The Iroquois Theatre fire happened on December 30, 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.
The Iroquois Theatre was at 24–28 West Randolph Street, between State Street and Dearborn Street, in Chicago. The syndicate that bankrolled its construction chose the location specifically to attract women on day trips from out of town who, it was thought, would be more comfortable attending a theater near the safe, police-patrolled Loop shopping district.The theater opened on November 23, 1903 after numerous delays due to labor unrest and, according to one writer, the unexplained inability of architect Benjamin Marshall to complete required drawings on time. Upon opening it was lauded by drama critics; Walter K. Hill wrote in the New York Clipper (a predecessor of Variety) that the Iroquois was “the most beautiful … in Chicago, and competent judges state that few theaters in America can rival its architectural perfections …”
The Iroquois had a capacity of 1,602 with three audience levels. The main floor, known as the orchestra or parquet, had approximately 700 seats on the same level as the foyer and Grand Stair Hall. The second level, the dress circle or [first] balcony, had more than 400 seats. The third level, the gallery, had about 500 seats. There were four boxes on the first level and two above.
The theater had only one entrance. A broad stairway which led from the foyer to the balcony level was also used to reach the stairs to the gallery level. Theater designers claimed this allowed patrons to “see and be seen” regardless of the price of their seats. However, the common stairway ignored Chicago fire ordinances that required separate stairways and exits for each balcony. The design proved disastrous: people exiting the gallery encountered a crowd leaving the balcony level, and people descending from the upper levels met the orchestra level patrons in the foyer. The backstage areas were unusually large. Dressing rooms were on five levels, and an elevator was available to transport actors down to the stage level. A fly gallery (where scenery was hung) was also uncommonly large.
The Iroquois Theatre, following the tragedy, was renamed and reopened as the Colonial Theatre in 1904. It remained active until the building was demolished in 1925. In 1926, the Oriental Theatre was built on the site.
Fire readiness deficiencies noted before the fire
Despite being billed as “Absolutely Fireproof” in advertisements and playbills,[ numerous deficiencies in fire readiness were apparent:
- An editor of Fireproof Magazine toured the building during construction and noted “the absence of an intake, or stage draft shaft; the exposed reinforcement of the (proscenium) arch; the presence of wood trim on everything and the inadequate provision of exits.”
- A Chicago Fire Department captain who made an unofficial tour of the theater days before the official opening noted that there were no sprinklers, alarms, telephones, or water connections. The captain pointed out the deficiencies to the theater’s fire warden but was told that nothing could be done, as the fire warden would simply be dismissed if he brought the matter up with the syndicate of owners. When the captain reported the matter to his commanding officer, he was again told that nothing could be done, as the theater already had a fire warden.
- The onsite firefighting equipment consisted of six “Kilfyre” extinguishers. Kilfyre was a form of dry chemical fire extinguisher also sold for dousing chimney fires in residential houses. It consisted of a 2″ × 24″ tube of tin filled with about three pounds of white powder, mostly sodium bicarbonate. The user was instructed to “forcibly hurl” the contents of the tube at the base of the flames. The fire began high above the stage, so the Kilfyre, when thrown, fell uselessly to the ground.
On December 30, 1903, a Wednesday, the Iroquois presented a matinee performance of the popular Drury Lane musical Mr. Blue Beard, 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 credited 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 them 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. Several performers and stagehands facilitated themselves an escape through the building’s main rear exit, which consisted of an unusually large set of stock double doors that would have normally served the purpose of moving large fly sceneries and set pieces or props into the backstage area of the theater. When this was opened an icy wind blast rushed inside fueling the flames with unspent oxygen and making the fire substantially bigger. Many escaped from the burning 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 30 uniformed police matrons were called in, because of the number of female casualties.
Corpses were piled 10 high around the doors and windows. Many patrons had clambered over piles of bodies only to succumb themselves to the flames, smoke, and gases. It is estimated that 575 people were killed on the day of the fire; at least 30 more died of injuries over the following weeks. (The Great Chicago Fire, by comparison, claimed the lives of approximately 300 people.) Many of the Chicago victims were buried in Montrose, Forest Home, Calvary, Saint Boniface, Oak Woods, Rosehill and Graceland cemeteries.
Of the 300 or so actors, dancers, and stagehands, only five people died: the aerialist (Nellie Reed), an actor in a bit part, an usher, and two female attendants. The aerialist’s role was to fly out as a fairy over the audience on a trolley wire, showering them with pink carnations. She was trapped above the stage while waiting for her entrance; during the fire she fell, was gravely injured, and died of burns and internal injuries three 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 configured 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 alleged that fire inspectors had been bribed with free tickets to overlook code violations. The mayor ordered all theaters in Chicago closed for six weeks after the fire.
As a result of public outrage, many were charged with crimes, including Mayor Carter Harrison, Jr. Most charges were dismissed three years later, however, because of the delaying tactics of the owners’ lawyers and their use of loopholes and inadequacies in the city’s building and safety ordinances. Levy Mayer was the defender of the theater and its manager, Will Davis. The exterior of the Iroquois was largely intact. The building later reopened as the Colonial Theater, which was demolished in 1925 to make way for the Oriental Theater.
Additional factors reducing survivability
Protecting the audience from hazards onstage
The risks inherent in flammable scenery and props were recognized even in 1903. Two features, a safety curtain that confines fire to the stage area and smoke doors that allow smoke and heat to escape through the roof above the stage, combine to increase fire safety in theaters. This arrangement creates negative pressure; the stage area becomes a chimney, and fresh, breathable air is sucked through the exit doors into the audience area. At the Iroquois, the smoke doors above the stage were fastened closed. This meant that smoke flowed out of the building through many of the same exits people were trying to use to escape.
- Skylights on the roof of the stage, which were intended to open automatically during a fire and allow smoke and heat to escape, were fastened closed.
- The curtain was not tested periodically, and it got stuck when the theater personnel tried to lower it.
- The curtain was not fireproof. Curtains made with asbestos interwoven with wire create a strong and effective barrier against fire. The asbestos curtain at the Iroquois not only failed to lower but also proved to be both weak and flammable. Chemist Gustave J. Johnson of the Western Society of Engineers analyzed a piece of the material after the fire: “[It] was largely wood pulp. By mixing pulp with asbestos fiber, the life of the curtain is prolonged, the cost is cheapened, and the wire foundation may be dispensed with… It results in a curtain that may get inside city ordinances, but is of no value in a fire.”
The owners of the theater claimed that the 30 exits would allow everyone inside to escape the building in five minutes. Audiences in 1903 were aware of the hazard of fire, particularly after more than 440 people died in the Ringtheater fire in Vienna, Austria.
- Exit doors opened inward, into the auditorium. The crowd pressed against the doors keeping them closed. When people were able to pull the doors open enough to get out, some people were then wedged in the door opening as people continued to push on the door. Today, exit doors open outward, so that people trying to escape will tend to hold the doors open.
- There were no exit signs. Many exits were concealed by flammable drapery, and many were locked.
- Theater staff had never had a fire drill. They were unfamiliar with the exits and some refused to open locked exit doors.
- There was no emergency lighting. The main auditorium lights were never switched on, so the theater remained dimly lit, as during a performance. When tons of burning scenery collapsed onto the stage, the electrical switchboard was destroyed and all electric lights went out.
- During performances, the stairways were blocked with iron gates to prevent people with inexpensive tickets from taking seats in other parts of the theater. (On the day of the fire, there were no empty seats in the house.)
- Many of the exit routes were confusing.
- There were several ornamental “doors” that looked like exits, but were not. Two hundred people died in one passageway that was not an exit.
- Iron fire escapes on the north wall led to at least 125 deaths. The upper platform had no way of getting down. People were trapped on all levels because the icy, narrow stairs and ladders were dangerous to use and because smoke and flames blocked the way down.
A bronze bas-relief memorial by sculptor Lorado Taft with no identifying markings was placed inside the LaSalle Street entrance to City Hall. The Chicago Tribune described the marker December 31, 1911, as depicting “the Motherhood of the World protecting the children of the universe, the body of a child borne on a litter by herculean male figures, with a bereaved mother bending over it”. The memorial was in the Iroquois Hospital on Wacker until the building was demolished in 1951. It was placed in storage in City Hall until it was installed in its current location, near the building’s LaSalle Street entrance, in 1960. The memorial was rededicated on November 5, 2010, and a descriptive plaque was donated by the Union League Club of Chicago. The dedication was attended by members of the Chicago City Council, the Union League Club and Taft’s granddaughter. Chicago held an annual memorial service at City Hall, until the last survivors died. Five years after the fire, Andrew Kircher, founder of Montrose Cemetery, erected a memorial on the grounds to memorialize the tragedy.
The Iroquois fire prompted widespread implementation of the panic bar, first invented in the United Kingdom following the Victoria Hall disaster. Panic exit devices are now required by building codes for high-occupancy spaces, and were mass manufactured in the US following the fire by the Von Duprin company (now part of Allegion). A second result of the fire was the requirement that an asbestos fire curtain (or sheet metal screen) be raised before each performance and lowered afterward to separate the audience from the stage. The third result was that all doors in public buildings must open in the direction of egress, but that practice did not become national until the Collinwood School Fire of 1908.
In popular culture
Eddie Foy’s role in this disaster, as the actor who encouraged patrons to make an orderly exit, was recreated by Bob Hope in the film The Seven Little Foys. In 2011, the Neo-Futurists theater company in Chicago produced a show Burning Bluebeard by Jay Torrence, which recounts the story of the Iroquois fire from the perspective of the performers, including Eddie Foy. The play received critical praise and was named one of the “2011 Best of Fringe” by the Chicago Tribune, one of the “Top Five Funniest Shows of 2011” by WBEZ Radio and one of the “Twelve Outstanding Ensembles of 2011” by Time Out Chicago’s Kris Vire. The Ruffians theater company has remounted the production during the Christmas holiday period each year since 2013, mostly with the original cast.