Friday, April 28, 2023

Couch Place, an Infamous Alley in Chicago's Loop.

The main walkway next to where the Oriental Theatre is called Couch Place [1]. It's the same alley that was adjacent to the Iroquois Theatre at the northeast corner of Randolph and Dearborn Streets 79-83 Randolph (after the 1911 Loop Renumbering; 36 West Randolph Street).

On Wednesday, December 30,1903, the deadliest theatre and single-structure fires in United States history occurred at Chicago's new "Iroquois Theatre." The first performance at the theatre, a standing-room-only matinée, starred the famous comedian Eddie Foy.

A stage light shorted and sparked during the show, setting fire to the curtain and quickly spreading doom throughout the theatre. Though everyone tried to make a break for it, there were some major flaws in the building design, like how all the fire escapes were unlabeled, locked, and opened inward, and the second-floor fire escape over the alley named Couch Place was unfinished. 

The Iroquois Theatre was billed as "Absolutely Fireproof" in advertisements and in the performances playbill. The spread of the fire is attributed to the large amount of inflammable stuff on the stage. Many people had been found dead in their seats in the balcony and gallery.

Regular "Iroquois" Prices: $1.50, $1.00, 75¢, 50¢

So, by failing to make it outside or jumping to the alley below out of desperation, 602 people died because of the Iroquois Theatre Fire (my robust article) that day.

One hundred and twenty years later, Couch Place is still considered haunted.

Compiled By Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

People that believe there were no real safety standards for public buildings during the turn of the 20th Century, nothing could be further from the truth.

The construction manager, W.A. Merriam, had declared the building “absolutely fireproof”, although he had ignored a number of contemporary safety precautions. On the day of the fire, audience demand was so great to attend the ornate new theatre that there were 200 standing attendees; the fire vents were closed, and the theatre doors were locked. Even by the looser standards of the day, the construction company and theatre owners committed flagrant safety violations. According to some reports, the city safety inspectors had been bribed with free theatre tickets to ignore the offenses.

Very soon after the fire, a grand jury indicted five people: theatre owner Will Davis, Iroquois treasurer and assistant manager Thomas J. Noonan, and stage manager James E. Cummings–for manslaughter, and Chicago’s Building Commissioner Williams and Building Inspector Edward Laughlin–for malfeasance. Ultimately, the defense got the judge to dismiss the case by arguing that the city’s fire ordinances were invalid. No one was punished for the deaths of 602 victims.

The only positive outcome of this tragic event was the major overhaul of the city’s fire safety standards. Not only did the city of Chicago tighten its fire code, but other major cities changed their practices almost immediately as well. Shortly after this fire, New York and London made rules to stop locking theatre doors. The doors of the Iroquois had been locked to prevent people from sneaking in the theatre, which was one of the contributory factors to the high death toll. On June 8, 1904, New York introduced new building standards for theatres in response to the Iroquois tragedy. In 1904 the Von DuPrin company developed the panic bar (also called push bar or crash bar), a version of which is still used today so that people inside a locked building can now exit in an emergency. Most importantly, fire codes were updated throughout the country.

[1] Ira Couch (1806-1857) was a prominent early settler and entrepreneur in Chicago, Illinois, during the mid-19th century. Born in New York in 1806, Couch arrived in Chicago in 1834, just one year after the town was incorporated.

Upon his arrival in Chicago, Couch quickly established himself as a successful businessman. He founded several businesses, including a livery stable, a stagecoach line, and a hotel. In 1837, he built the Tremont House, one of Chicago's most famous hotels during the mid-19th century. The hotel was known for its luxurious accommodations and was a popular destination for politicians, business leaders, and other prominent figures.

Couch was also active in politics. He served as an alderman in the Chicago City Council in the 1840s and was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1846. 

In 1850, Chicago was booming, and the Tremont Hotel was so overbooked that guests had to sleep in the halls. Within three years, Couch was a rich man. He rented the hotel to two men from Boston and retired on his riches.

In 1852, he was elected to the Illinois Senate.

Despite his success, Couch suffered financial setbacks in the mid-1850s. He was forced to sell the Tremont House in 1854 and was later sued by his creditors. He died in 1857, reportedly from complications related to alcoholism.

Couch lies in his Mausoleum in Lincoln Park when the area was a city cemetery.

The free PDF book, "The Great Chicago Theater Disaster, The Complete Story Told By The Survivors," published in 1904 by Marshall Everett. 

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