On Wednesday, December 30, 1903 the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago, Illinois was holding a matinee of the musical comedy Mr. Bluebeard‘, starring the popular comedian, Eddie Foy.
he luxury, Renaissance-style theatre had opened only a few weeks prior on November 23 and was touted as being “fireproof beyond all doubt”. Despite rushing to finish construction on the 1.1 million dollar theatre in time for the holiday busy season, the Iroquois had failed, so far, in attracting large audiences. ut on December 30, 1903, more than two-thousand people flocked to see the matinee of Mr. Bluebeard. Although the theatre’s capacity was only 1,602, none were turned away for the performance. In fact, standing room only areas were so crowded many audience members had to sit or stand in the aisles, blocking the exits.
The Iroquois had three seating levels: the main floor and two balconies, as well as boxed seating to the sides of the theatre. Theatre owners were concerned those who had bought less-expensive balcony seating may try to sneak down to the main floor after the show had begun. They were also incredibly paranoid people may attempt to walk in off the street without paying for a ticket. To combat this, they had installed iron gates at the base of the stairwells which were locked by ushers at the beginning of each show. Despite there being thirty exit doors in the theatre, the vast majority of which were double-doors, twenty-seven of them were locked during the production. Those that were left unlocked would prove to make escape difficult as from the outside, they were four feet off the ground. Both balcony levels had several doors which led out to the main staircase; Unfortunately, many of these doors were hidden by curtains for aesthetic purposes and all were fitted with a bascule lock. Although this type of lock is popular in some countries, the Chicago population would have been entirely unfamiliar with it.
After visiting the Iriqous Theatre before its opening, William Clendenin of Fireproof Magazine wrote a scathing editorial of the building. In it, he pointed out the theatre’s many fire hazards: The stairwells were shared by all three levels of the theatre, there was no sprinkler system over the stage, the sprinklers that were installed were not connected to a water, there no fire alarm system and highly flammable wood trim was used throughout the structure. Despite the dangers, the audiences listened to Ed Laughlin, the Chicago building commissioner at that time and theatre owners who still insisted the building was “fireproof”.
The audience that day was largely comprised of women and children. Many adolescents had come to the theatre with groups of friends, and without their parents. It was reported that on that day, stage manager Bill Carlton was not backstage as he should have been but instead, went to sit in the audience to watch the show.
At around 3:15, just before Act II, the cast was singing “In the Pale Moonlight” when a spotlight caused a sparked and ignited a muslin backdrop, hanging high on the stage. Stagehands attempted to combat the fire with small fire extinguishers without interrupting the performance. As the fire grew, they began frantically hitting the backdrop with sticks drawing the attention of the actors on stage as well as the audience. The performance stopped as stagehands continued to fight the growing flames. The audience began to panic and stampede towards the exits. Eddie Foy, whose son was in the audience that day, came on stage and instructed the crowd to calm down. He had a stagehand retrieve his son from the audience and take him to safety then assured the crowd an asbestos curtain would be dropped to prevent the fire from spreading into the audience. The curtain began to drop but then snagged on a light reflector hanging down in its path. This sent the audience into a frenzy. Still, Eddie Foy tried to calm them and instructed the orchestra to “Play an overture! Play anything! Play, play, play, play!”, as burning pieces of the set fell all around him. Many believe if the stage manager, who better knew how to operate the curtain, had been backstage that day, he could have managed to lower it; However, it was later discovered the fire curtain was actually made mostly of wood pulp in order to cut down on costs and would not have protected the audience from the flames even if it had lowered properly. Shortly after, the light in the theatre cut out.
Many people, children especially, were crushed to death by the stampede of terrified theatergoers rushing towards the exit and fighting their way closer to the door. The teenage ushers fled in fear without opening the any of the twenty-seven locked exits. Luckily, a few patrons managed to open the odd bascule locks, allowing some in the upper levels of the theatre to escape. However, they were horrified to find the ladders on the fire escapes were frozen and unable to be lowered. Some took their chances and jumped into the alleyway below; Many were killed. Those who followed were saved only because the pile of bodies beneath them softened their fall. Painters across the street, working in a Northwestern University building, saw the horrific scene outside and were able to place boards between the window and the fire escape at the Iriquois. This makeshift bridge saved the life of a dozen people. By that point, the actors and stagehands had made their way to the backstage exit. When they opened the door to escape, a gust of cold wind created a fireball which swept through the audience of the theatre, killing everyone who had not yet escaped or already been suffocated by the smoke. It continued out through the open exits, also killing those waiting to make their way to safety on the makeshift bridge. Because the Iroquois had no fire alarm box or telephones, the firefighters were only alerted to the emergency after a stagehand ran to the nearest fire department.
Inside, the scene was hellish. Rescue workers who made their way to the second balcony, the highest level of the theatre with the least amount of survivors, reported seeing a “wall of bodies” stacked so high they could not see past the door. Most bodies were burned beyond recognition and had become tangled togeather in their frantic struggle to escape. Although initially first responders believed everyone inside was dead, when they began to remove bodies, they discovered some survivors who had been shielded from the flames by others piled on top of them.
At least 602 people perished in the Iriqous Theatre fire, most of them were women and children. The death toll was so high, many local businesses acted as makeshift morgues following the tragic event. One was a nearby saloon; The saloon’s owner was sent to jail after it was discovered he had stolen valuables from the corpses.
Unfortunately, those who were to blame for the fire faced less consequences than the saloon owner.
To learn more about the victims of the Iroquois Theatre Fire visit www.iroquoistheater.com
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