WHEN THE SHOW DIDN’T GO ON..
THE IROQUOIS THEATER FIRE
On this date in 1903, one of the most devastating fires in American history occurred at Chicago’s new Iroquois Theater during a standing-room-only matinee performance starring the popular comedian Eddie Foy. The fire claimed the lives of more than 600 people, including scores of children, who were packed into the place for the afternoon show.
The front façade of the Iroquois Theater can be seen to the left of the photo.
The Iroquois Theater 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 façade that resembled a Greek temple with massive columns. The theater was designed to be safe. 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. All of this would have been impressive it had actually been installed – and if the staff actually had any idea how to use the safety devices that existed.
And those were not even the worst problems. Seats in the theater were wooden and stuffed with hemp. “Unattractive” safety doors were hidden from site 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 theater. The building had no fire alarms and a myriad of other safety equipment had been forgotten or simply ignored – leading to the ever-popular “Chicago pay-offs” to officials who allowed the new theater to open on schedule anyway.
As crowds filled the theater on that cold December day in 1903, they had no idea that how close their way to meeting their deaths.
The horrific events began soon after the holiday crowd had packed into the theater on that Wednesday afternoon to see a matinee performance of the hit comedy Mr. Bluebeard. The main floor and balcony were packed and dozens more were given “standing-room-only” tickets and they lined the rear and walls of the theater.
Around the beginning of the second act, stagehands noticed a spark descend from an overhead light, and then watched some scraps of burning paper fall down 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 down onto the stage, leaving little doubt that something had gone wrong. A stagehand attempted to lower the asbestos curtain that would protect the audience. It snagged halfway down, sending a wall of flame out into the audience.
A view of the stage from the balcony, showing the devastation of the fire.
Actors on stage panicked and ran for the doors. Chaos filled the auditorium as the audience began rushing for the theater’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 not only burned, but suffocated from the smoke and the crush of bodies. Later, as the police removed the charred remains from the theater, they discovered that a number of victims had been trampled in the panic. One dead woman’s face even bore the mark of a shoe heel.
Backstage, theater 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 that were 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 theater.
The fire burned for almost 15 minutes before an alarm was raised at a box down the street. From outside, there appeared to be nothing wrong. It was so quiet that the first firefighters to arrive thought it was a false alarm.
This changed when they tried to open the auditorium doors and found they could not --- there were too many bodies stacked up 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 smell of death. They called out for survivors but no one answered their cry.
A photograph taken from the stage of the fire-blackened theater.
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.
The balcony of the theater had the greatest loss of life. Theater patrons were trapped there by gates that were locked across the stairways and then abandoned by theater staff after the fire began. Others raced for the fire escapes – only to find that they had never been installed. Many of those in the balcony burned to death or plunged to their doom in the alleyway outside.
A few who made it to the fire escape door behind the top balcony found that the iron staircase was missing. In its place was a platform that plunged about 100 feet to the cobblestone alley below. Across the alley, behind the theater, painters were working on a building occupied by Northwestern University’s dental school. When they realized what was happening at the theater, they quickly erected a makeshift bridge using ladders and wooden planks, which they extended across the alley to the fire escape platform. Reports vary as to how many they saved, but several people managed to climb 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 were pushed by the milling crowd that pressed through the doors behind them. The passageway behind the theater is still referred to as "Death Alley" today, after nearly 150 victims were found here.
When it was all 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.
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 a number of troubling facts. The investigation discovered that the supposedly "fireproof" asbestos curtain was really made from cotton and other combustible materials. It would have never saved anyone at all. 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 theater during a performance --- they quietly bolted nine pair 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. And 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 theater passes. A grand jury indicted a number of individuals, including the theater 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 theater but no money was ever collected.
The Iroquois Fire still ranks today as one of deadliest in history. Nevertheless, the building was repaired and re-opened briefly in 1904 as Hyde and Behmann’s Music Hall and then in 1905 as the Colonial Theater. In 1924, the building was razed to make room for a new theater, the Oriental, but the façade 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 theater is now part of the Civic Tower Building and is next door to the restored Delaware Building. It reopened as the Ford Center for the Performing Arts in 1998.
Bodies of the dead lined up in the alley behind the theater. Newspaper reporters dubbed this alleyway, officially known as Couch Place, “Death Alley” after the fire. It remains one of the most haunted spots in downtown Chicago today.
But this has not stopped the tales of the old Iroquois Theater 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 to be. The narrow passageway, which runs behind the Oriental Theater, is rarely used today, except for the occasional delivery truck or a lone pedestrian who is in a hurry to get somewhere else. It is largely deserted, but why? The stories say that those a 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.
Could the alleyway, and the surrounding area, actually be haunted? And do the spirits of those who met their tragic end inside of the burning theater still linger here? Perhaps, or 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 completely forgotten.