Thursday, December 29, 2016

Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903 was the deadliest theatre and single-structure fire in the United States history, claiming over 602 lives in Chicago, Illinois.

On Wednesday, December 30,1903, the deadliest theatre and single-structure fires in United States history occurred at Chicago's new "Iroquois Theatre," at the northeast corner of Randolph and Dearborn Streets 79-83 Randolph (after the 1911 Loop Renumbering; 36 West Randolph Street), during the standing-room-only matinée performance starring the famous comedian Eddie Foy.

Regular "Iroquois" Prices: $1.50, $1.00, 75¢, 50¢
The fire claimed the lives of more than 602 people, including scores of children, who were packed into the place for the afternoon show.

The Iroquois Theatre was much acclaimed, even before it opened. In addition to being "absolutely fireproof," it was a beautiful place with an ornate lobby, grand staircases, and a front facade that resembled a Greek temple with massive columns. The theatre was designed to be safe, and it 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. It would have been impressive if it had been installed and the staff had any idea how to use the existing safety devices.
A view of the stage from the balcony shows the devastation of the fire.
And those were not even the worst problems. Seats in the theatre were wooden and stuffed with hemp. "Unattractive" safety doors were hidden from sight, and gates were locked across the entrance to the balcony during the show so that those in the "cheap seats" wouldn't sneak into the main theatre.
The building had no fire alarms, and many other safety equipment had been forgotten or ignored, leading to the ever-popular "Chicago pay-offs" to officials who allowed the new theatre to open on schedule anyway.
A photograph was taken from the stage of the fire-blackened theatre. 
As crowds filled the theatre on that cold December day in 1903, they had no idea how close their way was to meet their deaths. The horrific events began soon after the holiday crowd had packed into the theatre on Wednesday afternoon to see a matinee performance of the hit comedy Mr. Bluebeard. The main floor and balcony were packed; dozens more were given "standing-room-only" tickets, and they lined the rear and walls of the theatre.
The balcony of the theatre had the greatest loss of life. Theatre patrons were trapped there by gates that were locked across the stairways and then abandoned by theatre staff after the fire began. Others raced for the fire escapes—only to find that they had never been installed. Many in the balcony burned to death or plunged to their death outside the alleyway.
At the beginning of the second act, stagehands noticed a spark descend from an overhead light and watched some scraps of burning paper fall onto the stage. In moments, flames began licking at the red velvet curtain, and while a collective gasp went up from the audience, no one rushed for the exits. It's believed the audience merely thought the fire was part of the show.

A few moments later, a flaming set crashed onto the stage, leaving little doubt that something had gone wrong. A stagehand attempted to lower the asbestos curtain that would protect the audience, and it snagged halfway down, sending a wall of flame out into the audience.

Actors on stage panicked and ran for the doors. Chaos filled the auditorium as the audience rushed for the theatre's Randolph Street entrance. With children in tow, the audience members immediately clogged the gallery and the upper balconies. The aisles had become impassable, and as the lights went out, the crowd milled about in blind terror. The auditorium began to fill with heat and smoke, and screams echoed off the walls and ceilings. Through it all, the mass continued to move forward, but when the crowd reached the doors, they could not open them. The doors had been designed to swing inward rather than outward.
The crush of people prevented those in the front from opening the doors. Many of those who died burned and suffocated from the smoke and the crush of bodies. Later, as the police removed the charred remains from the theatre, they discovered several victims had been trampled in the panic. One dead woman's face even bore the mark of a shoe heel.
Backstage, theatre employees and cast members opened a rear set of double doors, which sucked the wind inside and caused flames to fan out under the asbestos curtain and into the auditorium. A second gust of wind created a fireball that shot out into the galleries and balconies filled with people. All of the stage drops were now on fire, and as they burned, they engulfed the supposedly noncombustible asbestos curtain, and when it collapsed, it plunged into the seats of the theatre.

The fire burned for almost 15 minutes before an alarm was raised at a box down the street. There appeared to be nothing wrong from the outside, and it was so quiet that the first firefighters thought it was a false alarm.

This changed when they tried to open the auditorium doors and found they could not—too many bodies stacked against them. They were only able to gain access by actually pulling the bodies out of the way with pike poles, peeling them off one another, and then climbing over the stacks of corpses. It took only 10 minutes to put out the blaze, as the intense heat inside had already eaten up anything that would still burn. The firefighters made their way into the blackened auditorium and were met with only silence and the smell of death. They called out for survivors, but no one answered their cry.

The gallery and upper balconies sustained the greatest loss of life as the patrons had been trapped by locked doors at the top of the stairways. The firefighters found 200 bodies stacked there, as many as 10 deep. Those who escaped had literally ripped the metal bars from the front of the balcony and had jumped onto the crowds below. Even then, most of these met their deaths at a lower level.
Bodies of the dead lined up in the alley behind the theatre. Newspaper reporters dubbed this alleyway, officially known as Couch Place, "Death Alley" after the fire, and it still remains one of the most haunted spots in Chicago.
A few who reached the fire escape door behind the top balcony found the iron staircase missing. In its place was a platform that plunged about 100 feet to the cobblestone alley below. Across the alley, behind the theatre, painters were working on a building occupied by Northwestern University's dental school. When they realized what was happening at the theatre, they quickly erected a makeshift bridge using ladders and wooden planks, extending across the alley to the fire escape platform. Reports vary regarding how many they saved, but several people climbed across the bridge.
Several plunged to their deaths as they tried to escape across the ladder, but many times, that number jumped from the ledge or was pushed by the milling crowd that pressed through the doors behind them. The passageway behind the theatre is still called "Death Alley" today after nearly 150 victims were found here.
When it was over, 572 people died in the fire, and more died later, bringing the eventual death toll up to 602, including 212 children. For nearly five hours, police officers, firemen, and even newspaper reporters carried out the dead. Anxious relatives sifted through the remains, searching for loved ones. Other bodies were taken away by police wagons and ambulances and transported to a temporary morgue at Marshall Field's on State Street. Medical examiners and investigators worked all through the night.
Two of Frank Lloyd Wright's sons, John, eleven, and Frank Jr., thirteen years old, escaped from the Iroquois Theatre with Flora Tobin, their grandmotherCatherine Lee Tobin Wright was Frank Lloyd Wright's first wife, and Flora Tobin was Catherine's mother. Catherine and Frank were married in 1890 and were divorced in 1923. [NOTE: "Flora was known in the family as "Blue Gramma," given the name by color-blind Frank Lloyd Wright Jr., who saw her red hair as blue."]
This view of the Iroquois Theatre outside was taken after 4:00 PM on December 30, 1903.
The city went into mourning. Newspapers carried lists and photographs of the dead, and the mayor banned all New Year's celebrations. An investigation into the fire brought to light several troubling facts. The investigation discovered that the supposedly "fireproof" asbestos curtain was made from cotton and other combustible materials and would have never saved anyone. In addition to not having any fire alarms in the building, the owners had decided that sprinklers were too unsightly and too costly and had never had them installed.

To make matters worse, the management also established a policy to keep non-paying customers from slipping into the theatre during a performance—they quietly bolted nine pairs of iron panels over the rear doors and installed padlocked, accordion-style gates at the top of the interior second—and third-floor stairway landings. Just as tragic was the idea they came up with to keep the audience from being distracted during a show: They ordered all of the exit lights to be turned off.

The investigation led to a cover-up by officials from the city and the fire department, who denied all knowledge of fire code violations. They blamed the inspectors, who had overlooked the problems in exchange for free theatre passes. A grand jury indicted several individuals, including the theatre owners, fire officials, and even the mayor. No one was ever charged with a criminal act. Families of the dead filed nearly 275 civil lawsuits against the theatre, but no money was ever collected.

The Iroquois Fire still ranks today as one of the deadliest in history. Nevertheless, the building was repaired and reopened briefly in 1904 as Hyde and Behmann's Music Hall and then in 1905 as the Colonial Theatre.

In 1924, the building was razed to make room for a new theatre, the Oriental, but the facade of the Iroquois was used in its construction. The Oriental operated at what is now 24 West Randolph Street until the middle part of 1981 when it fell into disrepair and was closed down. It opened again as the home to a wholesale electronics dealer for a time and then went dark again. The restored theatre is now part of the Civic Tower Building and is next to the restored Delaware Building. 

It reopened as the Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theatre in 1998; however, it is commonly called simply the Oriental Theatre.

But this has not stopped the tales of the old Iroquois Theatre from being told, especially in light of more recent -- and more ghostly events. According to recent accounts from people who live and work in this area, "Death Alley" is not as empty as it appears. The narrow passageway, which runs behind the Oriental Theatre, is rarely used today, except for the occasional delivery truck or a pedestrian hurrying to get somewhere else. It is largely deserted, but why? The stories say that those few who do pass through the alley often find themselves very uncomfortable and unsettled here. They say that faint cries are sometimes heard in the shadows and that some have reported being touched by unseen hands and by eerie cold spots that seem to come from nowhere and vanish just as quickly.
Panoramic view into Couch Place Alley (Death Alley) and the Chicago Theatre used to be adjacent to the Iroquois Theatre. This alley in downtown Chicago held a six-foot-high pile of bodies of over 600 dead people after the Iroquois Theatre fire.

Could the alleyway and the surrounding area actually be haunted? And do the spirits of those who met their tragic end inside the burning theatre still linger here? Perhaps the strange sensations experienced here are "ghosts of the past" of another kind. A chilling remembrance of a terrifying event that will never be forgotten entirely.
Iroquois Theatre Memorial at the Montrose Cemetery, 5400 North Pulaski Road, Chicago, Illinois.



  1. Incredible story about Chicago’s infamy of graft, corruption and pointing fingers to others. It’s amazing no one went to prison, no one was forced to pay any of the survivors or perished people’s families any fines.


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