Fire at the Iroquois Theater – 1903

The Iroquois Theater was bang up-to-date. Designed like a Paris opera house with a 19m (60 ft) high marble-walled lobby and two sweeping staircases, its four floors of polished wood and stained-glass windows seated 1,600 people in gilded galleries of velvet plush. Its rococo splendor incorporated every safety device yet invented, including an asbestos safety curtain between the stage and auditorium and 25 exits to guarantee a speedy evacuation if ever it should be needed. It was Chicago’s newest showpiece.

The Iroquois was only five weeks old on December 30 1903 and the Wednesday matinee was sold out for the hit comedy Mr Bluebeard, starring the great vaudevillian Eddie Foy. This particular performance was for children on their school holidays, so management allowed 2,000 to cram into the seats and aisles. Backstage were another 400 actors, dancers and stagehands. Their irresistible cue came after the start of the second act. A colored gel from an overhead light fluttered down in burning scraps.

Without breaking rhythm, the onstage dancers tried to stamp them out but kicked them onto the red velvet curtains. The audience gasped as flash flames shot up to the proscenium arch – with delight, thinking it was part of the extravaganza. Nobody moved. Then the stage set fell flaming round Eddy Foy’s ears, the safety curtain jammed halfway down, and the theatre erupted in panic.

The ghastly inferno lasted 15 minutes. The 25 exits opened inwards, an impossibility against the surging crowd. Trampled bodies lay five deep. Terror-struck children hurled themselves from the balconies, crushing those below; and if they lived themselves, they later died burned and suffocated. Some got away – but when the crowd backstage opened an outside door, the surge of oxygen fanned the blaze to a tungsten-white fireball. The ‘fireproof’ theatre lay a shell, filled with human cinders.

When was the Fire at the Iroquois Theater: December 30 1903

Where was the Fire at the Iroquois Theater: Randolph Street, Chicago, Illinois, USA

What was the Fire at the Iroquois Theater death toll: 602 dead, including 212 children. Most of the survivors were injured to some extent from being trampled, gouged, choked, suffocated or burned.

You should know: Chicago banned any celebration of the New Year and went into official mourning. An enquiry revealed a catalogue of code violations sanctioned by bribed inspectors. The Iroquois’ glamour masked pitiless indifference to audience (or staff) safety. Nobody was ever convicted either for criminal manslaughter, or for the cover-up. The only person convicted of anything to do with the disaster was a businessman caught looting the dead bodies for personal valuables.

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