Iroquois Theatre Fire

IroquoisTheatre Fire

IroquoisTheatre Fire

Themost devastating and greatest fire in the History of America isperhaps regarded to have taken place in Illinois in the month ofOctober the year 1871. Labeled the “Great Chicago Fire,” thetragedy wiped out a considerable part of the city murdering hundredsof people in addition to leaving thousands on the streets as well asdestitute. While this seems to have made a mark in the history ofChicago, the city has developed and equally known several tragediesover the past years indicating that the “Great Chicago Fire” wasnot the last horrific fire that claimed lives and destroyed propertyin the windy city. Therefore, this paper presents a research on oneof the fires that took place in Chicago, the ,andthe impact it had on the city fire codes since that time up to today.


Cityof Chicago Fire Codes in 1903

Priorto the , the City of Chicago Fire Codes hadignored a number of vital safety measures that if implemented couldhave helped save lives and reduce the damage caused by the fire. Thecode did not cover things like lighted exit signs, fire resistantcurtains, seating and scenery material, standards governing exitingpathways, exit doors, the maximum seating capacity, and the use ofthe panic bar among others. However, the seemsto have triggered vital code changes and introduction of several lawsto govern fire inspection and prevention to large buildings andtheaters. The unearthed the gaps that werepresent in the fire codes of the city and the need to amend andintroduce new laws and standards to be followed with regard to fires.


Issuesin construction and money

Beingthe newest and the most stunning theater in Chicago, the IroquoisTheatre was believed to be fireproof. A ChicagoTribune articledepicted it as a “virtual temple of beauty” a few weeks after thedoors were opened for performance even though it later turned to be ablazing death trap for numerous people. The theater had beenacclaimed way before its doors were opened and it had been patternedto resemble the Opera Cominque located in Paris, France. It waslocated downtown on Randolph street northern side, between Dearbornand State. The theater interior was splendid with polished woodthroughout the wall and stained glass. The theater lobby had anelaborate 60-foot high ceiling with the walls characterized by whitemarbles and fitted with huge mirrors framed in stone and gold leaf.Inside the theater, two splendid staircases directed away from twosides of the lobby heading to the balcony. When outside the theater,one would notice that the front façade was a resemblance of theGreek temple especially the towering stone archway, which wassupported by the huge columns (Brandt, 2003).

Firesystem issues

Usingthe numerous fires that had taken place in the U.S in the previousyears in theaters, Benjamin Marshall, and architect wanted toconvince the public that the theater was safe. Therefore, he studiedseveral fires in history and made an attempt to ensure that notragedy would take place in the new building. The theater had 25exits, which was believed to have the capacity to empty the theaterin less than 5minutes. In additional to this, the stage also hadasbestos curtain fitted, which could be lowered very fast to protectthe audience from the fire. Regardless of the reason that the firesystems were impressive within the theater, the fire pointed out thatthe problem with the theater could not be solved by these measures. The theater seats were wooden and swollen with hemp and most ofprecautionary fire systems that had been announced to have been setup in the theater were never done (Maines, 2005).


Describedas the nation’s fourth deadliest fire and the deadliest solobuilding fire in the history of the U.S., the took place in December 30ththe year 1903. The fire broke out inside a crowded theater in thecourse of a presentation of a vaudeville show and starring of thethen trendy comedian called Eddie Foy. The blaze, which was believedto have started because of a faulty wiring that lead to a spotlight,killed numerous individuals including women and children who hadfilled the theater to watch an afternoon presentation for theholidays.

Thehorrific events started on a bitterly cold morning in December30th1903.A crowd on holiday had packed in the theater to see the presentationof Mr. Bluebeard, a hit comedy. On that particular afternoon, thetheater was packed with 1600 individuals seated. However, since theschools were also on a break, it is estimated that the number of theaudience was about 2000 individuals seated and another crowdoccupying the four-steep aisles as well as the backstage (Maines,2005).

Ataround 3:20 in the daylight when the second act was starting, thestagehands realized a spark descending from the overhead lightfollowed by some burning paper scraps, which fell on the stage. Aftersome time, fire started trouncing at the red-velvet curtain andwhereas some people climbed up from the audience, nobody headed forthe exits. The door had been surmised to the extent that the audiencesimply thought that the fire was actually part of the show (Sector,2015).

EddieFoy was at this time in his dressing room putting own his makeup andwhen he heard of the commotion, he rushed out to the stage to observewhat was happening. He then pleaded with the audience to remain calmguarantying them that the theater was actually fireproof and soeveryone in the theater was actually safe. After signaling Herbert tocontinue playing the music, the sounds had a soothing effect on theaudience who were growing restless. When the fire crashed down on thestage, Foy signaled for the asbestos to be lowered to guard theaudience. However, the curtain hurdle middle way down and left a20-foot space between the curtain edge and the wooden stage. Thiswas followed by the collapsing of the stage and the lights going outthereby triggering a stampede for all the 27 exist, some of which hadbeen hidden by the drapes. Other exists had been locked to foilgate-crashers. Therefore, bodies slammed into other bodies and withinfew minutes’ tangles of human corpses had piled 7 feet high as theliving fumbled for a route to escape to over the dead, only to becomevictims to smoke, flames, and gas. When the fire fighters arrivedand managed to enter into the theater, only silence could be noticeover the air and darkness in the theater. Some 575 individuals losttheir lives that day and 100 hurt. An additional 30 people succumbedto their injuries in the subsequent weeks (Sector, 2015).

Issuesin fire codes during fire

Investigationsinto the revealed a number of issues withregard to the fire codes during the fire indicating a violation ofthe principal standards that needed to have been observed. It wasrevealed that the two building roof vents, which were not complete bythe time the theater was opened, were to filter poisonous gas andsmoke in the event that there was a fire. Nonetheless, the incompletevents were nailed and covered to keep the theater from snow and rain.This implied that the smoke generated during the fire had nowhere togo except to move back into the theater, in turn suffocating thepeople who had not been burned to death. Besides, the proclaimedfireproof asbestos curtain, which was to be lowered incase of fire toprotect the audience, was made using cotton and not asbestos and thecombustible materials. The theater also lacked fire alarms andsprinklers, which the owners deemed as being unsightly and expensiveto install. In an attempt to keep the gate crashers away from thetheater, the management quietly bolted nine iron panel pairs over thebehind doors and installed padlocks, and accordion-style entrances atthe interior second top and third floor landing stairway. The exitlights were also turned off with only one exit sign left showing thedirection to the ladies restroom and the other to the locked door fora personal stairway. The other issue regarding fire codes during thefire was that the outside exits doors, which had the capacity toempty the theater in five minutes could only open to the inside andnot the outside (Ford, 2003).

Prosecutionof at fault parties

Aninquiry into the matter led to a massive cover-up by the involvedofficials both from the fire departments and the city, who deniedhaving any knowledge of the violations of the fire code. In turn, theofficials blamed the city building inspectors, who had disregardedthe issues and gave a free pass to the theater. Several individualswere indicted by a grand jury ranging from the theater owners to thefire officials as well as the mayor, but none was charged leading toa dismissal of the case on technicalities. Despite the over 275 civillawsuits filed by the victims’ families to claim for compensation,none ever collected any fee for damages because the theater companyfile for company bankruptcy after the fire (Eastland MemorialSociety, 2015).

Impactof fire on City of Chicago

Followingheadlines carrying the news about the disaster extensively throughoutthe globe, a huge public outcry was registered with several demandsfor better fire inspection, prevention, and enforcement measures orpolicies. Apart from the emotional impacts on the affected families,all the theaters in Chicago and the entire country were closed andfresh inspections started immediately. The city council equallytightened the fire and building codes following the fire incident. While requirements like outward-opening doors became morestrengthened, Chicago experienced the most immediate rigorousenforcement with the fire commissioner ordering the inspectors toensure that they check all theaters every week (Ford, 2003).

Cityof Chicago Fire Codes today

TheChicago fire codes today have undergone drastic changes withstandards, such as exiting pathways, exit signs and markings, exitdoors, and the use of panic bar upheld in all buildings. The fireprevention reforms that were implemented following the IroquoisTheatre Fire incident have drastically reduced the cases of death asa result of the deadly theater and building fires.


Brandt,N. (2003). ChicagoDeath Trap: The of 1903. U.S.A:Southern Illinois University Press.

EastlandMemorial Society. (2015). IroquoisTheater fire. Retrievedfrom

Ford,L. (2003). 100years later, theater fire still offers lessons. Retrievedfrom

Maines,R. (2005). Asbestosand Fire: Technological Trade-offs and the Body at Risk.New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Sector,D. (2015). TheIroquois Theater fire.Retrieved from