The Iroquois Theatre Fire, Part 2: The Fire

The Iroquois Theatre After The Fire.

The Iroquois Theatre after the fire.

Author’s Note: The event we will be discussing occurred one-hundred twenty years ago. Record keeping during that time period was sometimes shaky at best. We have endeavored to base our program on facts that we can verify to a reasonable degree. That being said, there are still some accounts that vary wildly. In producing this show, we have made every attempt to be as accurate as possible with records available today.


It’s hard today to imagine lighting our homes with kerosene lamps. After all, how many of us have picked up our phone and turned on the flashlight function just to see our way to the bathroom in the middle of the night? But in 1903, residential electric lighting was still decades away from what we are used to now . So when people would visit Chicago, they viewed the bright electric lights as almost a form of magic.

Theatres were no different, in fact, the brilliance of electric lighting illuminated the colors on all the costumes, scenery, props, and backdrops much netter than oil burning lamps that were the standard up until the late 1800’s. However, since commercial electrical service did not have a set of codes like today, there were still issues with poorly manufactured equipment, circuit design, and a lack of safety features. It is important to note though, even some stage lights used today put off extremely high temperatures. With all the safety protocols developed over the years, even modern stage lights have the capability to ignite flammable materials.

… in 19th century theaters, within 15 years, 40% would have experienced a fire that ultimately closed the theater. A predominant number of those fires were caused by lighting. -Tyler

Back in 1903, theatre worker William McMullen had only been in the position of arc light operator for four months. However, he recognized that the light he was charged with operating was too close to one of the curtains. According to McMullen’s testimony a year after the fire, his warnings went unheeded by theatre management.

At this point, we should note that there are some discrepancies about what happened exactly. There is the testimony from William McMullen saying that the light was too close to a curtain, some who say that it short circuited, and other accounts that say someone knocked the light over. The theory of the light getting accidentally knocked over seems highly unlikely, since modern stage lights weight between one-hundred-fifty and two hundred pounds. As the audience watched the double octet performance of “In the Pale Moonlight”, they saw to the left a line of flame shoot straight up accompanied by the sound of the fuse to the spot light blowing.

Unbeknownst to the audience was that the fire had started nearly a minute earlier and had travelled along a muslin curtain, despite the efforts of stage hands trying to extinguish the flames. Muslin is a cotton based fabric, having a loose weave which means that there is ample room for oxygen to permeate the fabric. This fabric had also been saturated with paint, as part of the scenery backdrop. Todays stage paints, while tested and certified by the American Society for Testing and Materials, or, ASTM, are still combustible depending on the time the material is subjected to open flame. In 1903, there was no such testing nor was there any sort of flame retardant chemical included in the formulation of the paint.
In short, the scenery curtain was kindling to the fire.

William McMullen sees the flames start to race up the curtain from the start, and tries to stomp it out as best possible. Remember, fire needs heat, fuel, and oxygen. By stomping on something that is on fire, you remove the oxygen component. William Sallers, the theatres fire-man whom we discussed in part one, also sees what is happening and starts trying to use the Kilfyre canisters to extinguish the fire. However, since the Kilfyre devices are designed to be hurled with great force downwards towards the base of the flames, his efforts were completely ineffective. As the fire is now beyond Sallers reach at the top of the curtain, some fifty feet in the air, it encounters thousands of square feet of the painted set canvases, props, and decorations which quickly ignite.

William Aldrige was a carpenter but as part of the production company for Mr. Blue Beard, he was operating a calcium lamp. That particular light was not needed during the moonlight dance scene, so he watched the play from a bridge thirty feet above the stage. He would later describe seeing a curtain sway and within seconds, the fire raced up, across, and to adjacent curtains:

I was about twenty feet above the lights which were being used, having left my place to watch the performance. While I was looking down on the performers I noticed a flash of light where the electric wires connect with the calcium light. As I looked a curtain swayed against the flame. In a moment the loose edges of the canvas were in a blaze, which rapidly ran up the edge of the canvas and across its upper end.”

In a matter of seconds, the fire reaches the point of no return.

The Iroquois Theatre after the fire.

The Iroquois Theatre after the fire.


When the audience saw the fire run up the curtain unabated, there was immediately a hush. The singers stopped mid-verse, and the musicians ceased playing. For a dreadful second, all sounds in the nearly three-thousand square foot building vanished, save for the sound of stage hands yelling at each other to “beat it out” or, “hit it with the sticks” along with the quiet roar of a fire gaining its footing and spreading to everything it could reach.

Breaking the silence at first were some slight murmurings, followed by shrieks and cries from audience members. Then, all hell broke loose.

The sounds of men jumping to their feet. Women grabbing children, and kids crying in confusion erupted from the parquet, balcony, and gallery areas. It filled the space with a cacophony of fear and panic. People were running literally for their lives, not because they were surrounded by flames, but because everyone, from the wealthiest to the poorest attendees were well aware of the dangers of fire in public buildings. It was at this time that stage crew attempted to lower the asbestos fire curtain.

So here we have just this terrifying incident of crowd panic. ..the fire is no longer just under the observation of the backstage crew. The audience can now see it. And their senses are disrupted. They start crying out. Once they realize what’s going on, they start to just act. – Tim

As we discussed in part one, the fire curtain had not been made as a true fire curtain but rather, had other materials, that were cheaper, substituted. Most likely for cost saving efforts. Theatre fire-man Sallers, arc light operator McNullen, and by some accounts, stage manager William Carlton called for the fire curtain to be lowered. Even though this particular curtain didn’t contain the standard at the time of fire resistant material, it still could have slowed the spread of the fire. However, the automatic and manual release systems failed. During the release of the curtain, it snagged on a light reflector and several other parts of the stage equipment around the top of the proscenium, or main arch, of the stage. This gave the now growing fire an open range on the audience.

From backstage, a man in tights, loose shirt, and half applied makeup ran onto the main stage. As he ran, he called to one of the stagehands to take his son, Bryan, and get him out of the building through a stage exit. Eddie Foy, the main comedic actor of the play, saw the stage hand running with his son to safety. From there, he was able to put on a different face. One of calm and composure, and turn to the audience and yelled, “Quiet! Keep quiet!” Foy said to the orchestra to start playing some kind of music in an effort to calm the audience. Even as chunks of burning debris fall around him, and orchestra members flee, Foy stays calm and in center stage, is still urging the audience members to not
panic. The actions of Foy, who begged calmness of the audience, probably saved many people who were seated on the parquet floor. Although human nature to panic ultimately prevailed, his coolness stayed many members of the audience, keeping them in their seats just long enough for exits to open up.

The vents above the main stage that had been designed as fire suppression devices to allow smoke to escape, were sealed shut, so smoke could not get out of the building. Smoke is pouring through the upper areas of the auditorium and starting to build-up downwards towards the audience. By this point, all sense of calm and understanding have completely left the people in the audience. Panic has set in and everyone is rushing towards the exits. However, those exits have the bascule locks we previously discussed. They required at least four separate motions to unlock each door. That is, if you could find them behind the wall curtains. One such door was even being blocked by an usher. Frank Houseman, a former major league baseball player for the Chicago Colts, tells the man to get the hell out of the way and he opens the door. Houseman had a bascule lock on his ice box at his home, so he knew how they operated. Houseman’s friend Charlie Dexter, another major league player, uses shear brute force to open another door. After the fire, investigators found a third door that was opened, however, they were unable to determine if someone had opened it or if a blast of air did.

At the doors that could not be opened, panic grips the people literally piled up behind those trying to desperately to escape. Women and children are trampled and crushed by men trying to flee the building. Those at the doors are literally smashed up against them. At these exits, there is no room, and no time, for someone to examine the bascule locks and figure out how they are operated. Other groups of people rushed to supposed exits, only to find they are ornate windows meant to look like doors.a

On the other side of the proscenium or, grand archway, actors, production crew, and stage hands were also in panic mode. As they attempt to flee, they find the buildings main rear exit, which are massive double doors used to move large pieces of the set in and out of the theatre, and escape on to Dearborn Street and Couch Place. Performers that couldn’t escape through these doors also used the coal hatch and windows in the dressing rooms. Others also find an exterior stage door but since it opens inward and between four and five-hundred cast members are all trying to escape, it is impossible for those at the front to pull the doors inward against the flow of people.

With the vents above the stage effectively sealed off, and no fireproof curtain between the stage and audience, the fire is massive. As cast members open the backstage doors on to Dearborn Street, there is a massive influx of oxygen introduced to the building. With smoke having filled the upper third of the volume of the Iroquois Theatre, and having plenty of heat, this introduction of fresh oxygen is the last ingredient this tragedy needs. This deadly trio ignites an event known as “flash-over”.

To put it simply, smoke is the unburned parts of a fire. That’s not to say it isn’t flammable or combustible. In fact, when unburned smoke is trapped in an environment that contains high heat, the smoke itself becomes a fuel for the fire. When conditions are just right for a flashover, the entire open space of a structure erupts into a giant inferno. As a side note, most modern firefighting techniques include ventilation of a
structure that is on fire. For instance, if a house is on fire, then firefighters will go on top and cut several large openings in the roof, thus allowing the combustible smoke to escape into the open atmosphere before it has a chance to flash-over inside. Since the vents for the Iroquois Theatre are sealed shut however, there is nowhere for the smoke to go, now making it a prime fuel source for the fire.

“In the alley of death and mutilation. Jumping from the fire escapes to escape the flames.”

-Headline of the Chicago Daily Tribune: Thursday, December 31, 1903,

The people who were fortunate enough to not be incinerated in the flash-over event still faced nearly certain death or injury. Balcony and gallery occupants raced towards the stairways leading down to the grand foyer, only to find them blocked by accordion style iron gates. Knowing that they would almost surely die if they attempted to proceed through these massive gates, they most likely turned and headed towards the fire escape exits.

Once out on the north side of the building, over Couch Place, they found that some of the fire escapes were not installed correctly. This trapped people, yet again, with no safe means of egress. Some of the show-goers actually tripped and fell off of the fire escapes. In a gruesome twist of fate, it has been reported that the bodies of these victims actually cushioned the falls of additional victims, thus saving more lives.

On the other side of Couch Place, to the north of the Iroquois Theatre, was a building that belonged to Northwestern University. Painters working to repair damage from another fire were able to bridge the gap between the two buildings, first using a ladder, and then using wooden boards between the rooftops. Thanks to their efforts and compassion, several lives were saved that day. One life that was not so lucky was the twelfth person in a dozen trying to live by going across one of the plankways, when they were engulfed by a pillar of fire.

Women and children packed several other fire escapes. They were consumed and burned alive by spouts of fire erupting from the building. Some of their bodies fell over the edge and landed dozens of feet below in the alley. Others died in the openings of the buildings. Literal piles of bodies were being created.

An amazing story out of this hell-ish inferno is that on the stage exit level, where actors and crew members are literally piling up on each other trying to push out on inward swinging doors; a nearby railroad agent sees them and by a miraculous chance, he has his hand tools on him. He manages to remove the hinges so that the door can be pushed to the side and the performers and crew can escape the blaze behind them.

Eddie Foy, the brave actor who had stood center stage trying to maintain calm and order, had by this time managed to make his escape. Along with him were members of the aerial ballet, who were the last of the performers to get out of the building. The aerialists owed their lives to the boy in charge of the fly elevator. While they were aloft in the first and second fly galleries above the stage, and burning debris fell around them in the thickening smoke, the elevator boy ran his cage up to them, took the performers aboard, and brought them safely to the floor. One aerialist performer was not so lucky however. Nelly reed, an acrobat, was trapped by a wire still attached to her for her performance flying over the audience. She was one of only two cast members who died that day. As Foy and the group of aerialists reached the outer doorway, the stage loft, along with other hanging, hand-painted, scenery backdrops crashed to the floor with tremendous sparks, flames, and billowing smoke.

The Iroquois Theatre after the fire.

The Iroquois Theatre after the fire.

Help Arrives

The Iroquois Theatre had no fire alarm or telephone. So, outside of the building itself, virtually no one had any idea what was going on inside. The first Chicago Fire Department engine was alerted and en-route approximately eighteen minutes after the fire had started. They were only made aware by a fleeing stagehand. One of the firefighters actually stopped along the way to activate a nearby fire alarm box to call for additional units.

…back in the day, the municipal fireboxes were everywhere. And that’s how you would alert the fire department, basically a telegraph system with a box that had a code attached to it. …each box would transmit a different number and they would look up where that was.

Now, a hundred and some years later, when the fire alarm goes off, …they know exactly where the problem is. So part of that is that you don’t even know that it is a five alarm fire at this place. You just know that something went off. -Jeff

The initial efforts of the fire department focused on the people trapped on the fire escapes. Since the alleys between buildings were very narrow, they quickly filled with smoke. Ladders and nets proved to be useless since the victims could not be seen from the ground. By this point, if victims hadn’t found an exit and gotten out, their fate was almost certainly sealed. Although the initial flashover was over, suffocating smoke and deadly heat still permeated throughout the building. By the time the Chicago Fire Department arrived, very few people were rescued alive simply because there weren’t many left to save.

“How can we get down there?
Jump, we’ll catch you!
No, we’d fall. Swear if we descend, you’ll treat us right.
Let us swear it by the pale moonlight, we love you blindly.
Let us wear it in the pale moonlight, we thank you kindly.
Then we take it that your word your plight, that we won’t be kissed.”

-Lyrics from “In The Pale Moonlight”, the song that was being performed when the fire ignited in the Iroquois Theatre.


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