Chicago's Awful Theater Horror online

. (page 2 of 22)
Online LibraryVariousChicago's Awful Theater Horror → online text (page 2 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook



Have a thought for the days that are long gone by
To the country of What-has-been,
And a thought for the ones that unseen lie
'Neath the mystic veil
Of the future pale,
As the years roll out and in.


Have a thought for the host and hostess here,
Aunt Emily and Uncle Max,
And a thought for our friends to our hearts so dear
That around us tonight
In the joyous light
Of pleasure their souls relax


Have a thought for the happy two tonight
Who have passed their tenth wedded year,
And the best of wishes, kind and bright,
Which we impart
With a loving heart
That is faithful and sincere.


From the testimony presented to us we, the jury, find the following were
the causes of said fire:

Grand drapery coming in contact with electric flood or arc light, situated
on iron platform on the right hand of stage, facing the auditorium.

City laws were not complied with relating to building ordinances
regulating fire-alarm boxes, fire apparatus, damper or flues on and over
the stage and fly galleries.

We also find a distinct violation of ordinance governing fireproofing of
scenery and all woodwork on or about the stage.

Asbestos curtain totally destroyed; wholly inadequate, considering the
highly inflammable nature of all stage fittings, and owing to the fact
that the same was hung on wooden bottoms.

Building ordinances violated inclosing aisles on each side of lower boxes
and not having any fire apparatus, dampers or signs designating exits on


Building ordinances violated regulating fire apparatus and signs
designating exits on dress circle.

Building ordinances violated regulating fire apparatus and signs
designating exits on balcony.

Generally the building is constructed of the best material and well
planned, with the exception of the top balcony, which was built too steep
and therefore difficult for people to get out of especially in case of an

We also note a serious defect in the wide stairs in extreme top east
entrance leading to ladies' lavatory and gallery promenade, same being
misleading, as many people mistook this for a regular exit, and, going as
far as they could, were confronted with a locked door which led to a
private stairway preventing many from escape and causing the loss of
fifty to sixty lives.


We hold Will J. Davis, as president and general manager, principally
responsible for the foregoing violations in the failure to see that the
Iroquois theater was properly equipped as required by city ordinances, and
that his employes were not sufficiently instructed and drilled for any and
all emergencies; and we, the jury, recommend that the said Will J. Davis
be held to the grand jury until discharged by due course of law.

We hold Carter H. Harrison, mayor of the city of Chicago, responsible, as
he has shown a lamentable lack of force in his efforts to shirk
responsibility, evidenced by testimony of Building Commissioner George
Williams and Fire Marshal William H. Musham as heads of departments under
the said Carter H. Harrison; following this weak course has given Chicago
inefficient service, which makes such calamities as the Iroquois theater
horror a menace until the public service is purged of incompetents; and
we, the jury, recommend that the said Carter H. Harrison be held to the
grand jury until discharged by due course of law.


We hold the said George Williams, as building commissioner, responsible
for gross neglect of his duty in allowing the Iroquois Theater to open its
doors to the public when the said theater was incomplete, and did not
comply with the requirements of the building ordinances of the city of
Chicago; and we, the jury, recommend that the said George Williams be held
to the grand jury until discharged by due process of law.

We hold Edward Loughlin, as building inspector, responsible for gross
neglect of duty and glaring incompetency in reporting the Iroquois theater
"O. K." on a most superficial inspection; and we, the jury, recommend
that the said Edward Loughlin be held to the grand jury until discharged
by due course of law.

We hold William H. Musham, fire marshal, responsible for gross neglect of
duty in not enforcing the city ordinances as they relate to his
department, and failure to have his subordinate, William Sallers, fireman
at the Iroquois Theater, report the lack of fire apparatus and appliances
as required by law; and we, the jury, recommend that the said William H.
Musham be held to the grand jury until discharged by due course of law.


We hold the said William Sallers, as fireman of Iroquois Theater, for
gross neglect of duty in not reporting the lack of proper fire apparatus
and appliances; and we, the jury, recommend that the said William Sallers
be held to the grand jury until discharged by due course of law.

We hold William McMullen, electric-light operator, for gross neglect and
carelessness in performance of duty; and we, the jury, recommend that the
said William McMullen be held to the grand jury until discharged by due
process of law.

We hold James E. Cummings, as stage carpenter and general superintendent
of stage, responsible for gross carelessness and neglect of duty in not
equipping the stage with proper fire apparatus and appliances; and we, the
jury, recommend that the said James E. Cummings be held to the grand jury
until discharged by due course of law.

From testimony presented to this jury, same shows a laxity and
carelessness in city officials and their routine in transacting business,
which calls for revision by the mayor and city council; and we, the jury
demand immediate action on the following:


Should have classified printed lists, to be filled out by an inspector,
then signed by head of department, before any public building can secure
amusement license, and record kept thereof in duplicate carbon book.

All fire escapes should have separate passageways to the ground, without
passing any openings in the walls.

All scenery and paraphernalia of any kind kept on the stage should be
absolutely fireproof.

Asbestos curtains should be reinforced by steel curtains and held by steel

There should be two electric mains entering all places of amusement, one
from the front, with switchboard in box office, controlling entire
auditorium and exits, and one on stage, to be used for theatrical

All city officials and employes should familiarize themselves with city
ordinances as they relate to their respective departments, and pass a
rigid and signed examination on same before they are given positions. This
same rule should be made to apply to those holding office.


All theaters and public places should be supplied with at least two city
firemen, who shall be under the direction of the fire department and paid
by the proprietors of said places.

We recommend that the office and detail work of the fire department, as
imposed on the fire marshal, be made a separate and distinct work from
fire fighting, as it is hardly to be expected of any fire marshal to give
good and efficient service in both of these branches.

Also a police officer in full uniform detailed in and about said place at
each and every performance.

In testimony wherof, the said coroner and jury of this inquest have
hereunto set their hands the day and year aforesaid.




No disaster, by flood, volcano, wreck or convulsion of nature has in
recent times aroused such horror as swept over the civilized world when on
December 30, 1903, a death-dealing blast of flame hurtled through the
packed auditorium of the Iroquois theater, Chicago, causing the loss of
nearly 600 lives of men, women and children, and injuries to unknown

Strong words pale and appear meaningless when used in describing the full
enormity of this disaster, which has no recent parallel save in the
outbreaks of nature's irresistible forces. There have been greater losses
of life by volcanoes, earthquakes and floods, but no fire horror of modern
times has equaled this one, which in a brief half-hour turned a beautiful
million-dollar theater into an oven piled high with corpses, some burned
and mutilated and others almost unmarked in death.

Coming, as it did, in the midst of a holiday season, when the second
greatest city in the United States was reveling in the gaiety of Christmas
week, this sudden transformation of a playhouse filled with a
pleasure-seeking throng into an inferno filled with shrieking living and
mutilated dead, came as a thunderbolt from a clear sky.

It was a typical holiday matinee crowd, composed mostly of women and
children, with here and there a few men. The production was the gorgeous
scenic extravaganza "_Mr. Bluebeard_," with which the handsome new theater
had been opened not a month before. "Don't fail to have the children see
'_Mr. Bluebeard_,'" was the advertisement spread broadcast throughout the
city, and the children were there in force when the scorching sheet of
flame leaped from the stage into the balcony and gallery where a thousand
were packed.

The building had been heralded abroad as a "fireproof structure," with
more than enough exits. Ushers and five men in city uniform were in the
aisles. All was apparently safety, mirth and good cheer.

Then came the transformation scene!

The auditorium and the stage were darkened for the popular song "The Pale
Moonlight." Eight dashing chorus girls and eight stalwart men in showy
costume strolled through the measures of the piece, bathed in a flood of
dazzling light. Up in the scenes a stage electrician was directing the
"spot-light" which threw the pale moonlight effect on the stage.

Suddenly there was a startled cry. Far overhead where the "spot" was
shooting forth its brilliant ray of concentrated light a tiny serpentine
tongue of flame crept over the inside of the proscenium drape. It was an
insignificant thing, yet the horrible possibilities it entailed flashed
over all in an instant. A spark from the light had communicated to the
rough edge of the heavy cloth drape. Like a flash it stole across the
proscenium and high up into the gridiron above.

Accustomed as they were to insignificant fire scares and trying ordeals
that are seldom the lot of those who lead a less strenuous life, the
people of the stage hurried silently to the task of stamping out the
blaze. In the orchestra pit it could readily be seen that something was
radically wrong, but the trained musicians played on.

Members of the octette cast their eyes above and saw the tiny tongue of
flame growing into a whirling maelstrom of fire. But it was a sight they
had seen before. Surely something would happen to extinguish it. America's
newest and most modern fireproof playhouse was not going to disappear
before an insignificant fire in the rigging loft. So they continued to
sway in sinuous steps to the rhythm of the throbbing orchestra. Their
presence stilled the nervousness of the vast audience, which knew that
something was wrong, but had no means of realizing what that something

So the gorgeously attired men and dashing, voluptuous young women danced
on. The throng feasted its eyes on the moving scene of life and color,
little knowing that for them it was the last dance - the dance of death!

That dance was not the only one in progress. Far above the element of
death danced from curtain to curtain. The fire fiend, red and glowing with
exultation, snapping and crackling in anticipation of the feast before it,
grew beyond all bounds. Glowing embers and blazing sparks - crumbs from its
table - began to shower upon the merry dancers, and they fell back with
blanched faces and trembling limbs. Eddie Foy rushed to the front of the
stage to reassure the spectators, who now realized the peril at hand and
rose in their seats struggling against the impulse to fly. Others joined
the comedian in his plea for calmness.

Suddenly their voices were drowned in a volley of sounds like the booming
of great guns. The manila lines by which the carloads of scenery in the
loft above was suspended gave way before the fire like so much paper and
the great wooden batons fell like thunder bolts upon the now deserted

Still the audience stood, terror bound.

"Lower the fire curtain!" came a hoarse cry.

Something shot down over the proscenium, then stopped before the great
opening was closed, leaving a yawning space of many feet beneath. With
the dropping of the curtain a door in the rear had been opened by the
performers, fleeing for their lives and battling to escape from the
devouring element fast hemming them in on every side. The draft thus
caused transformed the stage in one second from a dark, gloomy, smoke
concealed scene of chaos into a seething volcano. With a great puff the
mass of flame swept out over the auditorium, a withering blast of death.
Before it the vast throng broke and fled.

Doors, windows, hallways, fire escapes - all were jammed in a moment with
struggling humanity, fighting for life. Some of the doors were jammed
almost instantly so that no human power could make egress possible. Behind
those in front pushed the frenzied mass of humanity, Chicago's elect, the
wives and children of its most prosperous business men and the flower of
local society, fighting like demons incarnate. Purses, wraps, costly furs
were cast aside in that mad rush. Mothers were torn from their children,
husbands from their wives. No hold, however strong, could last against
that awful, indescribable crush. Strong men who sought to the last to
sustain their feminine companions were swept away like straws, thrown to
the floor and trampled into unconsciousness in the twinkling of an eye.
Women to whom the safety of their children was more than their own lives
had their little ones torn from them and buried under the mighty sweep of
humanity, moving onward by intuition rather than through exercise of
thought to the various exits. They in turn were swept on before their
wails died on their lips - some to safety, others to an unspeakably
horrible death.

While some exits were jammed by fallen refugees so as to become useless,
others refused to open. In the darkness that fell upon the doomed theater
a struggle ensued such as was never pictured in the mind of Dante in his
visions of Inferno. With prayers, curses and meaningless shrieks of terror
all faced their fate like rats in a trap. The darkness was illumined by a
fearful light that burst from the sea of flame pouring out from the
proscenium, making Dore's representations of Inferno shrink into the
commonplace. Like a horizontal volcano the furnace on the stage belched
forth its blast of fire, smoke, gas and withering, blighting heat. Like a
wave it rolled over every portion of the vast house, dancing.

Dancing! Yes, the pillars of flame danced! To the multitude swept into
eternity before the hurricane of flame and the few who were dragged out
hideously disfigured and burned almost beyond all semblance of human
beings it seemed indeed a dance of death.

Withering, crushing, consuming all in its path, forced on as though by the
power of some mighty blow pipe, impelled by the fearful drafts that
directed the fiery furnace outward into the auditorium instead of upward
into the great flues constructed to meet just such an emergency, the sea
of fire burned itself out. There was little or nothing in the construction
of the building itself for it to feed upon, and it fell back of its own
weight to the stage, where it roared and raged like some angry demon.

And those great flues that supposedly gave the palatial Iroquois increased
safety! Barred and grated, battened down with heavy timbers they resisted
the terrific force of the blast itself. There they remained intact the
next day. Anxiety to throw open the palace of pleasure to the public
before the builders had time to complete in detail their Herculean task
had resulted in converting it into a veritable slaughter pen.

"Mr. Bluebeard's" chamber of horrors, lightly depicted in satire to
settings of gold and color, wit and music, had evolved within a few
minutes into an actuality. Chamber of horrors indeed - grim, silent,
smoldering and sending upon high the fearful odor of burning flesh.

Policemen and firemen, hardened to terrible sights, crept into the
smoldering sepulchre only to turn back sickened by the sight that met
their eyes. Tears and groans fell from them and they were unnerved as they
gazed upon the scene of carnage. Some gave way and were themselves the
subjects of deep concern. It was a scene to wring tears from the very
stones. No words can adequately describe it.

Perhaps the best description of that quarter hour of carnage and the sense
of horror when the seared, scorched sepulchre was entered for the removal
of the dead and dying is found in the words of the veteran descriptive
writer, Mr. Ben H. Atwell, who was present from the beginning to the end
of the holocaust, and after visiting the deadly spot in the gray dawn of
the following day wrote his impressions as follows:

"Where at 3:15 yesterday beauty and fashion and the happy amusement seeker
thronged the palatial playhouse to fall a few moments later before a
deadly blast of smoke and flame sweeping over all with irresistible force,
the dawn of the last day of the passing year found confusion, chaos and an
all-pervading sense of the awful. It seemed to radiate the chilling,
depressing volume from the streaked, grime-covered walls and the
flame-licked ceilings overhead. Against this fearful background the few
grim firemen or police, moving silently about the ruins, searching for
overlooked dead or abandoned property, loomed up like fitful ghosts.


"The progress of their noiseless and ghastly quest proved one circumstance
survivors are too unsettled to realize. With the opening of the stage
door to permit the escape of the members of the 'Mr. Bluebeard' company
and the breaking of the skylight above the flue-like scene loft that tops
the stage, the latter was converted into a furnace through which a
tremendous draft poured like a blow pipe, driving billows of flame into
the faces of the terrified audience. With exits above the parquet floor
simply choked up with the crushed bodies of struggling victims, who made
the first rush for safety, the packed hundreds in balcony and gallery
faced fire that moved them up in waves.

"With a swirl that sounded death, the thin bright sheet of fire rolled on
from stage to rear wall. It fed on the rich box curtains, seized upon the
sparse veneer of subdued red and green decorations spread upon wall,
ceiling and balcony facings. It licked the fireproof materials below clean
and rolled on with a roar. Over seat tops and plush rail cushions it sped.
Then it snuffed out, having practically nothing to feed upon save the
tangled mass of wood scene frames, batons and paint-soaked canvas on the


"There firemen were directing streams of water that poured over the
premises in great cascades in volume, aggregating many tons. A few streams
were directed about the body of the house, where vagrant tongues of flame
still found material on which to feed. Silence reigned - the silence of
death, but none realized the appalling story behind the awful calm.

"The stampede that followed the first alarm, a struggle in which most
contestants were women and children, fighting with the desperation of
death, terminated with the sudden sweep of the sea of flames across the
body of the house. The awful battle ended before the irresistible hand of
death, which fell upon contestants and those behind alike. Somehow those
on the main floor managed to force their way out. Above, where the
presence of narrower exits, stairways that precipitated the masses of
humanity upon each other and the natural air current for the billows of
flame to follow, spelled death to the occupants of the two balconies, the
wave of flame, smoke and gas smote the multitude.


"Dropping where they stood, most of the victims were consumed beyond
recognition. Some who were protected from contact with the flames by
masses of humanity piled upon them escaped death and were dragged out
later by rescuers, suffering all manner of injury. The majority, however,
who beheld the indescribably terrifying spectacle of the wave of death
moving upon them through the air died then and there without a moment for
preparation. Few survived to tell the tale. The blood-curdling cry of
mingled prayers and curses, of pleas for help and meaningless shrieks of
despair died away before the roar of the fire and the silence fell that
greeted the firemen upon their entry.

"Survivors describe the situation as a parallel of the condition at
Martinique when a wave of gas and fire rolled down the mountain side and
destroyed everything in its path. Here, however, one circumstance was
reversed, for the wave of death leaped from below and smote its victims,
springing from the very air beneath them.


"In a few minutes it was all over - all but the weeping. In those few
minutes obscure people had evolved into heroes; staid business men drove
out patrons to convert their stores into temporary hospitals and morgues;
others converted their trucks and delivery wagons into improvised
ambulances; stocks of drugs, oils and blankets were showered upon the
police to aid in relief work and a corps of physicians and surgeons
sufficient to the needs of an army had organized.

"Rescues little short of miraculous were accomplished and life and limb
were risked by public servants and citizens with no thought of personal
consequences. Public sympathy was thoroughly aroused long before the
extent of the horror was known and before the sickening report spread
throughout the city that the greatest holocaust ever known in the history
of theatricals had fallen upon Chicago.

"While the streets began to crowd for blocks around with weeping and
heartbroken persons in mortal terror because of knowledge that loved ones
had attended the performance, patrol wagons, ambulances and open wagons
hurried the injured to hospitals. Before long they were called upon to
perform the more grewsome task of removing the dead. In wagon loads the
latter were carted away. Undertaking establishments both north, south and
west of the river threw open their doors.


"Piled in windows in the angle of the stairway where the second balcony
refugees were brought face to face and in a death struggle with the
occupants of the first balcony, the dead covered a space fifteen or twenty
feet square and nearly seven feet in depth. All were absolutely safe from
the fire itself when they met death, having emerged from the theater
proper into the separate building containing the foyer. In this great
court there was absolutely nothing to burn and the doors were only a few
feet away. There the ghastly pile lay, a mute monument to the powers of
terror. Above and about towered shimmering columns and facades in polished
marble, whose cold and unharmed surfaces seemed to bespeak contempt for
human folly. In that portion of the Iroquois structure the only physical
evidences of damages were a few windows broken during the excitement.


"To that pile of dead is attributed the great loss of life within. The
bodies choked up the entrance, barring the egress of those behind. Neither
age nor youth, sex, quality or condition were sacred in the awful battle
in the doorway. The gray and aged, rich, poor, young and those obviously
invalids in life lay in a tangled mass all on an awful footing of equality
in silent annihilation.

"Within and above equal terrors were encountered in what at first seemed
countless victims. Lights, patience and hard work brought about some
semblance of system and at last word was given that the last body had been
removed from the charnel house. A large police detail surrounded the place
all night and with the break of day search of the premises was renewed,

2 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryVariousChicago's Awful Theater Horror → online text (page 2 of 22)