Remembering the Iroquois Theatre Fire

The Vent That Protects

Some things can’t be undone. Two days before the start of 1904, harsh lessons would be learned that fateful night  that would resonate worldwide.

The Iroquois Theatre Fire of December 30, 1903 was an unequivocally horrific tragedy with an appalling lack of justice for the survivors, victims, and loved ones. Many bad decisions (mostly by the owners of the theater) precipitated the tragedy. 

That night, people packed in well above it’s 1500 person occupancy (numbers range from 1700-2200 attended) with hundreds purchasing tickets for standing room in the aisles, with everyone entering through the one main entrance.

A strong wind blew outside, and the line was probably out the door as goers stood in line, likely shivering if not properly buttoned.  The audience was likely excited to be at the well decorated theater with some of the most ornate decor for the time. As the maxim goes: you can’t judge a book by its cover (or a theater by its decor).

A passing railway agent on foot saw the fire and saw the locked doors, and with the tools he happened to be carrying on his person, unhinged the doors and allowed people to escape.

Flawed from the start

In 1903, theaters were still theatres. The owners were thoroughly behind the times in their knowledge of fire safety or simply did not want to invest in patron safety. Gutted by fire 32 years earlier, this is Chicago, the same city. Perhaps it was because the owners were not old enough to remember 1871. Possibly, almost definitely, greed would play a factor. Either way, in their duty to provide a safe building, they committed negligence.

With one main entrance and exit for the audience, they ignored building code “that required separate stairways and exits for each balcony”. The 27 public exits from the auditorium emptied into the main hall, which had one exit door.

One.

After 1871, authorities would implement new fire code ordinances. But this catastrophe demonstrated there was still a long way to go with both the rules and enforcement.

Droves of women and their children came for tonight’s play. Ticket sales leading up to the night were sluggish before tonight.

Behind the scenes, things were not ready for a fire.

The decisions of the owners and of the fire warden of the theater, would lead to the fateful night. On one occasion, the fire warden was told by a Chicago Fire Captain about the woeful state of readiness, claimed he the owners would only fire him if he brought it up.

Next there was the decision to sell tickets to people who would sit in the aisles, people who would add to the overcrowding of doors that would soon become clogged.

It started in the second act during the song “Let Us Swear by the Pale Moonlight” where there above stage is an arc light: first, a short circuit (or simply poor wiring) and a too close muslin curtain. From there, you have hung ‘several thousand square feet of highly flammable painted canvas scenery flats‘ and you have a practically instant inferno.

Did they pull the fire alarm, and order an immediate evacuation of the entire building? Nope. Ushers refused to open the doors.  There was no fire alarm, and there was no escape plan. In these moments as the fire began to roar and actors attempted to calm the children. Prospects just went from bad to worse for the poor souls stuck in the Iroquois Theatre.

Things get worse

The aisles filled, the preparation non-existent, and the fire.

A properly equipped and built theater would have shown 0 casualties that night; the Iroquois was not one of them. The defenses were meager and almost seemingly purposefully useless.

The purpose of the fire curtain which the put so much trust in is simple; if the stage does erupt in a gigantic fireball, incinerating your actors, you can at least drop the fire curtain (filled with asbestos) to allow your audience to escape.

Even if the cast or crew succeeded in dropping the curtain all the way (it snagged partially on a light reflector that should not have been there) it would have been all but useless. The manufacturer of the curtain decided to skimp on the asbestos and add in wood pulp to save on costs. Whether the theater owners knew about this is unknown. Half strewn, the curtain ignited, as it was always going to.

Perhaps the ‘plan’ was for the fire brigade to extinguish before killing anyone, and the show could resume. This wasn’t happening. And how could it? The fire department was likely still unaware of what was happening.

Then there were the “smoke doors”. This theater had them. Designed to be open in the event of a fire, smoke doors are on the roof or upper area of the building. This allows smoke to pour out of the building. Did this theater implement their proper usage? In fact, someone nailed or wired them shut.

A couple stagehands did leave the building to pull fire alarms well outside the building, but no one else could leave. When opening the backdoor, oxygen poured in with the strong wind, creating a fireball with nowhere to go; the heat must have been unbearable.

No one trained the ushers in the opening of the doors, perhaps. Initially the ushers may have even obstructed peoples’ attempts.

The precious few doors open were not enough now to stop asphyxiation and burns from now claiming lives. For the people still trapped inside, the horror had only begun.  Had the smoke doors been open the flames and smoke would have been able to escape, giving people more time to exit.

Now it’s a nightmare

As for the exits: these did not work properly, and all funneled to one exit. Right now, you may be thinking: how hard is it to invest in doors that work easily and properly?

These doors had bascule locks, which probably looked like this abomination of a locking device.

According to all accounts there was major problems getting the doors open. For in 1903, they still didn’t even require doors to swing out to egress, so a mass of bodies trying to get out won’t clamp the doors shut. Unfortunately, that was what was happening.

There were at least some if not all ushers that, amazingly, still refused to help open the doors to escape. It is unknown how hard if any the ushers fought back to keep people inside, but it is understood that on the whole they were of practically no help, perhaps they too became too panicked to unlock the doors.

Being panicked and unfamiliar with the locks, other people were unable to open these in a timely manner. Eventually people unlocked these doors, but a critical amount of time would pass until then.

The Iroquois had no fire alarm box, no phone to call for help. There was no sprinkler system, which did exist at the time. The fire extinguishers they did have proved entirely useless in fighting fire, either by their design or flaw or simply lack of capacity and output to contain such a fire.

There were many heroes that night, some went unnamed, but Charlie Dexter and Frank Houseman, two baseball players. These men defied the ushers and were able to manipulate the horrible locks to open two doors. This saved countless lives, tripling the rate people could escape the flames.

The matter of the fire escapes not being finished is another example of corruption. Faced with choosing certain death or probable death and certain injury, over a hundred people would lose their lives directly due to the north end fire escape not being completed. Horribly, the first hundred who jumped from these became mostly fatalities.

Minutes later, it was practically over, and everyone who would escape would have done so. The firemen stood outside, unable to enter the building as the survivors fled. They certainly mourned, wept, and some of the worst injured rode to nearby hospitals. Perhaps the the the locals conscripted all nearby horses and carriages for this task. A grand jury indicted (let alone convicted)… nobody.

Final numbers:

575: Number of victims who died on the night of the Iroquois Theatre Fire

30: Estimated number of fatalities who succumbed to their injuries

2: Factor by which the number of people died in relation to “Great Chicago Fire”

42: Number of years since the “Great Chicago Fire”

0: Number of owners who were convicted of crimes in connection with the fire

There is the corruption that pervades the disaster. Fire officials allegedly accepted bribes in some way to overlook the many egregious code violations (occupancy being the most glaring). Then you have the previously mentioned curtain manufacturer. And how corrupt was the fire warden, the man whose one job it was to keep people from not burning? Above all, was it corruption that kept the syndicate so safe?

In the end

After the loss of some 600 lives in perhaps the very worst manner, laws finally became more stringent on fire around the world. And yet even today with information being as available as ever we have terrible unintentional fires in nightclubs and other public places, even where strict codes do exist.

Fortunately, nowadays building owners are far more aware of the dangers of fire and the importance of fire safety. Perhaps one thing you could say at the end of this sad and terrible story is that if you see something, say something to someone who can and should address it. Being an inconvenience in the name of safety- especially in egregious circumstances- can be both an act of bravery and benevolence.

This preventable human disaster, like all preventable disasters, was the effect of human shortcomings on innocent, random people. This one disaster helped prove to people once and for all (or at least for a moment) this was true. One positive to memorializing and remembering such disasters however is that people can learn from past mistakes. 

This was the worst peace-time fire disaster of ‘modern’ recorded history. It would take nearly a century before a terror act changed that, and everything else for the United States. But before the days of terrorism there was lawlessness and even worse shameful corruption, and this lawlessness permeated society.

Over a hundred years ago now, most likely only the descendants of those survivors live, and even fewer know the tale told directly from a survivor, but the impact from the sweeping reforms would save countless lives in the future- and in that way we won’t forget them.