Fires in History: Iroquois Theater Fire

Iroquois theater fire

Written by:  Sarah Block, Director of Marketing & Education

It was bitterly cold on December 30, 1903 in Chicago. Mothers and their children were occupying their time with the theater on their winter break, and the biggest show was "Mr. Blue Beard" at the Iroquois Theater. The show was so packed that with only 1,600 seats, the theater packed in an estimated 2,100-2,300 people with standing room only seats. An additional 400 people were backstage, creating a packed house for the matinee show.

Soon after act two was set to begin, those that survived the next fifteen minutes were outside in fifteen degree weather searching for their loved ones among hundreds of corpses stacked in an alley.

The Scene

Mr. Blue Beard was playing at the newly opened Iroquois Theater. It opened for the first time just five weeks earlier, boasting a "fireproof theater" in advertisements. Architect Benjamin H. Marshall wanted to make a fireproof building. He studied a number of fires, noting what went wrong. He tried to make every provision possible. He had 25 exits added, so the theater could be evacuated in 5 minutes. He added an asbestos curtain to block a stage fire from the audience. Yet, with the rush to open before the holidays, many building elements that would have made it virtually fireproof were still being added or were cut short.

The theater was the best in the country. Marble, plate glass, mahogany, and gilding adorned the interior with 60-foot ceilings in the foyer. The theater was widely considered the most efficient, convenient, and safe of the time - that is, until the investigation turned up some unsavory behavior. 

Days before the theater opened, Fireproof Magazine toured the theater and noted the "absence of an intake, or stage draft shaft; the exposed reinforcement of the arch; the presence of wood trim on everything and the inadequate provision exits." The fire inspector was warned about these inadequacies, but ignored them.

The Fire

"Mr. Blue Beard" was starting its second act when the wiring in a light sparked and caught some gauzy drapery on fire. In the theater in the early 1900s, fires were common. The stagehands grabbed a fire extinguisher and tried to extinguish it themselves without thinking much about it. However, the fire extinguisher was a "kilfyre" extinguisher, used for chimney fires at residences - not enormous theaters. Kilfyre extinguishers worked by "forcibly hurling" the contents within the extinguisher onto the fire. It was inadequate, unable to reach the fire that was near the ceiling, and the fire continued to spread.

Within a few minutes, the audience could see the fire. Someone shouted "fire!" in an overcrowded theater, which caused mass panic. "Shouting fire in a crowded theater" is a common phrase used as a synonym for saying something that could cause mass panic. In fact, in 1913 someone falsely shouted fire in an Italian hall and caused a mass panic that killed 73 people. In 1902. Over 100 people died at the Shiloh Baptist Church when someone misheard the word "fight" for "fire" and a mass panic caused a stampede. Shouting fire at the Iroquois Theater had the same effect. 
Within a few minutes the fire had grown so big only a fire hose or fire sprinklers could extinguish it. However, there were no fire sprinklers or fire alarm boxes. The automatic ventilators were never completed, so smoke was filling the auditorium. There also was no escape. The exit signs were turned off so guests wouldn't be distracted and the doors were locked to avoid crashers. The only fire protection in the theater at the time was an asbestos curtain that was meant to block the fire from reaching the audience. An actor in the show, Eddie Foy, shouted for the curtain to be let down; however, it got stuck on some wiring for a flying scene coming up in the second act. The curtain came down to a few feet before the floor, partially blocking the audience. However, as it turned out, the asbestos curtain wasn't fireproof. It was made of cotton and other combustible materials and went up in flames with everything else.

Within eight minutes, two explosions occurred and nearly 3,000 people tried to make their way through locked doors and unfinished fire escapes. Hundreds of people tried to escape through a fire escape that led to a hundred foot drop into an alley. Painters at Northwestern University's new dentistry school saw what was happening and rigged together a ladder and a few wooden planks to try and help people cross into the next building. About twelve people were saved by traveling across the makeshift bridge. An unknown number of people fell to their deaths while attempting to cross the bridge. Hundreds of corpses were piled in that alley later on, so an official count of deaths from falling was never known.

The Aftermath

Because of the lack of a fire alarm box, a stagehand who escaped needed to run around the block to a pull box and alert firefighters to the fire. When firefighters arrived, it appeared nothing was wrong. It took fifteen minutes for smoke to be seen from the street. The firefighter tried to open the theater door and finally found what was wrong. Piles of bodies were jamming the door closed. Firefighters used a pike pole to pry bodies from the door, so they could open it.

It only took about fifteen minutes for firefighters to extinguish the fire, but it took five hours to carry the dead out. By the end of the fire, 572 people died in the fire with 212 being children. Following the fire, the death toll went to 602 from people who succumbed to injuries.
The next day, newspapers dedicated pages to name the known dead after medical examiners spent the entire night trying to identify them. Mayor Carter Harrison Jr banned all New Year's Eve celebrations and closed night clubs for the night. On January 2, 1904, the mayor instituted an official day of mourning.

An investigation followed the tragedy, and what was found was astounding.

• Two roof vents that were supposed to be added to filter out smoke and gas were nailed shut to keep out snow and water. Anyone who didn't die from the fire would die from suffocation.
• Management bolted the doors shut to keep non-paying customers out. This trapped all of their patrons inside the burning building.
• The asbestos curtain was mostly made of cotton and other combustibles.
• The 25 exit doors only opened in, so when people fell in front of the doors, the doors became jammed.
• The patrons in the balcony seats were locked in so they couldn't sneak into better seats.
• The fire escape was never finished and went to nowhere.
• The fire alarm box was never installed.
• The exit signs were turned off during the show.
• The fire inspectors took bribes in the form of theater tickets to overlook code violations.
With 602 dead Chicagoans, the city was in an uproar and wanted someone to pay. Throughout the next few years, several people were charged with crimes - including the mayor. However, all were dismissed based on technicalities except for one pub owner who was convicted of grave robbing.

This fire inspired several new regulations and one invention.

• Exit signs must always be on.
• Exit doors must push open, not pull in.
• Inventor, Carl Prinzler, was supposed to be in the audience that day, but couldn't go to the show. He was haunted by the tragedy and decided to do something about it. He worked with Henry DuPont to create a mechanism that would allow a door to open in an emergency, even if it's locked. That mechanism is called the panic bar, and is still used today.

The Iroquois Theater fire has shaped not only Chicago, but the entire theater industry. One traveling stagehand said, "I've taken several shows in Chicago venues. I've always been impressed with the attention that the local crews pay to fire safety, in all the venues in that city. A few years ago I took a big show into the Ford Center, which I did not realize was standing on the footprint of the Iroquois [Theater]. One of the local stagehands gave me this book which kept me up all night reading it. I used to wonder why in Chicago, before the house opens to the public, all the ushers go to their assigned exit, open the door, and practice yelling, "This way out!" After reading this book, I now wonder why that only happens in Chicago." 

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