that the curtain had been blocked by a light reflector which stuck out under the proscenium arch A chemist who later tested part of the curtain stated that it was mainly wood pulp mixed with asbestos, and would have been “of no value in a fire.”

Foy, who was preparing to go on stage at the time, ran out and attempted to calm the crowd, first making sure that his young son was in the care of a stagehand. He later wrote, “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 was widely seen as a hero after the fire for his courage in remaining on stage and pleading with patrons not to panic even as large chunks of burning scenery landed around him.

By this time, many of the patrons on all levels were quickly attempting to flee the theater. Some had found the fire exits hidden behind draperies on the north side of the building, but found that they could not open the unfamiliar bascule locks. Bar owner Frank Houseman, a former baseball player with the Chicago Colts defied an usher who refused to open a door. He was able to open the door because his ice box at home had a similar lock. Houseman credits his friend, outfielder Charlie Dexter, who had just quit the Boston Beaneaters, with forcing open another door. A third door was opened either by brute force or by a blast of air, but most of the other doors could not be opened. Some patrons panicked, crushing or trampling others in a desperate attempt to escape from the fire. Many were killed while trapped in dead ends or while trying to open what looked like doors with windows in but were actually only windows.

The dancers on stage were also forced to flee, along with the performers backstage and in the numerous dressing rooms. When the performers and stagehands went out of the back exit, an icy wind rushed in and made the fire substantially bigger. Many escaped from the theater through the coal hatch and through windows in the dressing rooms, and others tried to escape via the west stage door, which opened inwards and became jammed as actors pressed toward the door frantically trying to get out. By chance a passing railroad agent saw the crowd pressing against the door and unfastened the hinges from the outside using tools that he normally carried with him, allowing the actors and stagehands to escape. Someone else opened the massive double freight doors in the north wall, normally used for scenery, allowing “a cyclonic blast” of cold air to rush into the building and create an enormous fireball. As the vents above the stage were nailed or wired shut, the fireball instead traveled outwards, ducking under the stuck asbestos curtain and streaking toward the vents behind the dress circle and gallery 50 feet (15 m) away. The hot gases and flames passed over the heads of those in the orchestra seats and incinerated everything flammable in the gallery and dress circle levels, including patrons still trapped in those areas.

Those in the orchestra section exited into the foyer and out of the front door, but those in the dress circle and gallery who escaped the fireball could not reach the foyer because the iron grates that barred the stairways were still in place. The largest death toll was at the base of these stairways, where hundreds of people were trampled, crushed, or asphyxiated.

Patrons who were able to escape via the emergency exits on the north side found themselves on the unfinished fire escapes. Many jumped or fell from the icy narrow fire escapes to their deaths; the bodies of the first jumpers broke the falls of those who followed them.

Students from the Northwestern University building north of the theater 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.

The Iroquois had no fire alarm box or telephone. The Chicago Fire Department‘s Engine 13 was alerted to the fire by a stagehand who had been ordered to run from the burning theater to the nearest firehouse. On the way to the scene, at approximately 3:33 pm, a member of Engine 13 activated an alarm box to call additional units. Initial efforts focused on the people trapped on the fire escapes. The alley to the north of the theater, known as Couch Place, was icy, narrow, and full of smoke. Aerial ladders could not be used in the alley and black nets, concealed by the smoke, proved useless.

The Chicago Police Department became involved when an officer patrolling the theater district saw people emerge from the building in a panic, some with clothing on fire. He called in from a police box on Randolph Street, and police, summoned by whistles, soon converged on the scene to control traffic and aid with the evacuation. Some of the city’s thirty uniformed police matrons were called in, because of the number of female casualties.

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


 

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