THE IROQUOIS THEATRE FIRE, 1903
The Iroquois Theatre Fire occurred at 24-28 West Randolph Street in Chicago. It is the deadliest theatre fire and the deadliest single-building fire in United States history. A total of 602 people died as the result of the fire.
On December 30, 1903 a matinee performance of a popular musical Mr. Bluebeard was playing to a packed house of an estimated 2000 patrons, predominately women and children. Every seat was filled with hundreds in the “standing room” area and some patrons sitting in the aisles blocking the exits.
About 3:15 P.M. an arc light shorted out and ignited a muslin curtain, the fire quickly spread to the fly gallery above the stage where thousands of square feet of highly inflammable painted canvas flats were hung. A stage manager attempted to lower the asbestos curtain to protect the audience, but the curtain was blocked by a light reflector that stuck out from the wall. A chemist later tested the curtain and found it was mainly wood pulp mixed with asbestos and would have been “of no value in a fire.”
Later investigation revealed a Chicago Fire Department Captain had made an unofficial tour of the theatre days before the November opening and found that there were no extinguishers, sprinklers, alarms, telephones or water. He reported this to the theatre’s Fire Warden who said nothing could be done because he would be dismissed if he brought it up to the Owners. The Captain then reported it to his Commanding Officer who said nothing could be done because it was the responsibility of the theatre’s Fire Warden.
The investigation also showed that large iron gates blocked off stairways during performances. Within the theatre, curtains covered the main fire exits which were secured with a type of lock almost unheard of outside of Europe at that time, nobody knew how to open them. The fire escapes were too narrow to carry the number of people if all doors were opened. Many doors, including the main stage door opened inward. And finally, some perished trying to get out of “doors” that were in reality windows designed to look like doors.
The largest death toll was at the base of the stairways from the upper levels because the iron gates that barred the stairways were still in place. Hundreds of people were trampled, crushed or asphyxiated. Corpses were piled ten bodies high around the doors and windows.
Many were charged with crimes, including Mayor Carter Harrison, Jr., but most charges were dismissed three years later because of the delaying tactics of the Owner’s lawyers and the use of loopholes and inadequacies in the building and safety ordinances. The only person convicted was a tavern keeper charged with robbing the dead. By 1907, thirty families of the victims received a settlement of $750.00 each for their loss.