Chicago, IL Iroquois Theatre Fire, Dec 1903 - Wildest Horror of the Year

The Burning of Chicago’s Newest Theatre, the Iroquois, at a Matinee Yesterday Afternoon

There Was Never in This Country Such a Story of the Destruction of Human Life In the Stampede, the Faces, Even the Bones of the Fallen Were Crushed and Carried Away on the Heels of Those Who Trampled Over Them.

Chicago. Dec. 30 – Five hundred and fifty people were killed in ten minutes this afternoon in the Iroquois theatre by fire, the newest, largest and so far as human power could make it, safest theatre in Chicago. The count of the dead was practically complete at midnight, but it is not yet accurate and the exact number will not be known before some time tomorrow. Despite the utmost care, great confusion marked the removal of the bodies. In their haste, the police transported bodies to undertaking rooms and in many instances forgot to report the fact to their stations. This is evidenced by the fact that in five different undertaking establishments bodies were received of which the police had no records whatever. Allowing for these discrepancies, the list made by the police and the newspapers claim 600 dead: the police 538. A few of the victims were burned to death, many were suffocated by gas and scores were trampled to death in the panic that followed the mad plunge of the frightened audience for the exits.

It will be many hours before the number of the dead is accurately know and many days before all will be identified.


There are dead living by dozens in undertaking rooms. In police stations and in hospitals from which nearly everything that could reveal their identity to know them best is gone. Their clothing is torn to rags or burned to cinders and their faces have been mashed into unrecognizable pulps by the heels of the crowd that trampled them down as they fled for safety.

The fire broke out during the second act of the play “Mr. Bluebeard,” which was the first dramatic production give in the theatre since its erection. The company, which was very large, escaped to the street in safety, nearly all however, being compelled to flee into the snowy streets with the clothes but their stage costumes. A few members of the company sustained major injuries but none were seriously hurt.


The accounts of he origin of the fire are conflicting and none certain, but the best reason given is that the electric wire near the lower part of a piece of drop scenery suddenly broke and grounded. The fire spread rapidly toward the front of the stage, causing the members of the chorus, who were then engaged in a performance, to flee to the wings with screams of terror. The fire in itself as to this time was not serious and could possibly have been checked had not the asbestos curtain failed to work.

As soon as the fire was discovered, Eddie Foy, the chief comedian of the company, shouted to lower the curtain and this was immediately done. It descended about half way and then stuck. The fire was thus given practically a flue through which a strong draft was gotten aided by the doors, which had been thrown open in the front of the theatre. With a roar and a bound, the flames shot through the opening over the heads of the people on the first floor and reaching clear up to those in the first balcony, caught them and burned them to death where they sat. following this rush of the flames there came an explosion which lifted the entire roof of the theatre from the walls, shattering the great skylight into fragments.


As soon as the flames first appeared beyond the curtain a man in the rear of the hall shouted, “Fire! Fire!” and the entire audience rose as one person and made for the doors. It is believe that the explosion was caused by the flames coming in contact with the gas reservoirs of the theatre causing them to burst.

Will J. Davis, husband of Justine Bartlett Davis, the actress, manager of the theatre, said after the catastrophe that if the people had remained in their seats and had not been excited by the cry of “fire,” not a single life would have been lost. This however, is contradicted by the firemen, who found numbers of people sitting in their seats, their faces directed toward the stage as if the performance was still going on. It is the opinion of the firemen that these persons had been suffocated by gas.

As near as can be estimated at the present time about 1300 people were in the theatre. Three hundred of these were on the first floor, the remainder being in the balconies and the hallways back of them. The theatre is modeled after the Opera Comique in Paris and from the rear of each balcony three doors lead out to the passageways toward the front of the theatre. Two of these doorways are at the end of the balcony and one in the center. The audience in the rush for the outer alcove to have chosen for the greater part, to flee to the left entrance and to attempt to make its way down the western stairway leading into the lobby of the theatre.