Iroquois Theater Fire

Iroquois Theater Fire


By the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) records, it is still, as of 2008, the worst single-building fire in U.S. history with the most fatalities. The New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire claimed 148, the Great Chicago Fire killed 250, and the Boston Cocoanut Grove fire totaled 492. [cite journal |url= |journal=NPFA |publisher=National Fire Protection Association |year=2007 |issue=March/April |title=Looking back at 100 years of NFPA Journal]

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. [cite book |url= |isbn=0809324903 |title=Chicago Death Tr
first=Nat |last=Brandt |publisher=Southern Illinois University Press |year=2003 |quote=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
] The theatre opened on November 23 and burned 37 days later on December 30. Versus the 1,724 seating capacity, over 1,900 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.cite journal |url= |title=A Tragedy Remembered |publisher=National Fire Protection Association |journal=NPFA |year=1995 |issue=July/August |quote=Actor Eddie Foy's personal account]


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. [cite web|url=,0,4983614.story|publisher=Chicago Tribune|date=Dec 30th, 1903|title=The Iroquois Theater fire|first=Bob |last=Secter ]

Comedian Eddie Foy was hailed as a hero for attempting to calm the crowd. Foy's role in this disaster is recreated by Bob Hope in the film "The Seven Little Foys".

{| style="background:#eec;" | cquote| 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.

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 convert|50|ft|m away. The rooftop ventilation ductwork was still incomplete and being sealed off caused the theater to become a chimney with its convert|60|ft|m|sing=on high ceiling as the fleeing people opened doors and windows.

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, there were 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 afterwards but cushioning many of those who were pushed or had 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 convert|7|ft|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 theatres eliminated standing room. Building and fire codes were subsequently reformed, theatres 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.

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.


A bronze bas-relief memorial by sculptor Laredo Taft sits without any identifying markings inside the LaSalle Street entrance to City Hall.

Chicago used to hold an annual service at City Hall while there were any people who were involved in the tragedy still alive.cite web |url= |title=Burning Down The House: The 1903 Iroquois Theater Fire |accessmonthday=July 27|accessyear=2007|publisher=Failure Magazine|quote=The Iroquois Theater advertised itself as "absolutely fireproof," it went up in flames six weeks after opening|first=Jason |last=Zasky]


A result from the Iroquois fire was the development of the first panic exit device by the Von Duprin exit device company, now a part of Ingersoll Rand. Panic exit devices are now required by building codes for high-occupancy spaces.



External links


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