Disaster: The Iroquois Theater Fire

Beck, Admin. Berry v. Iroquois Theater, et al.

Circuit Court #258738 and 9  (1904)

On December 30, 1903 nineteen hundred holidaymakers packed into the new Iroquois Theater to see Eddie Foy and Annabelle Whitford in "My Blue Beard."  No doubt they felt secure knowing that the Iroquois had been constructed with the latest fireproofing technology.

During the second act, a footlight ignited a stage curtain.  Stagehands quickly lowered the asbestos fire curtain but it became stuck partway down.  As smoke began to billow, the audience panicked and rushed to the exits, where they found that all the doors opened inward.  Mr. Foy shouted for everyone to stay calm, but the people pushed frantically against those in front of them, who were trapped inside the doors.  Over six hundred patrons young and old died, many trampled to death in the crush, making this the worst theater fire disaster in U.S. history.

After the fire, the City of Chicago rewrote its fire code to mandate outward-swinging doors in similar establishments.  Several hundred individual lawsuits were filed, not only against the Iroquois Theater but also against its builder, George Fuller, and the architect, Benjamin Marshall.  Both men figured prominently in Chicago building construction.

The Archives holds several typical Iroquois Theater lawsuits.  In case #258738, the eight-count complaint lists in detail those aspects of the Iroquois' construction  alleged to fall short of the current city fire code.  In reply, the defendant's demurrer insists that each step of construction was in compliance.

The case file contains few other documents, because the case was settled out of court (as were many others).  To view this file and several others, contact the Archives at 312 603-6601.

For a more complete story of the Iroquois Theater Fire, try Louis Guenzel's Retrospects:  The Iroquois Fire  (Elmhurst, Illinois:  Theater Historical Society of America, 1993, orig. published 1945 ).  Local newspaper coverage of the event may be studied at the Chicago History Museum or at the Harold Washington Library Center's Periodicals Division .  For more details about the Iroquois fire, check the Chicago Public Library's "Disasters" page