Skip to Content

Chicago, IL Iroquois Theater Fire Panic Disaster, Dec 1903

Theatre Fire Memorial Marker Theatre Fire Chicago ILL Iroquois Theater 1.jpg Chicago ILL Iroquois Theater 2.jpg Chicago ILL Iroquois Theater 3.jpg Chicago ILL Iroquois Theater 4.jpg Chicago ILL Iroquois Theater 5.jpg



Greatest Fire Disaster In Country's History Occurred During Holiday Matinee in New Playhouse Declared to Be Fireproof.

Revised figures of the dead in the Chicago fire panic caused by the burning of the Iroquois Theater, Wednesday afternoon, place the number at 590. A large number are still missing, and scores who were seriously injured are still in the city hospitals. The number of those of whom there is any record is 103.
The fire broke out in the scenery of the wings of the theater during the second act of the afternoon performance of "Mr. Blueheard." In a moment the great audience was in a wild panic, and in the mad struggle to get to the doors men, women and children were struck down, trampled on or fatally crushed.
Death came to half the audience attending the holiday performance inside of ten minutes. A few sparks fell from a broken electric wire in the tiles. A moment later a line of flame touched off the flimsy stage setting. The chorus fled the stage, and EDDIE FOY, the comedian, stepped to the front and asked the auditors to keep their seats. He ordered the stage hands to lower the drop curtain. It fell halfway and then stopped short. Nothing could move it, and in a few moments flames reached out through the opening into the body of the building. Fifty persons met death before they could rise. The rest dashed for the exits.
Some fell before they had gone two feet. More were stretched lifeless by the flames while they were climbing over the backs of chairs. Every aisle became a lane of death. The exits were jammed with crying women and children. Faces were ground to pulp, clothes were torn off, and many in blind insanity rushed straight into the spurting fire and were shriveled into ashes.
Before any real effort at rescue could be made only the fire crackled in the building. When firemen fought their way inside they came across piles of bodies rising here and there to a height of ten feet. All over the main floor and the balcony women and children lay dead on the floor and hung lifeless over the backs of chairs. The stairways leading to the balcony were choked by the dead. At the top of the stairs 150 bodies were piled in a smoking mass. Down near the stage a whole row of seats was filled by women with scorched hats and their heads bent over on their breasts.
Nearly every chair in the balcony held a woman in the same position. The flames had killed them before they could move, and one by one the firemen carried out the bodies and laid them in rows on the sidewalk. The audience was composed almost entirely of women and children.
Lying on a cot in the Michael Reese hospital badly burned about the upper portion of his body, JAMES H. STRONG told of his experience in attempting to force open one of the exits leading from the first balcony. MR. STRONG went to the theater in company with his wife, his mother and his niece, MISS TINA STRONG. When the panic commenced MR. STRONG led the two ladies and the girl off toward an exit in the center of the balcony, toward which he saw but few people were hastening. On arriving at the door he found it locked.
"I jumped up," he said, "caught the edge of the transom in my fingers, drew myself up and smashed the window in the transom. I had found it impossible to open the door and thought that possibly I might do it from the outside if I couldn't from the balcony. I dropped to the floor on the far side and to my horror found that the door was not only tight shut, but was actually locked with a padlock and hasp. I did all in my power to loosen the hasp, but it was too strong for me."
"Just then a carpenter with some tools in his hand came running up, and I told him to help me open the door and we would be able to save a large number of the people on the inside. We worked and pulled and tugged at the padlock like crazy men, but we could make no impression upon it. The carpenter had a hatchet, and with this and our combined weight we tried to break the door down. This was also out of the question, and I then told the other man to give me a boost so that I could reach the transom and possibly I could pass the people out to him."
"He helped me up, and I got the upper portion of my body through the transom and looked for my people. They were just beneath me, but just at that second the flames swept through the balcony, and I don't believe that any of those who were in there then escaped. I inhaled the flame, and in trying to hang on and at the same time avoid the fire I lost my grip and fell back into the hallway outside. The carpenter picked me up, and I urged him to help me back, and that is about all I can remember except that he dragged me off."
MRS. STRONG, the wife of MR. STRONG, is among the identified dead. His mother and niece are among the missing. He himself is in a critical condition and may not survive.
Thursday evening the coroner's jury, which had spent the day in visiting the various morgues, was taken by Coroner TRAEGER to the theater.
The members of the jury while engaged in inspecting the stage frequently remarked that the protection against fire seemed to them to have been inadequate. The jury then climbed the stairway leading to the first balcony. Here the plush covering of the seats was found to be burned on every seat from wall to wall and from the front row of the balcony to the last. An inspection was made of the extra leading to the fire escapes at the north end of the building.
The iron doors were closed and locked, and it was then seen that the inner doors were so close to the steel shutters that they could not be opened with the shutters fastened. This exit is not sufficiently high for an ordinary sized man to walk through without stooping, and when the jurors learned this fact by personal experience there was considerable comment among them. The jury then ascended to the top gallery, where the greatest loss of life occurred.
Coroner TRAEGER pointed to the balcony rail, which was bent in several places and said that a number of spectators had jumped through these openings to the lower floor. An inspection was then made of the exits leading to the fire escapes, and the jurors were told that the bodies of the dead were piled ten feet high in front of these doors when the police reached the scene after the fire.
Because of the unlimited scope that the coroner intends to give to the investigation it is expected that the work of taking testimony will consume several weeks.
Late on Saturday on charges of manslaughter preferred by ARTHUR E. HALL, whose wife, three children and maid perished in the fire, Managers WILL J. DAVIS and HARRY J. POWERS of the Iroquois theater, with City Building Commissioner WILLIAMS, were arrested and held under bonds of $40,000 each.
On the same day Mayor HARRISON ordered the closing of every theater in the city, without exception, until it has been definitely ascertained that they are not violating any city ordinance. This is supplementary to his previous order, which closed seventeen theaters, about half the total number of playhouses in the city. In issuing the order for every playhouse to be closed the mayor made the unqualified statement that they were all violators of the city ordinances and that none would be permitted to open its doors until it absolutely complied with every requirement of the ordinances.
Sunday was a day of funerals in Chicago, and for the first time in the history of the city all of the people who desired to bury their dead were unable to do so.
The unprecedented demand for hearses and carriages would have been enough in itself to tax to the utmost the resources of the undertakers, but the heavy snow that had fallen during the last two days had increased their difficulties enormously.
Arrangements were made by the undertakers to have as many funerals as possible held in the early part of the day in order to allow if possible the use of the hearse for a second funeral in the afternoon. In a number of cases this was done, but there were instances where families who were to wait for the return of the hearse were disappointed and were compelled to defer the burial of their dead for another day.
The cemeteries were compelled to keep men at work all through the night digging graves. At one time in the afternoon fourteen burials were in progress in Rose Hill cemetery, and all of them were of interments of victims of the fire.
The Iroquois theater was completed less than two months ago at a cost of $500,000 and was the finest playhouse in Chicago. It was opened to the public on the night of Nov. 23 with "Mr. Bluebeard." It has a total seating capacity of 1,724 chairs, with plenty of good standing room on each floor.
The Iroquois theater disaster was vastly more destructive to human life than any other playhouse fire in the history of the United States. The fire next to it in point of lives lost occurred Dec. 5, 1876, in Conway's Brooklyn theater, Brooklyn, where 295 of the audience perished in the flames.
In the great Chicago fire of 1871, the largest conflagration of modern times, in which 2,124 acres were devastated, only 200 lives were lost so far as the most reliable information shows.

Ticonderoga Sentinal New York 1904-01-07


article | by Dr. Radut