Today in History: December 30, 1903, The Iroquois Theatre fire occurred in Chicago, Illinois. It is the deadliest theater fire and the deadliest single-building fire in United States history with at least 605 people dead as a result of the fire
School was out for Christmas, so the Wednesday matinee performance of “Mr. Blue Beard,” a musical starring funnyman Eddie Foy, overflowed with a standing-room audience of nearly 2,000 people, mostly women and children, at the 5-week-old Iroquois Theater.The richly appointed amusement palace on the north side of Randolph Street between State and Dearborn Streets was said to be fireproof. It would prove as unburnable as the Titanic would prove unsinkable nine years later.
In the second act, as the orchestra swung into a dreamy waltz called “Let Us Swear by the Pale Moonlight,” an arc light on the left side of the stage sputtered and ignited a strip of paint-saturated muslin on a drape. Unnoticed at first by the audience, the flame ran up the strip and into the fly space above the stage where scenery hung.
Suddenly, blazing fabric rained down on the stage. The singers raced off, one with a costume on fire, and the audience began to bolt. Foy then ran onstage, raised his hands and tried to calm the crowd.
For a moment, the panic eased. But the draft from an open stage door fed the flames. A fireball leaped across the footlights and engulfed a velvet curtain. Stagehands tried to lower the asbestos curtain to keep the blaze from spreading to the seats, but it stuck a few feet above the stage floor. Then part of the stage collapsed, and the lights went out.
This touched off a stampede towards the exits. Corpses were piled ten bodies high around the doors and windows. Many patrons had clambered over piles of bodies only to succumb themselves to the flames, smoke, and gases.
By the time firefighters fought their way inside, an eerie silence had fallen over the charred and darkened remains of the theater.
“Is there any living person here?” one fire marshal shouted over and over. “If anyone is alive in here, groan or make a sound.” No one did.
After the fire, it was alleged that fire inspectors had been bribed with free tickets to overlook code violations. The mayor ordered all theaters in Chicago closed for six weeks after the fire.
As a result of public outrage many were charged with crimes, including Mayor Carter Harrison, Jr.. Most charges were dismissed three years later because of the delaying tactics of the owners’ lawyers and their use of loopholes and inadequacies in the city’s building and safety ordinances. By 1907, thirty families of the victims had been financially compensated for their loss, receiving a settlement of $750 each (equal to $18,707 today).
The exterior of the Iroquois was largely intact. The building later reopened as the Colonial Theater, which was torn down in 1926 to make way for the Oriental Theater.
Sources: 1, 2