Is There Any Living Person Here, asked a member of the Chicago Fire Department upon entering the ruined theatre? Only an eerie silence answered back. Over 600 people lay burned and trampled inside, or outside where they had jumped to their deaths. Most of the 27 exits were unavailable—some hidden by drapes some locked against people coming in unpaid. Each time someone found an exit door, others pushed toward it en masse.
Grandmother, at 23 years old, had taken her younger brothers to see Eddie Foy as Sister Anne in The Blue Beard. Grandma, Willis and Logan had been standing on the main floor not far from an exit—it would prove to be unlocked and mostly unseen by the panicking crowd.
As the flames lapped up the scenery, Nellie Reed the aerialist died helpless on her swing high above the stage. Foy tried to calm the crowd but a fireball exploded toward the audience, and they surged toward safety, but were only caught in the crowd.
The theatres of the day were dangerous and prone to fires from poorly constructed lights, draperies and flammable scenery. Promising the five-week old Iroquois Theatre was fire-proof proved no different from the later Titanic’s claim of being unsinkable.
Grandmother was a dancer of Scots’ music, pointing her toes between the blades of crossed swords or gracefully dancing the Highland Fling for the Social Clubs visited by her parents and friends. She never forgot the smell of death and feeling of panic. When she told me stories, she would shiver if I asked about the Fire. When I was older, she told me of women who threw their children off the fire escape because the ladder wouldn’t open; she saw people trying to run to exits, pushing past her while she vainly tried to make her way to the exit she remembered.
The air grew thicker and fear at losing the boys propelled her through the dead and dying to outside the theatre where she walked the boys through fire hoses, tangled like limp snakes on the wet pavement. Rows of bodies had already begun to fill the street outside the Iroquois—bodies that would later need to be identified by family members.
The Fire Department, the pride of Chicago, would find bodies crushed in the aisles, dead in their seats of smoke inhalation, the crowd allowing no movement. People jumped from the balconies and were trampled below.
The only folks saved were those like my Grandmother and her brothers, those seated in the parquet; those who were standing by a main floor exit, or from the back of the stage through the loading dock that someone broke open with a pipe. Almost 2,000 people began their day looking forward to an afternoon of comic burlesque. Six hundred and two died, two-thirds of whom were women and children.
References: “Chicago Death Trap, The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903”
by Nat Brandt as well as family stories told by Grandmother.