The Iroquois Theatre was located on the Northern side, between the Dearborn Street and State Street in Chicago. The theatre attracted many women who went to Chicago for day trips because they thought the theatre was safe. The safety of the theatre was guaranteed because it was located close to the Loop shopping district that was patrolled by police. Upon opening of the Iroquois Theatre, drama critics lauded the theatre terming it as the most beautiful theatre in Chicago.
The Iroquois Theatre fire occurred at about 3:15 P.M, on 30th December 1903, in Chicago, Illinois. After the fire, 605 people were reported dead (Brandt 18). However, the number of deaths increased because some bodies were recovered from the scene after the incident of the fire. On the day of the fire, the stage was occupied by a matinee performance of Mr. Bluebeard. Many people attended the performance occupying all the seats. The patrons in the theatre were many too, who occupied the back areas of the theatre. The theatre accommodated approximately 2,000 patrons, where most were children (Hatch 36). The standing rooms were fully occupied and crowded, that some patrons were forced to sit in the aisles. The second act began at around 3:15 P.M with a dance. The dance was in progress when an arc light shorted out, causing sparks that ignited the muslin curtain.
The people on stage attempted to put off the fire using kilfyre canisters that were provided, with no success. Unfortunately, the fire spread to the fly gallery that was high above the stage. In the gallery, highly flammable painted canvas scenery flats were hung. There was an attempt by the stage manager to lower the fire curtain, but it unfortunately snagged. The sagging of the curtain was caused by blocking of light reflector, which had struck out under the proscenium arch. The curtain was made of wood pulp, mixed with asbestos, which burn easily (Goodman 44). After the fire broke out, Foy, who was preparing to go on stage showed his curiosity by remaining on stage and pleading the patrons to be calm. Foy was courageous, as he remained still, regardless of the large chunks of the burning scenery that landed around him. Foy admits that the crowd in the theatre was dominated by women and children.
The patrons panicked, and were forced to find space to flee themselves. Some of the patrons located fire exits were on the northern side of the building. Unfortunately, the patrons were unable to open the doors because they were unfamiliar with the bascule lock. A man who had a bascule lock at his home aided in opening one of the doors. Some doors were unable to open, whereas others were opened by either a blast of air, or a brute force. While attempting to escape the fire, many patrons were crushed and trampled on. Other people were trapped, and died as they attempted to open the windows to escape. Both the dancers and the performers who were in the backstage and the dressing rooms were forced to flee (Hatch 41).
The performers and the stagehands rushed out of the theatre through the back exit, causing some wind, which triggered the intensity of the fire. The windows and the coal hutch in the dressing rooms served as escape routes for the actors. Some of the actors scrambled at the west stage door in an attempt to escape from the theatre. It happened that the west stage door opened inwards, thus the making the actors jam at the door as they pressed to open. The actors at this door were assisted by a railroad agent who undid the hinges from the outside. The double freight doors that were situated on the north wall and used scenery were also opened. Opening of these doors allowed cold air into the theatre, which lead to increase of the fire in the theatre. Hot flames produced in the theatre caused the death of the patrons who had been trapped in the dress circle levels and the gallery. The patrons in the orchestra section succeeded to exit in the foyer, but those in the gallery and dress circle were barred by the Iron Gate from reaching the foyer. The largest number of people died at the base of the stairways, after being trampled and crushed on. Other patrons died after jumping or falling from the narrow fire escapes (Goodman 53).
575 people were estimated dead on the day of the fire whereas over 30 more people died afterwards due to injuries. Out of 300 actors, five were reported dead (Brandt 27). Because of the fire at Iroquois Theatre, some of the theatres in New York City eliminated standing rooms. In New York and some cities in Europe theatres were closed to give time for them to be retrofitted. Reformation of the fire codes and the buildings also took place in the New York City. Renovations were done on the theater exits, whereby they were marked clearly, and the doors configured in a way that they could be pushed open from the inside. All the theaters in Chicago were closed for six weeks after the order was given by the mayor. After investigation, it was alleged that most of the fire inspectors had been given free tickets for them to overlook the code violations. After the fire, the building reopened as the colonial theatre. However, the colonial theater was split in 1926, to pave the way for the oriental theatre.
Brandt, Nat. Chicago death trap: the Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003. Print.
Goodman, Edward C. Fire!: the 100 most devastating fires and the heroes who fought them. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2001. Print.
Hatch, Anthony P. Tinder box: the Iroquois Theatre disaster, 1903. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 2003. Print.