Chicago’s Iroquois Theater opened in 1903 on West Randolph Street. No expense was spared on the massive, L-shaped structure. From the soaring ceilings to the mahogany trim to the gilded accents, the theater was a work of art. It had three levels and could accommodate 1,700 people.
Owner Will Davis expected the theater to be complete mid-year, but the opening was delayed by labor disputes.
When fire-related safety concerns threatened to delay the opening yet again, Davis was irate. The deficiencies including iron gates blocking many of the exits – which were designed to keep people from sneaking in to the shows without buying a ticket – exits hidden by drapes, an absence of proper air flow, and the ubiquitous mahogany trim. The fire-fighting equipment was limited to an asbestos curtain that could be lowered onto the stage to smother out a fire and a half a dozen canisters of a bicarbonate soda compound used to snuff out residential kitchen fires. There were no fire alarms, extinguishers, sprinklers, or water connections; there was not even a telephone.
But corrupt city officials accepted bribes, including free tickets to upcoming events, and the howls of the Fire Department were ignored. The Iroquois Theater’s grand opening took place in November, to wide acclaim.
As attractive as the building itself was, certainly one of the big draws to the public was the incredible claim that the Iroquois was fire-proof. In 1903, America was paranoid about fire. Fires were a much more common occurrence than they are today, and the city of Chicago had suffered tremendously during the Great Fire 30 years earlier. That blaze had cost 300 lives and millions of dollars in damages. Perhaps humanity should agree to not tempt fate by labeling anything as 100% immune to tragedy, like the unsinkable Titanic, for instance.
The Iroquois Theater flourished for five weeks, with the children’s musical Mr. Bluebeard as a daily attraction. The show was advertised heavily and either at the urging of their children or from a desire to experience the great theater, families crowded into each performance.
December 30 was another sold-out performance, with hundreds more crowded in to standing room. At least 2,100 people were present, mostly women and children – 400 more than the maximum capacity. The show continued without interruption until around 3:15 p.m., when the lights were darkened for the musical number “Let Us Swear It by the Pale Moonlight.” Eight couples ascended the stage, and sang in the glare of the bright spotlight.
A spotlight started the fire. No one is sure how it happened, but the light probably short-circuited. A ribbon of flame ignited on the oil-painted backdrops suspended over the stage. The stage manager saw it immediately and grabbed a canister of the fire-fighting compound, but it merely dripped off the hanging backdrop onto the stage.
When the audience began to see and scent hints of a fire, chaos ensued immediately. Shrieks filled the auditorium, people leapt to their feet, and the ushers ran into the aisles to restore calm. Someone backstage shouted to lower the asbestos curtain, but it jammed half-way down. Then, being too thin to be effective, it too ignited.
Actor Eddie Foy – a clown in Mr. Bluebeard – watched the crowd’s reaction apprehensively. His own son was in attendance but because the show was sold out, the child was in the wings, watching with the cast. He pushed the boy into the arms of a crew member, and ran onto the stage, crying out to the people to be calm, to leave in an orderly way. The stage manager urged the orchestra to keep playing, to lessen the panic while Foy stood on the burning stage, trying to prevent a catastrophe.
At the back of the auditorium, panic began to take hold. The theater filled with smoke but the crowd wasn’t moving – many of the doors were locked. Other exits couldn’t accommodate the surge of people trying to escape. Amidst screams, the people tried desperately to push through the doorways or break them down, and as Foy feared, a stampede developed.
The cast and crew pushed into the frigid night from the exit behind the burning stage, but inadequate ventilation caused the air to blow the flames out into the crowd. As the flaming sets crashed onto the stage, Eddie Foy was forced to flee the theater.
In the balconies, chances of escape were slim. Some theater-goers jumped onto the main floor, others found a fire escape at the back of the building into the alley. But this route was cut off by flames and the pushing crowd forced those at the front to jump into the alley several stories beneath them.
The theater carnage was gruesome. There are few pictures, but more than 600 people died and hundreds more were injured.
Immediately after the fire, Mayor Carter Harrison closed all theaters for six weeks and banned public celebration on New Year’s Eve.
The people demanded someone be held accountable. Will Davis, manager Harry Powers, and city officials, including Mayor Harrison, were charged with crimes related to the fire at the Iroquois. But the victims and their families were never compensated and thanks to slippery work by the defendants’ lawyers, the charges were dismissed. In fact, the only person who ever did time related to the disaster was the owner of a bar who robbed the dead while his establishment served as a temporary morgue.
It’s nearly forgotten today, but the Iroquois Theater fire remains the deadliest single-building fire on record in the US.
Eddie Foy, the clown who risked his life to calm the crowd, was credited with saving many in the audience. When he burst into the alley behind the theater, he found his own son, Brian, unharmed and waiting to greet him.