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This week in history: The other Great Chicago Fire

On Dec. 30, 1903, a fire broke out during a performance at the Iroquois Theater in Chicago, trapping most of its patrons inside. It remains one of the deadliest fires in history.

An alley behind the Iroquois Theater where firefighters fight a blaze in the theater
Firefighters in an alley behind the Iroquois Theater extinguish the flames from the massive blaze within on Dec. 30, 1903.
From the Sun-Times archives.

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

Few events in Chicago’s history compelled the afternoon-publishing Chicago Daily News to push out a late edition of the paper. Mayor Carter Harrison’s assassination in 1893 led to an extra print, and 10 years later, another event caused the paper to push out a front page devoted solely to one tragedy.

On Dec. 30, 1903, muslin curtains hanging near the stage of the Iroquois Theater caught fire during a matinee attended by mainly women and children. The blaze quickly spread and, due to the building’s many fire code violations and misguided construction choices, trapped hundreds of patrons, killing over 600 of them. The disaster became the deadliest theater fire in U.S. history.

“The fire began to snuff out human lives about 3:35 o’clock,” the paper reported in its late edition, “while a matinee performance of ‘Mr. Blue Beard, Jr.’ was being played. In the midst of the soothing strains of the ‘Moonlight’ song, an arc light spark shot into the flies, the asbestos fire curtain failed to work, and the light fell, and in the explosion that followed, a panic ensued.”

As the stage burned and the production halted, audience members on all three levels of the theater — which sat where the James M. Nederlander Theatre stands today — bolted for the doors. On the ground floor, curtains obscured the door locations, making it difficult for patrons to escape. On the one staircase leading to the second and third levels, a locked accordion gate blocked the path. Though intended to keep patrons from sneaking down into more expensive seats at intermission, the gate trapped those on the upper floors.

“From that time on until the flames had subdued everything, the death crush continued,” the paper said. “A mass of humanity was jammed into the balcony stairway, surrounded by smoke and flame. The mass soon settled back into a death pose and there they were found by firemen.”

Outside the theater, Daily News reporters spoke with some of the first people on the scene. Bishop Muldoon happened to be passing by when panicked theater goers rushed out, the paper reported. He then ran into the building and “climbed into the gallery and there directed the work of rescue.” He remained even as the smoke and flames crept closer to him, giving courage to those who saw him and offering sacraments to Roman Catholics in the theater. Once he felt assured that all injured patrons had been evacuated, the bishop allowed authorities to escort him out of the burning theater.

Over on Dearborn Street, a priest from Holy Name Cathedral and his companion heard shrieks coming from an alley behind the theater, the paper said. A group of chorus girls stuck in a coal hole shouted for help. The two men freed them, and the girls were able to go home unharmed.

As fire crews worked to extinguish the flames and pull out bodies, physicians, nurses and interns helped separate the dead from the living, the paper said. “Mirrors were obtained, and these were held close to the mouth and nostrils of the person being examined for signs of life. In several instances, the mirror showed moisture and the ministering attendants at once began the work of resuscitation. In other instances, the physicians resorted to the use of oxygen, and several lives were saved by this method.”

One of the most harrowing stories reported on the fire that day came from 11-year-old Winnie Gallagher. She had been sitting in the third row from the stage with her mother when the fire broke out, the paper said. Her mother fled, leaving Gallagher behind. After stepping over several seats to get to the door, “she was nearly crushed in the crowd and all her outer garments were stripped from her. At the central police station, the child was restored to her mother.”