The Iroquois Theatre Disaster

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The Iroquois Theatre Disaster

By | November 2006
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The Iroquois Theatre Disaster 1903
On the afternoon of December 30, 1903, the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago, Illinois caught fire and claimed the lives of an estimated six hundred two spectators, the majority of whom were women and children enjoying an outing together over Christmas vacation. With such a large loss of life, all of Chicago was affected and the catastrophe served as an astonishing wake- up call to theatre houses worldwide. Families were torn apart – some completely destroyed- and others left with the gnawing question of what really happened to their loved ones that afternoon, unable to find or identify their bodies. That week the “wheeled traffic seemed devoted to the transportation of flowers to homes with black crepe on their doors” (Hatch 132) and cemeteries became so full that families had to be buried together for lack of room. The Iroquois Theatre fire claimed more lives than that of the Chicago fire thirty-two years earlier and was one of Chicago’s most devastating of tragedies. Said to be absolutely fireproof, the theatre fell short of its promise due to corruption and the cutting of corners to save expenses. Though “built of steel, brick, and concrete, materials considered to be impervious to fire, the theatre and its furnishings represented an investment of $1.1 million.” (Hatch 8) With its extreme excess of heavy and flammable drapery, as well as its extensive use of interior wood trim, unfinished fire escapes, and hidden exits, the theatre was in reality a colossal death trap. That December afternoon the Iroquois exceeded its seating capacity and in the standing room alone there was over an estimated 200 spectators. Even with over 1,840 spectators in total, the theatre continued selling tickets to make up for low-ticket sales from the previous week. So with a drastically full house, the Iroquois’s production of “Mr. Bluebeard” began at two o’clock and the ushers promptly locked and bolted the theatre doors. This was so that spectators...
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