On the afternoon of December 30, 1903, the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago, Illinois caught fire and claimed the lives of an estimated six hundred two spectators, the majority of whom were women and children enjoying an outing together over Christmas vacation.
With such a large loss of life, all of Chicago was affected and the catastrophe served as an astonishing wake- up call to theatre houses worldwide. Families were torn apart – some completely destroyed- and others left with the gnawing question of what really happened to their loved ones that afternoon, unable to find or identify their bodies.
That week the “wheeled traffic seemed devoted to the transportation of flowers to homes with black crepe on their doors” (Hatch 132) and cemeteries became so full that families had to be buried together for lack of room. The Iroquois Theatre fire claimed more lives than that of the Chicago fire thirty-two years earlier and was one of Chicago’s most devastating of tragedies.
Said to be absolutely fireproof, the theatre fell short of its promise due to corruption and the cutting of corners to save expenses. Though “built of steel, brick, and concrete, materials considered to be impervious to fire, the theatre and its furnishings represented an investment of $1.1 million.” (Hatch 8) With its extreme excess of heavy and flammable drapery, as well as its extensive use of interior wood trim, unfinished fire escapes, and hidden exits, the theatre was in reality a colossal death trap.
That December afternoon the Iroquois exceeded its seating capacity and in the standing room alone there was over an estimated 200 spectators. Even with over 1,840 spectators in total, the theatre continued selling tickets to make up for low-ticket sales from the previous week.
So with a drastically full house, the Iroquois’s production of “Mr. Bluebeard” began at two o’clock and the ushers promptly locked and bolted the theatre doors. This was so that spectators in the low-cost seats could not sneak their way into the more lavish seating, but this detention proved to be a deadly mistake.
By three fifteen, the second act of the production was under way when a stage hand “neglected to completely retract the ‘right stage’ reflector,” a twenty foot long metal reflector which contained brightly colored light bulbs used in many scenes, “leaving it slightly extended.” (Hatch 73)
No one seemed to notice this error and the show continued until a spotlight sparked fire and began to spread to the drapery. When stagehands were unable to extinguish the flames and members of the audience were beginning to notice the backstage commotion, the asbestos curtain, made of “a fibrous mineral that is chemically inert with heat resistant properties” (Asbestos n. pag) was ordered to drop.
The stage manager in charge of the asbestos curtain was absent at this time and when the stagehands finally figured out how to drop the curtain, the curtain got caught on the right stage reflector less than twenty feet above the stage and was unable to fully lower. The audience went into a state of panic and rushed towards all exits, finding them locked to their dismay. Many were trampled on and crushed to death during the hysteria, and very few were lucky enough to discover the unlabeled exits hidden behind the drapery covering the walls.
The ushers in charge of the gates were unwilling to unlock them and many had even fled their posts. Some members of the audience had even made their way to the theatre’s roof and started their descent down the fire escapes only to discover that they were unfinished, leaving them trapped. Though firemen arrived at the scene within minutes and with plenty of volunteers, they were only able to rescue very few before the situation became too dangerous and they were forced to fall back. Within the span of half an hour, nearly half of the theatre’s audience had either burned to death, were asphyxiated by fumes, crushed to death by those panicking to escape, or had fallen to their deaths from the burning building.
The ensuing court processions uncovered shocking details of negligence and corruption by theatre owners Will J. Davis and Harry Powers, and the countless officials that the two paid off to overlook safety and building hazards during inspection. The disaster brought to attention that countless theatres worldwide were not up to code and were declared unsafe. Many were shutdown, leaving thousands of actors without work and sending them into poverty.
The investigation reported that the theatre “contained installed ventilators that were not in operation, unmarked exits, no fire protection devices such as extinguishers and standpipes, blocked and hidden exits, no installed alarm system, and no automatic sprinklers in the stage area, even though it was a municipal requirement” (Brannigan and Carter n. pag). New laws required “theatre doors to open outward, exits to be clearly marked, fire curtains be made of steel, and that theatre management were required to practice fire drills with all staff” (The Iroquois Theatre Fire).
The Iroquois fire inspired fire safety improvements not only in theatre and playhouses, but also in indoor buildings and structures across the country.
This fire has caused most work environments to change such as having doors that go out, fire extinguishers, one or a few fire escapes, and also fire-proof buildings...particularly.