The Iroquois Theater Fire: Stage Set for Disaster

On Dec. 30, 1903, fire killed more than 600 people--mostly women and children--the most fatalities in any single-structure fire in U.S. history.

Dec. 30, 2013 marked the 110th anniversary of the Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago—a conflagration that took 605 lives, mostly women and children, and forever changed the way we look at fire protection in public buildings.

Like the Titanic almost 10 years later, the Iroquois’s designers and builder touted the structure as modern, magnificent, and safe—advertised as “absolutely fireproof.” But municipal graft and corruption, and a rush to finish the job before the holiday season, resulted in a structure that was visually beautiful, but structurally and functionally unsound.

So when more than 2,000 patrons, many of them children on Christmas holiday, crammed into the 5-week-old theater on Dec. 30, 1903, for a matinee performance of “Mr. Bluebeard,” a lavish musical starring comedian Eddie Foy, they expected a treat.

What they got instead was a disaster of epic proportions, arising from a chain reaction of failed systems, shoddy workmanship, greed and negligence. 605 people died, the most fatalities in any single-structure fire in U.S. history.

"The dramatic changes in the way insurers assess risk is worth acknowledging as Americans reflect on the 110thanniversary of the Iroquois Theater fire," said Loretta Worters, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute. "It offers a grim reminder to insurers and governmental regulators of what can happen when complacency sets in. Insurers, policyholders and public policy makers must continue to implement sound risk management practices to ensure such tragedies are never repeated."

To learn about the fire and its outcome, click on the following pages.

1Nov. 23, 1903: Grand opening of the Iroquois Theater

Designed by architect Benjamin H. Marshall, commissioned by theater owners Harry J. Powers and William J. Davis, and built by the George H. Fuller Construction Co., Chicago's  Iroquois Theater, at 24-28 W. Randolph St., was a six-story structure with seating for 1,724, an elaborate lobby, granite columns and decorative fixtures. The exterior was made of concrete and nonflammable materials and there were more than 30 exits. The New York Times called it "undoubtedly the safest theatre in Chicago."

Anxious to open at the peak holiday season, the owners pressured the contractor to finish work quickly, even if it meant opening the theater with only the essentials.

The Iroquois' maiden production was "Mr. Bluebeard," a musical comedy starring comic actor Eddie Foy and a cast of hundreds.


Dec. 30, 1903, 2:15 p.m.

The matinee performance of "Mr. Bluebeard" drew a crowd of more than 2,000, mostly women and children on Christmas holiday. All seats were full and patrons were standing four deep in the balconies. This was in clear violation of Chicago's fire code, but the practice was common in theaters of the day.

2:30 p.m.

"In the Pale Moonlight," an elaborate musical number at the start of the second act, required a spotlight effect simulating moonlight. Wiring from a movable carbon arc light above the stage sputtered and caught fire, igniting on some nearby scenery. Stagehands quickly tried to douse the flames with a powdered conconction called Kilfyre, but failed to quell the spreading blaze. Flames reached the many elaborately painted backdrops which hung over the stage, spreading upward into the scenery and sending a shower of ash and sparks onto the actors onstage.

While the crew backstage tried to douse the flames, the audience began noticing that something was wrong. Actor Eddie Foy, whose young son was watching the show from the wings, urged patrons to remain calm and seated, signaling the orchestra leader to keep playing and calling for the stagehands to lower the asbestos curtain to stop the flames. As Foy recalled later, "I didn't want a stampede because it was the biggest audience I ever played to of women and children." But the curtain failed to deploy and instead began burning.


Actors seeking escape rushed to open a stage door, admitting cold air that further fueled the flames. Although there was a ventilation system above the stage designed to prevent fire by sucking flames and smoke away from the area, the units were inoperable because the bands used in transporting and installing them had never been removed.

However, vents installed behind the dress circle on the mezzanine and behind gallery seated were operative--which created a blowtorch effect, blasting the fire from the stage directly into the faces of people seated in the balconies, instantly asphyxiating some and driving others to the exits.


Most of the actors, stagehands and patrons on the lower levels had escaped into the cold Chicago afternoon. People on the upper levels were not as fortunate.

Although there were 30 exits from the theater, there were no exit signs and many exits were further obscured by heavy draperies installed for decorative effect. Twenty-seven exits were locked or blocked by iron gates designed to prevent people in the gallery from sneaking down to the better seats. Fleeing patrons found themselves trapped and as many succumbed to asphyxiation, piles of victims, some 10 deep, clogged the doorways.

And then the lights went out.


Meanwhile, people who managed to exit through the fire escapes facing the theater's alleyway faced more problems. Ladders were frozen in the up postion and people began jumping down. Although some men leaped down to catch women and children as they jumped, as did firemen with nets who had arrived on the scene, many people trying to escape fell to their deaths. Soon the alleyway was littered with the dead.

A nearby restaurant and the Marshall Field & Co. department store were forced into service as makeshift hospitals and morgues.


2:45 p.m.

Amazingly, in 15 minutes, the fire, fueled by the tinderbox that was the inside of the theater, had burned itself out.

All of the actors and stagehands had managed to escape except for Nellie Reed, an aerialist who had been trapped in her harness above the stage. Of the audience of more than two thousand, more than 30 percent were killed. 212 were children, 76 age 10 or under.


The aftermath 

Public outrage ran as hot as the fire in the days after the tragedy. More than 200 witnesses testified at a coroner's inquest, held within a week of the fire. Mayor Harrison, the theater's owners, designers and contractors and even some actors were indicted and named in lawsuits. All were eventually dismissed on technicalities. The only civil suit that led to compensation was against the George F. Fuller Co., the contractors who built the theater. The suit settled out of court in January 1909. Thirty-nine claimants received $750 each.


Since then

The Iroquois's claims of being "fireproof" were almost correct. Although much of the interior was consumed, the stoutly built exterior was untouched.

Searches for references involving insurance claims or losses comes up blank, possibly because of this minimal damage, said Worters of I.I.I. 

According to a contemporary article from "The American Architect," the insurance adjusted for the fire at $30,000.

However, life insurance fraud was rampant in the wake of the fire. Because many of the dead were virtually unidentifiable, fraudsters trying to claim bodies and misrepresenting them as relatives to profit from fake insurance claims was common.

Just as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 ushered in a new era of workplace safety, some good arose from the ashes of the Iroquois. Chicago changed its fire code to require theater doors to open outwards, to have exits clearly marked and fire curtains made of steel. Theater management was also required to practice fire drills with ushers and theater personnel--practices that were adopted elsewhere.

"The U.S. has made great strides in constructing more fire resistant buildings and upgrading building codes, thereby reducing the incidence of fires and improving fire suppression techniques," Worters said.

And todays's property and casualty industry plays a major role in fire prevention, especially in buildings where an occupied floor is 75 feet above the fire department's access level. "Insurers today regularly have loss control engineering units inspect policyholder workplaces to evaluate the fire protection features of the buildings," she said.

As for the skeleton of the Iroquois, it was repaired, rechristened the Colonial Theater, and reopened less than a year later. It was torn down in 1926 and replaced with the Oriental Theatre, now known as the Ford Center for the Performing Arts.

The alleyway that was witness to so much horror looks much the same as it did 110 years ago.


Thanks to sources including Jeremy Oliver's Iroquois Theater Fire blog, Illinois Heritage, and the Eastland Memorial Society's Iroquois page.

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