Iroquois Theatre fire

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Iroquois Theatre fire
The Iroquois Theatre, shortly before the fire
Time about 3:15 p.m.
Date 30 December 1903 (1903-12-30)
Location Chicago, Illinois, United States
Cause Ignition of muslin curtains due to broken arc light
Deaths 602
Injuries 250

The Iroquois Theatre fire happened on December 30, 1903,[1] in Chicago, Illinois. It was the deadliest theater fire and the deadliest single-building fire in United States history. At least 602 people died as a result of the fire, but not all the deaths were reported, as some of the bodies were removed from the scene.

The theatre[edit]

The Grand Stair Hall as it appeared before the fire. The stairway on the right saw the greatest number of fatalities.

The Iroquois Theatre was at 24–28 West Randolph Street, on the North Side between State Street and Dearborn Street in Chicago. The syndicate that bankrolled its construction chose the location specifically to attract women on day trips from out of town who, it was thought, would be more comfortable attending a theatre near the safe, police-patrolled Loop shopping district.[2] The theatre opened in November 1903 after numerous delays due to labor unrest[3] and, according to one writer,[4] the unexplained inability of architect Benjamin Marshall to complete required drawings on time. Upon opening it was lauded by drama critics; Walter K. Hill wrote in the New York Clipper (a predecessor of Variety) that the Iroquois was "the most beautiful ... in Chicago, and competent judges state that few theaters in America can rival its architectural perfections ..."[5]

The theatre had three audience levels. The main floor (known as the "orchestra" or "parquet") was on the same level as the Foyer or Grand Stair Hall. The second level (the "dress circle") and the third level (the "gallery") were accessed through broad stairways that led off the foyer. The backstage areas were unusually large, with dressing rooms on five levels, an uncommonly large fly gallery (where scenery was hung), and even an elevator available to transport actors down to the stage level.

Fire readiness deficiencies noted before the fire[edit]

Despite being billed as "Absolutely Fireproof" in advertisements and playbills,[6] numerous deficiencies in fire readiness were apparent:

  • An editor of Fireproof Magazine toured the building during construction and noted "the absence of an intake, or stage draft shaft; the exposed reinforcement of the (proscenium) arch;[7] the presence of wood trim on everything and the inadequate provision of exits."[8]
  • A Chicago Fire Department captain who made an unofficial tour of the theatre days before the official opening noted that there were no extinguishers, sprinklers, alarms, telephones, or water connections; the only firefighting equipment available were six canisters of a dry chemical called "Kilfyre", which was normally used to douse chimney fires in residential houses.[9] "Kilfyre" is made of bicarbonate-of-soda and powder.[10] The captain pointed out the deficiencies to the theatre's fire warden but was told that nothing could be done, as the fire warden would simply be dismissed if he brought the matter up with the syndicate of owners. When the captain reported the matter to his commanding officer, he was again told that nothing could be done, as the theatre already had a fire warden.[11]

Structural deficiencies in the theatre[edit]

There were also structural deficiencies reported, including:

  • Large iron gates blocked off the stairways during performances to prevent patrons from moving down from the gallery to the dress circle or orchestra.
  • Many of the exit routes were confusing.[12]
  • Skylights on the roof of the stage, which were intended to open automatically during a fire to vent the heat and smoke, were fastened closed.[13]
  • The asbestos curtain was not tested periodically, and it got stuck when the theatre personnel tried to lower it.[14]

The fire[edit]

A horse-drawn ambulance is filled with the bodies of victims.
Panicked theatergoers trying to flee (artist's conception)
Theatergoers climbing along ladders above the alley (artist's conception).

On December 30, 1903, the Iroquois presented a matinee performance of the popular Drury Lane musical Mr. Bluebeard, which had been playing at the Iroquois since opening night. The play, a burlesque of the traditional Bluebeard folk tale, featured Dan McAvoy as Bluebeard and Eddie Foy as Sister Anne, a role that let him showcase his physical comedy skills. Attendance since opening night had been disappointing, people having been driven away by poor weather, labor unrest, and other factors. The December 30 performance drew a much larger sellout audience, with each of the 1,700 seats being filled and hundreds of patrons in the "standing room" areas at the back of the theatre. Many of the estimated 2,100–2,200 patrons attending the matinee were children. The standing room areas were so crowded that some patrons instead sat in the aisles, blocking the exits.[15]

At about 3:15 p.m., the beginning of the second act, a dance number was in progress when an arc light shorted out and sparks ignited a muslin curtain. A stagehand tried to douse the fire with the Kilfyre canisters provided, but it quickly spread to the fly gallery high above the stage where several thousand square feet of highly flammable painted canvas scenery flats were hung. The stage manager tried to lower the asbestos fire curtain, but it snagged. Early reports state that it was stopped by the trolley-wire that carried one of the acrobats over the stage,[15][16] but later investigation showed that the curtain had been blocked by a light reflector which stuck out under the proscenium arch.[17] A chemist who later tested part of the curtain stated that it was mainly wood pulp mixed with asbestos, and would have been "of no value in a fire".[18]

Foy, who was preparing to go on stage at the time, ran out and attempted to calm the crowd, first making sure that his young son was in the care of a stagehand. He later wrote, "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."[15] Foy was widely seen as a hero after the fire for his courage in remaining on stage and pleading with patrons not to panic even as large chunks of burning scenery landed around him.[19]

By this time, many of the patrons on all levels were quickly attempting to flee the theatre. Some had found the fire exits hidden behind draperies on the north side of the building, but found that they could not open the unfamiliar bascule locks. One door was opened by a man who happened to have a bascule lock in his home and two were opened either by brute force or by a blast of air, but most of the other doors could not be opened. Some patrons panicked, crushing or trampling others in a desperate attempt to escape the fire.[20] Many were killed while trapped in dead ends or while trying to open what looked like doors with windows in but were actually only windows.

The dancers on stage were also forced to flee, along with the performers backstage and in the numerous dressing rooms.[21] When the performers and stagehands went out of the back exit, an icy wind rushed in and made the fire substantially bigger.[12] Many escaped the theatre through the coal hatch and through windows in the dressing rooms, and others tried to escape via the west stage door, which opened inwards and became jammed as actors pressed toward the door frantically trying to get out. By chance a passing railroad agent saw the crowd pressing against the door and unfastened the hinges from the outside using tools that he normally carried with him, allowing the actors and stagehands to escape. Someone else opened the huge double freight doors in the north wall, normally used for scenery, allowing "a cyclonic blast" of cold air to rush into the building and create an enormous fireball.[22] As the vents above the stage were nailed or wired shut, the fireball instead traveled outwards, ducking under the stuck asbestos curtain and streaking toward the vents behind the dress circle and gallery 50 feet (15 m) away. The hot gases and flames passed over the heads of those in the orchestra seats and incinerated everything flammable in the gallery and dress circle levels, including patrons still trapped in those areas.

Those in the orchestra section exited into the foyer and out of the front door, but those in the dress circle and gallery who escaped the fireball could not reach the foyer because the iron grates that barred the stairways were still in place. The largest death toll was at the base of these stairways, where hundreds of people were trampled, crushed, or asphyxiated.

Patrons who were able to escape via the emergency exits on the north side found themselves on the unfinished fire escapes. Many jumped or fell from the icy narrow fire escapes to their deaths; the bodies of the first jumpers broke the falls of those who followed them.

Students from the Northwestern University building north of the theatre 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.


Police officers guarding the bodies of victims.
Theatre manager Davis was arrested in January 1904, and charged with criminal neglect, but acquitted.

Corpses were piled ten high around the doors and windows. Many patrons had clambered over piles of bodies only to succumb themselves to the flames, smoke, and gases. It is estimated that 575 people were killed on the day of the fire; at least 30 more died of injuries over the following weeks. Many of the Chicago victims were buried in Montrose, Forest Home, Oak Woods, Rosehill and Graceland cemeteries.[23][24]

Of the 300 or so actors, dancers, and stagehands, only five people died: the aerialist (Nellie Reed), an actor in a bit part, an usher, and two female attendants. The aerialist's role was to fly out as a fairy over the audience on a trolley wire, showering them with pink carnations. She was trapped above the stage while waiting for her entrance; during the fire she fell, was gravely injured, and died of burns and internal injuries three days later.[25]

In New York City on New Year's Eve some theaters eliminated standing room. Building and fire codes were subsequently reformed; theaters 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 configured so that, even if they could not be pulled open from the outside, they could be pushed open from the inside.[16]

After the fire, it was alleged that fire inspectors had been bribed with free tickets to overlook code violations.[26] The mayor ordered all theaters in Chicago closed for six weeks after the fire.[27]

As a result of public outrage, many were charged with crimes, including Mayor Carter Harrison, Jr. Most charges were dismissed three years later, however, because of the delaying tactics of the owners' lawyers and their use of loopholes and inadequacies in the city's building and safety ordinances. Levy Mayer was the defender of the theater and its manager, Will Davis. The only person convicted was a tavern keeper charged with grave robbing.[citation needed]

The exterior of the Iroquois was largely intact. The building later reopened as the Colonial Theater, which was demolished in 1926 to make way for the Oriental Theater.[28]


A bronze bas-relief memorial by sculptor Lorado Taft with no identifying markings was placed inside the LaSalle Street entrance to City Hall.[29] The Chicago Tribune described the marker December 31, 1911, as depicting "the Motherhood of the World protecting the children of the universe, the body of a child borne on a litter by herculean male figures, with a bereaved mother bending over it". The memorial was in the Iroquois Hospital on Wacker until the building was demolished in 1951. It was placed in storage in City Hall until it was installed in its current location, near the building's LaSalle Street entrance, in 1960. The memorial was rededicated on November 5, 2010, and a descriptive plaque was donated by the Union League Club of Chicago. The dedication was attended by members of the Chicago City Council, the Union League Club and Taft's granddaughter.[30][31]

Chicago held an annual memorial service at City Hall, until the last survivors died.[29]

Five years after the fire, Andrew Kircher, founder of Montrose Cemetery, erected a memorial on the grounds to memorialize the tragedy.[32]


The Iroquois fire prompted widespread implementation of the panic bar, first invented in the United Kingdom following the Victoria Hall disaster. Panic exit devices are now required by building codes for high-occupancy spaces, and were mass manufactured in the US following the fire by the Von Duprin company (now part of Allegion).[33]

A second result of the fire was the requirement that a fireproof asbestos curtain (or sheet metal screen) be raised before each performance and lowered afterward to separate the audience from the stage. (Not common practice and not code in many jurisdictions—not for every performance.)[clarification needed]

The third result was that all doors in public buildings must open in the direction of egress, but that practice did not become national until the Collinwood School Fire of 1908.[34]

In popular culture[edit]

Eddie Foy's role in this disaster, as the actor who encouraged patrons to make an orderly exit, was recreated by Bob Hope in the film The Seven Little Foys.

In 2011, the Neo-Futurists theater company in Chicago produced a show called "Burning Bluebeard" by Jay Torrence, which recounted the story of the Iroquois fire from the perspective of the performers, including Eddie Foy. The play received critical praise and was named one of the “2011 Best of Fringe” by the Chicago Tribune,[35] one of the “Top Five Funniest Shows of 2011” by WBEZ Radio [36] and one of the “Twelve Outstanding Ensembles of 2011” by Time Out Chicago’s Kris Vire.[37] The Ruffians theater company remounted the production in 2013 with the original cast. The Ruffians once again are remounting "Burning Bluebeard" at Theatre Wit In Chicago.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "This Day In History: Fire Breaks Out In Chicago Theater". The History Channel. 
  2. ^ Brandt, Nat (2003). Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903. Southern Illinois University Press. pp. 11–13. ISBN 0-8093-2490-3. 
  3. ^ Hatch, Anthony P. (2003). Tinder Box: The Iroquois Theatre Disaster, 1903. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers. pp. 7–12. ISBN 0-89733-514-7. 
  4. ^ Brandt, pp. 11–13.
  5. ^ Hatch 2003, p. 18.
  6. ^ Brandt 2003, p. 5.
  7. ^ The concrete arch above the stage.
  8. ^ Hatch 2003, p. 12.
  9. ^ Hatch 2003, pp. 13–14.
  10. ^ Brandt, p. 31.
  11. ^ Hatch 2003, p. 14.
  12. ^ a b "Iroquois Theatre Fire". Eastland Memorial Society. Retrieved 2012-12-05. 
  13. ^ "Fire Inquiry Discloses: Skylights Reported Opened After the Disaster—Cannot Find the 'Asbestos' Curtain—Usher Arrested". The New York Times. 5 January 1904. Retrieved 2011-12-05. 
  14. ^ "What is a 'Fireproof' Screen". Chicago Tribune. 2 January 1904. Retrieved 2012-12-12. 
  15. ^ a b c "A Tragedy Remembered" (PDF). NPFA Journal (National Fire Protection Association) (July/August). 1995. Actor Eddie Foy's personal account 
  16. ^ a b Bob Secter (19 December 2007). "The Iroquois Theater fire". Chicago Tribune ( Retrieved 2011-12-05. 
  17. ^ Hatch 2003, p. 88.
  18. ^ Hatch 2003, p. 150.
  19. ^ Hatch 2003, pp. 81–87.
  20. ^ Brandt 2003, pp. 41–51.
  21. ^ Brandt 2003, pp. 28–40.
  22. ^ Brandt 2003, pp. 39–40.
  23. ^ Brandt 2003, p. 90.
  24. ^ "Jane Doe of the Iroquois Theatre Fire gravesite". Retrieved 2013-12-30. 
  25. ^ Brandt 2003, pp. 36–40.
  26. ^ Brandt 2003, pp. 126–130.
  27. ^ Brandt 2003, p. xviii.
  28. ^ Brandt 2003, p. 139.
  29. ^ a b Zasky, Jason. "Burning Down the House: The 1903 Iroquois Theater Fire". Failure Magazine. Retrieved 2009-10-01. The Iroquois Theater advertised itself as 'absolutely fireproof,' it went up in flames six weeks after opening 
  30. ^ "Historic City Hall Plaque to be Rededicated". WBBM-TV News (CBS 4 November 2010. Retrieved 2011-01-24. 
  31. ^ "Iroquois Theatre Fire Victims Remembered". Theatre Historical Society of America. 7 November 2010. Retrieved 2013-12-30. 
  32. ^ "Our History". Montrose Cemetery & Crematorium. Retrieved 2014-03-29. 
  33. ^ Schweyer, Jenny (5 November 2008). "Exit Devices: Von Duprin Changes the Face of Commercial Security". Article Alley. Retrieved 2009-01-13. 
  34. ^ "Collinwood School Fire". Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Case Western Reserve University. 27 March 2008. Retrieved 2011-12-05. 
  35. ^ Metz, Nina (21 December 2011). "Best of Chicago's fringe theater scene in 2011". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2013-12-21. 
  36. ^ Molzahn, Laura (21 December 2011). "2011's funniest and best-dressed Chicago shows". WBEZ. Retrieved 2013-12-21. 
  37. ^ Vire, Kris (25 December 2011). "Twelve outstanding ensembles in Chicago theater". Time Out Chicago. Retrieved 2013-12-21. 

Further reading[edit]

  • McCurdy, D.B. (1904). Lest We Forget: Chicago's Awful Theatre Horror. Chicago: Memorial Publishing. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 41°53′5″N 87°37′43″W / 41.88472°N 87.62861°W / 41.88472; -87.62861