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down for them forever. They, at least, would know no more of pitiful
quests for engagements, of wearying rehearsal and momentary, superficial
conquest. They had played their last stand.

"This is the saddest day of my life," declared one of the chorus members
in the presence of the writer. "Here I am, 1,000 miles from home, no
prospects of another engagement this season, and only $5 in the world."

"I have less than you," said a frail appearing girl, with tears in her
eyes. "I lost my savings, $22, in the fire, and I have only $3 to go home

"It is the life of the stage," said a matronly wardrobe woman. "The poor
girls are penniless, and if the injured were left hind it would be as
charity patients. The responsibility of the managers of the show ceases
when the production is closed. I know many of these girls are without
sufficient money to pay for a week's lodging, and it is a sad outlook for
some of them this winter."

And the wardrobe woman told the truth - it was merely a striking example, a
pitiful vicissitude of "the life of the stage."



Since the time that civilized man first met with fellow man to enjoy the
work of the primitive playwright, humanity has paid a toll of human life
for its amusements. Oftener than history tells the tiny flicker of a
tongue of flame has thrown a gay, laughing audience into a wild,
struggling mob, and instead of the curtain which would have been rung down
on the comedy on the stage, a pall of black smoke covered the struggles of
the living and dying.

Of all the theater disasters of history, none ever occurred in America
equaling the loss of life in the Iroquois fire. Only two in the history of
the civilized world surpass it. There have been fires accompanied by
greater loss of life, but not among theater audiences.

But the grand total of persons killed in theater holocausts is large and
the saddest comment on this list is that most of the victims were from
holiday audiences of women and children. Lehman's playhouse in St.
Petersburg, Russia, was destroyed in Christmas week, 1836, and 700 persons
lost their lives. The Ring theater, Vienna, Austria, was destroyed Dec. 8,
1881, and 875 persons lost their lives. These are the only theater
holocausts whose deadliness surpasses that of the Iroquois.

To all have been the same accompaniments of panic, futile struggle and
suffocation. In the last century with the introduction of the modern style
of playhouse, these fatal fires have increased. The annals of the stage
are replete with dark pages that cause the tragedy of the mimic drama
depicted behind the footlights to pale and shrivel into comparative

Perhaps it is a fatal legacy from the time when civilized society gathered
in its marble coliseums and amphitheaters to witness the mortal combats of
human soldiers or the death struggles of Christians waging a vain battle
against famished wild beasts. Whatever it may be, death has always stalked
as the dread companion of the god of the muse and drama.

An English statistician published six years ago a list of fires at places
of public entertainment in all countries in the preceding century. He
showed that there had been 1,100 conflagrations, with 10,000 fatalities,
and he apologized for the incompleteness of his figures. Another authority
says that in the twelve years from 1876 to 1888 not less than 1,700 were
killed in theater disasters in Brooklyn, Nice, Vienna, Paris, Exeter and
Oporto, and that in every case nearly all the victims were dead within ten
minutes from the time the smoke and flame from the stage reached the
auditorium. As in the Iroquois fire, it was mainly in the balconies and
galleries that death held its revels.

Fire wrought havoc at Rome in the Amphitheater in the year 14 B. C., and
the Circus Maximus was similarly destroyed three times in the first
century of the Christian era. Three other theaters were razed by flames in
the same period, and Pompeii's was burned again almost two centuries
later, but the exact loss of life is not recorded in either instance. The
Greek playhouses, built of stone in open spaces, were never endangered by

No theaters were built on the modern plan until in the sixteenth century
in France, and not until the seventeenth did any catastrophe worthy of
record occur. When Shakespeare lived plays were generally produced in
temporary structures, sometimes merely raised platforms in open squares,
and it was after his time that scenic effects began to be amplified and
the use of illuminants increased. Thus it was that dangers, both to
players and auditors, were vastly increased.

In the Teatro Atarazanas, in Seville, Spain, many people were killed and
injured at a fire in 1615. The first conflagration of this kind in England
worth noting happened in 1672, when the Theater Royal, or Drury Lane,
standing on the site of the playhouse in which "Mr. Bluebeard" was
produced before it was brought to Chicago, was burned to the ground. Sixty
other buildings were destroyed, but no loss of life is recorded.

Two hundred and ten people lost their lives and the whole Castle of
Amalienborg, in Copenhagen, was laid in ashes in 1689 from a rocket that
ignited the scenery in the opera house. Eighteen persons perished at the
theater in the Kaizersgracht, Amsterdam, in 1772, and six years later the
Teatro Colisseo, at Saragossa, Spain, went up in flames and seventy-seven
lives were lost. The governor of the province was among the victims.
Twenty players were suffocated in the burning of the Palais Royal in Paris
in 1781.

In the nineteenth century there were twelve theater fires marked by great
loss of life, and the first of these occurred in the United States. At
Richmond, on the day after Christmas in 1811, a benefit performance of
"Agnes and Raymond, or the Bleeding Nun," was being given, and the theater
was filled with a wealthy and fashionable audience. The governor of
Virginia, George W. Smith, ex-United States Senator Venable, and other
prominent persons were in the audience and were numbered among the seventy
victims. The last act was on when the careless hoisting of a stage
chandelier with lighted candles set fire to the scenery. Most of those
killed met death in the jam at the doors.

The Lehman Theater and circus in St. Petersburg was the scene of a fire in
1836, in which 800 people perished. A stage lamp hung high ignited the
roof, a panic ensued, and there was such a mad rush that most of the
people slew each other trying to get out. Those not trampled to death were
incinerated by the fire that rapidly enveloped the temporary wooden

A lighted lamp, upset in a wing, caused a stampede in the Royal Theater,
Quebec, June 12, 1846, and 100 people were either burned or crushed into
lifelessness. The exits were poor and the playhouse was built of
combustible material. Less than a year later the Grand Ducal Theater at
Carlsruhe, Baden, Germany, was destroyed by a fire, due to the careless
lighting of the gas in the grand ducal box. Most of the 150 victims were
suffocated. Between fifty and one hundred people met a fiery death in the
Teatro degli Aquidotti at Leghorn, Italy, June 7, 1857. Fireworks were
being used on the stage and a rocket set fire to the scenery.

One of the most serious fires from the standpoint of loss of life was that
in the Jesuit church of Santiago, South America, in 1863. Fire broke out
in the building during service. A panic started and the efforts of the
priests to calm the immense crowd and lead them quietly from the edifice
were vain. The few doors became jammed with a struggling mass of men,
women and children. The next day 2,000 bodies were taken from the church,
most of them suffocated or trampled to death.

The Brooklyn theater fire was long memorable in this country. Songs,
funeral marches and poems without number were written commemorating the
sad event. Vastly different from the Iroquois horror, most of the victims
of the Brooklyn theater were burned beyond recognition. At Greenwood
cemetery in Brooklyn there now stands a marble shaft to the unidentified
victims of the holocaust.

Kate Claxton was playing "The Two Orphans" at Conway's Theater in Brooklyn
on the night of Dec. 5, 1876. In the last scene of the last act Miss
Claxton, as Louise, the poor blind girl, had just lain down on her pallet
of straw, when she saw above her in the flies a tiny flame. An actor of
the name of Murdoch, on the stage with her, saw it about the same time,
and was so excited that he began to stammer his lines. Miss Claxton tried
to reassure him and partly succeeded.

Then the audience realized that the theater was on fire, and a movement
began. The star, with Mr. Murdoch and Mrs. Farren, joined hands, walked to
the footlights and begged the audience to go out in an orderly manner.
"You see, we are between you and the fire," said Miss Claxton. The people
were proceeding quietly, when a man's voice shouted, "It is time to be out
of this," and every one seemed seized with a frenzy. The main entrance
doors opened inwardly, and there was such a jam that these could not be

The crowds from the galleries rushed down the stairways and fell or jumped
headlong into the struggling mass below. Of the 1,000 people in the
theater 297 perished. They were either burned, suffocated or trampled to
death. The actor Murdoch was one of the victims.

That same year, 1876, a panic resulted in the Chinese theater of San
Francisco from a cry of fire. A lighted cigar which someone playfully
dropped into a spectator's coat pocket caused a smell of burning wool. The
audience became panic stricken and rushed madly for the exits. At the time
there were about 900 Americans in the auditorium, and of this number
one-quarter were seriously injured. The fire itself was of no consequence.

The destruction of the Ring theater at Vienna, Dec. 8, 1881, remains the
greatest horror of the kind in the history of civilization. It was
preceded on March 23 of the same year, by the burning of the Municipal
theater in Nice, Italy, caused by an explosion of gas, and in which
between 150 and 200 people perished miserably, but the magnitude of the
Vienna holocaust made the world forget Nice for the time. The feast of the
Immaculate Conception was being celebrated by the Viennese, and
Offenbach's "Les Contes d'Hoffman," an opera bouffe, was the play. The
audience numbered 2,500.

Fire was suddenly observed in the scenery, and a wild panic started. An
iron curtain, designed for just such emergencies, was forgotten, and the
flames, which might thus have been confined to the stage, spread furiously
through the entire building. The scene was changed from light-hearted
revelry, with gladsome music, to one of lurid horror.

The exits from the galleries were long and tortuous and quickly became
choked. As in the Iroquois theater fire, those who had occupied the
gallery seats were the ones who lost their lives. But few escaped from the
galleries. The great majority of the spectators were burned beyond
recognition by their nearest relatives. One hundred and fifty were so
charred that they were buried in a common grave, and the city's mourning
was shared by all the world.

The next fire of this nature to attract the world's attention and sympathy
was the destruction of the Circus Ferroni at Berditscheff, Russian Poland.
Four hundred and thirty people were killed and eighty mortally injured.
Many children were crushed and suffocated in the jam, and horses and
other trained animals perished by the score. This was on Jan. 13, 1883,
and the origin of the conflagration was traced to a stableman who smoked a
cigarette while lying in a heap of straw.


The burning of the Opera Comique in Paris, May 25, 1887, was a spectacular
horror. Here again an iron curtain that would have protected the audience
was not lowered. The first act of "Mignon" was on, when the scenery was
observed to be ablaze. The upper galleries were transformed into infernos,
in which men knocked other men and women down and trampled them in their
eagerness to save themselves, while the flames reached out and enveloped
them all.

Many of the actors and actresses escaped only in their costumes, and some
rushed nude into the streets. The scenes in the thoroughfares where men
and women in tights and ball dresses and men in gorgeous theatrical robes
mingled with the naked, and the dead and dying were strewn about, made a
picture fantastically terrible. The official list of dead was
seventy-five, but many others died from the fire's effects.

The theater at Exeter, England, burned Sept. 5, 1887, was ignited from gas
lights, and so much smoke filled the edifice in a short time that near 200
were suffocated in their seats. They were found sitting there afterward,
just as though they were still watching the play. This was the eleventh,
and the Oporto fire the twelfth of the big conflagrations of the country.
One hundred and seventy dead were taken from the ruins of the Portuguese
playhouse after the flames which destroyed it on the evening of March 31,
1888, had been subdued. Many sailors and marine soldiers in the galleries
used knives to kill persons standing in their way, and scores of the
victims were found with their throats cut.

Ten years after the Opera Comique fire occurred the greatest of all
Parisian horrors, the destruction by flames of the charity bazar, May 4,
1897. Members of the nobility, and even royalty, were among the victims.
All of fashionable Paris were under the roof of a temporary wooden edifice
known to visitors to the exposition of 1889 as "Old Paris." The annual
bazar in the interest of charity had always been one of the most imposing
of the spring functions. The wealthy and distinguished, titled and modish
were there in larger numbers than on any previous occasion.

The fire broke out with a suddenness that so dazed everyone that the small
chance of escape from the flimsy structure was made even less. Duchesses,
marquises, countesses, baronesses and grand dames joined in the mad rush
for the exits. The men present are said to have acted in a particularly
cowardly manner, knocking down and trampling upon women and children. The
death list of more than 100 included the Duchesses d'Alencon and De St.
Didier, the Marquise de Maison, and three barons, three baronesses, one
count, eleven countesses, one general, five sisters of charity and one
mother superior. The Duchess d'Alencon was the favorite sister of the
Empress of Austria and had been a fiance of the mad King Ludwig of
Bavaria. The Duchess d'Uzes was badly burned. The shock of the news and
the death of his niece, the Duchess d'Alencon, accounted for the death on
May 7 of the Duc d'Aumale.

The Gaiety Theater in Milwaukee on November 5, 1869, furnished more than
thirty victims to the fire fiend, but only two of these were burned to
death. The Central Theater in Philadelphia was destroyed April 28, 1892,
and six persons perished. A panic occurred at the Front Street playhouse
in Baltimore December 27, 1895, among an audience composed entirely of
Polish Jews. There was no fire, but a woman who had seen a bright light on
the stage thought there was, and her cries caused a stampede that resulted
in twenty-four deaths.

Statisticians show that theaters as a rule do not attain an old age, but
that their average life in all countries is but twenty-two and
three-fourths years. In the United States the average is but eleven to
thirteen years, and here almost a third are destroyed before they have
been built five years. More playhouses feed the flames just prior to and
after than during performances, because of the added precautions of

Two deadly conflagrations occurred in New York in 1900. The first the
Windsor hotel fire, which resulted in the death of 80 persons. Fire broke
out in the old hotel on Fifth avenue about midnight. With lightning
rapidity the flames shot up the light and air shafts, filling the rooms
with smoke and making them as light as day. The guests suddenly aroused
from sleep became panic stricken. The fire department was unable to throw
up ladders and give aid as fast as frightened faces appeared at the
windows. The result was that many jumped to death. They were picked up
dead and dying in the streets. Others ran from their rooms into the
fire-swept hallways and were burned to death.

A short time later fire broke out one afternoon on the docks across the
river from New York at Hoboken. The fire was on a pier piled high with
combustible material. It burned like powder, spreading to the ocean liners
tied to the pier and the efforts of the fire department were not effective
in checking it. The cables which held the blazing vessels to the piers
burned through and they drifted into the river, carrying fire and death
among the shipping. Longshoremen unloading and loading the vessels jumped
in panic into the river. Others found themselves cut off from both land
and water by the flames on all sides and were burned like rats in a trap.
It was estimated that 300 lives were lost. Many bodies were never
recovered and others were found miles down the river.

Property losses are seldom proportionate to the financial losses from
fire. In the Iroquois theater fire the property loss was almost
inconsequential, while at the burning of Moscow by the Russians, Sept. 4,
1812, the property loss amounted to more than $150,000,000, while no lives
were lost.

Constantinople, with its squalid and crowded streets, has always been a
fruitful spot for fires. They are of annual occurrence and as the Turkish
fire department is a travesty, are usually of considerable magnitude. The
great fire of that city was in 1729, when 12,000 houses were destroyed and
7,000 persons burned to death. Aug. 12, 1782, a three days' fire started
in which 10,000 houses, 50 corn mills and 100 mosques were burned and 100
lives lost. In February of the same year, 600 houses were burned, and in
June 7,000 more. Fires are the best safeguards for Constantinople's

Great Britain has had comparatively few fires. In 1598 one at Tiverton
destroyed 400 houses and 33 lives. In 1854 50 persons were killed at
Gateshead. The great fire of London raged from Sept. 2 to 6, 1666. It
began in a wooden building in Pudding Lane and consumed the buildings on
436 acres, blotting out 400 streets, 13,200 houses, St. Paul's and 86
other churches, 58 halls and all public buildings, three of the city gates
and four stone bridges. The property loss was $53,652,500, while only six
persons were killed.

Nearly every large city of the United States has had its great fire. That
of Boston was on Nov. 9 and 10, 1872. Fire started at Summer and Kingston
streets and 65 acres were burned over. The property loss was about
$75,000,000 and there was no loss of life.

The great fire in New York began in Merchant street, Dec. 16, 1835. No
lives were lost, but the property loss was $15,000,000 and 52 acres were
devastated, 530 buildings being destroyed. Ten years later a much smaller
fire in the same district caused the death of 35 persons.

July 9, 1850, thirty lives were lost in Philadelphia, and February 8,
1865, twenty persons were killed by another fire. Large fires in that city
have almost invariably been accompanied by loss of life.

As the result of a Fourth of July celebration in 1866, nearly half of
Portland, Md., was swept away by fire. The property loss was $10,000,000,
but there was no loss of life. In September and October of 1871 forest
fires raged in Wisconsin and Michigan. An immense territory was swept over
and more than 1,000 persons lost their lives.

The greatest fire of modern times was the one which started in Chicago,
October 8, 1871. A strip through the heart of the city, four miles long
and a mile and a half wide, was burned over. The total loss was
$196,000,000 and 250 persons lost their lives. By the fire 17,450
buildings were destroyed and 98,860 persons were made homeless. Within
four years the entire burned district had been rebuilt.

Fires in Chicago attended with loss of life have been of increasing
frequency in the past few years. Fire in the Henning & Speed building on
Dearborn street, in 1900, caused four girls to lose their lives. Since it
and before the Iroquois disaster have come: The St. Luke Sanitarium
horror, 10 lives lost, 43 injured; the Doremus laundry explosion, 8 lives
lost; the American Glucose Sugar refinery blaze, 8 killed; Northwestern
railroad boiler explosion, 8 killed, Stock Yards boiler explosion, 18
killed, and about a year ago the Lincoln hotel fire, 14 visiting stockmen

In view of this terrible array of suffering and death, it would seem that
no precaution could be too great to avert future calamities. But although
human life is beyond price, it is probable that the world at large will
move on very much in the same old way - an arousing and an upheaval of
public sentiment for a time after the burned and maimed have been laid
away, and then a gradual return of carelessness. It would seem impossible,
however, that the United States could forget for many generations the
Iroquois disaster, and that it must result in a final reform of all
arrangements looking to the safety of theater goers.



From two women who sat within a few feet of the stage when the fire broke
out in the theater, and who remained calm enough to observe the actual
beginning of the holocaust, there came one of the most thrilling and
significant stories of that afternoon of panic.

Mrs. Emma Schweitzler and Mrs. Eva Katherine Clapp Gibson, of Chicago,
were the two women who told this story. They occupied seats in the fifth
row of the orchestra circle. Mrs. Schweitzler was the last woman to walk
out unassisted from the first floor. Mrs. Gibson was carried out badly

"The curtain that was run down," said Mrs. Schweitzler, "was the regular
drop curtain painted with the 'autumn scene,' It was the same curtain that
was lowered before the show started and the same one used during the
interval following the first act. No other curtain was lowered.

"As soon as the drop curtain came down it caught fire. A hole appeared at
the left hand side. Then the blaze spread rapidly, and instantly a great
blast of hot air came from the stage through the hole in the curtain and
into the audience. Big pieces of the curtain were loosened by the terrific
rush of air and were blown into the people's faces. Scores of women and
children must have been burned to death by these fragments of burning
grease and paint. I was in the theater until the curtain had entirely
burned. It went up in the flames as if it had been paper, and did more
damage than good."

"So far as could be observed from the audience, the asbestos curtain was
not lowered at all," said Mrs. Schweitzler. "I was particularly interested
in that 'autumn-scene' curtain because I paint oil pictures myself.

"Before the show started I sat for a long time examining the painting.
From our seats in the fifth row we could see every detail. The 'autumn
scene' was done in heavy red and in order to get some of the effects the
artist had to use great daubs of paint, smearing it on pretty thick in
some places. I am certain that the backing was common canvas and if this
was so it must have been covered with wax before the paint was put on.
This same curtain came down after the first act, so I had plenty of time
to know it.

"When the fire started my first feeling was that the stage people were
acting recklessly. For several minutes the fire was no bigger than a
handkerchief. A bucket of water would have saved the lives of every one.
But there seemed to be no water on the stage.

"One of the stage hands first took his hand and then used a piece of plank
to smother the flames. It kept spreading. After Eddie Foy had made his
speech the 'autumn scene' curtain came down. 'Pull down the curtain,' was
all the cry I heard. They did not say 'Pull down the asbestos curtain,'
nor was there any mention of any fireproof curtain. The 'autumn scene,'
with its highly inflammable paint, came down, and it was like pouring fire
into the people's faces. It was a great piece of bungling - far worse than
if no curtain had been lowered at all.

"It has been said that noise and panic-like screaming followed the burning
of the curtain. This is absolutely not true. The whole place was almost
gruesomely silent.

"Mrs. Gibson and I were half way in from the aisle and had to wait for

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Online LibraryVariousChicago's Awful Theater Horror → online text (page 11 of 22)