Disaster Spoons

Iroquois Theater Fire

This engraved spoon reads

"Iroquois Theatre Burned- Dec 30 1903- 595 lives lost -Chicago"

On page 224 (plate #568) of my book Collectible Souvenir Spoons I showed the above picture of an engraved spoon by the Mechanics Co (Watson souvenir division).

The amount and quantity of information available on the WWW is absolutely staggering. I entered the term Iroquois Theater Chicago into one of the search engines and the following highly informative article popped to the top.

“1903, December 30: Iroquois Theater Fire

Chicago's most deadly fire occurred less than a month after the opening of the new,

supposedly fireproof Iroquois Theater at 24-28 W. Randolph. It was standing room only

for a holiday matinee of the popular musical "Mr. Blue Beard, Jr." Of the 1,900 people in

the audience, mostly women and children, at least 600 perished. Among the 500

performers and backstage personnel, only the tightrope artist caught high above the stage


Due to a long history of theater fires in the U.S. and Europe, by 1903 fire precautions

were well developed, but not followed by the Iroquois Theater management. The primary

danger came from the stage scenery consisting of many canvas backdrops painted with

highly flammable oil paints and suspended in midair close to a large number of hot lights.

In a number of fatal fires, including the Iroquois the scenery caught fire, then quickly

reached almost explosive proportions.

Standard precautions which had functioned well in other localities included firemen

stationed near the stage with fire extinguishers, hoses and pikes for pulling down scenery.

In case of fire, an asbestos or iron curtain would drop down cutting the audience off from

the stage and its burning scenery. Adequate exits and trained ushers would prevent deaths

from panic.

Neglect of all of these factors contributed to the huge death toll in the Iroquois Theater

fire. At 3:15 p.m. a hot light started flames crackling up a velvet curtain. The on-duty

fireman was equipped only with two tubes of patent powder called Kilfyres. Sprinkling

these on the fire proved totally ineffective. The theater lacked fire hoses, extinguishers or

any other means of fighting fires above the fireman's head.

The asbestos fire curtain got stuck before it reached the full down position due either to

projecting lamps or cheap wooden tracks. This left a gap which exposed the audience to

flame and smoke. The curtain was apparently instantly consumed in the fire anyway.

Testimony revealed that the curtain was probably not made of a fire proof material.

Curtain reinforcements as well as the tracks in which it rode were cheaply constructed of

wood leading to probable failure in a fire. The inexperienced stage crew was slow to pull

down the curtain, not able to unjam it, and as at least one witness testified, may have

pulled down a scenery curtain, instead of the ineffectual fire curtain.

As the fire started the orchestra played on, and the leading actor urged people to remain

seated. Although this no doubt prevented some deaths from panic, those who heeded his

advice perished in the explosive smoke and flames. A number of bodies were found still

seated. The theater management had added iron gates over many of the exit doors. Some

of the gates were locked, others were unlocked but opening them required operation of a

small lever of a type unfamiliar to most theater patrons. Other doors opened inwards. The

theater had had no fire drills so ushers and theater personnel neither opened the doors, nor

directed people to safe exits. Many people were trapped behind unopened doors. The time

it took to open other doors added to the fatal panic as it forced almost everyone to use the

main exits.

Even though it was outside the fire area, trampled bodies were piled ten high in the

stairwell area where exits from the balcony met the exit from the main floor. More

fatalities occurred when fire broke out underneath an alley fire escape. People above the

fire jumped. The first to jump died as they hit the hard pavement. Later jumpers landed on

the bodies and survived. The same scenario happened as patrons jumped from the balcony

to the main floor of the theater. All injuries occurred within 15 minutes of the start of the

fire, which was put out by the fire department within half an hour.

The largely undamaged building reopened less than a year later and operated as the

Colonial Theater until it was torn down in 1925”.

I have also learned that:

As a result of this fire, extensive new fire prevention legislation was passed including the

requirement for “panic door exits”, outward opening doors, preventing management from

sealing external fire doors, available fire fighting equipment etc. Nobody knows how many

future lives were saved because of these new requirements.

The huge death toll in modern terms would be equivalent to a crash of two jumbo Boeing



Chicago Daily News. Almanac 1905,1906.

Chicago (Ill.). Fire Marshall. Annual Report. 1903.

Cook County (Ill.). Coroner. Iroquois Theater Fire, Chicago... List

of Victims

Everett, Marshall. The Great Chicago Theater Disaster. s.l.

Publishers Union of America. 1904.

Randall, Frank A. History of the Development of Building

Construction in Chicago. Urbana, Ill.: Univ. of Illinois. 1949. p.222.

MRC Clipping File: Fires--Chicago--Iroquois Theater Fire

Deaths, Disturbances, Disasters and Disorders in Chicago

Compiled by Reference Librarians Ellen O'Brien and Lyle Benedict

Municipal Reference Collection, Chicago Public Library

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