Today’s Crackling Yet Truly Morbid Fact!
(Yes, I know, I just featured the Iroquois Theatre a few weeks ago but… I just finished reading a book on it, and it feels topical with the recent Ghost Ship fire, so … why not?)
On December 30, 1903, a fire broke out at the brand-new “absolutely fireproof” Iroquois Theater in Chicago as a packed, standing-room only audience, mostly women and children, were watching the popular comedian Eddie Foy perform in the musical fantasy Mr. Bluebeard. A short circuit in a single backstage spotlight touched off a small fire that, in minutes, erupted into an uncontrollable blaze. More than 600 people died. This is the story of how the fire started and its first casualty.
As the music was swelling and the young performers were beginning their entrances, McMullen’s light suddenly began to sputter and spark. He heard “a slight crackling sound” moments before a few inches of orange flame appeared and began to spread out, ever so slowly, along the fringe of the tormentor. On the stage below, the chorus girls and boys were into their up-tempo song, swearing their love “by the pale moonlight.” McMullen tried slapping at the tiny flame with this hands, but within seconds the quivering light had grown, consuming the material above his head and beyond his reach, and was beginning to catch on to the heavier curtains. He shouted to the man on the catwalk above to help.
“Put it out,” he cried, “put it out!”
“Damn it, I am, I am!” The fly man too began slapping at the burning material with his hands.
On stage, the cadets sang, “We love you madly,” begging the maidens for a kiss: “So make no noise but come join the boys, on condition that the moon is shining bright.”
The girls responded, “The reason we allow this liberty, is because you wear a smile that says it’s right.” And together they sang, “Let us swear it by the pale moonlight.”
The audience was engrossed in this romantic musical scene, but on either side of the castle garden set, stagehands, grips and those on the catwalks above were pointing and a voice from beneath the light bridge called out with some urgency, “Look at that fire! Can’t you see you’re on fire up there? Put it out!”
What had been small orange-yellow flickers were beginning to spread to the draperies above those already dissolving into flame.
In front of the footlights the double octet had begun its dance.
“Look at that other curtain,” someone yelled. “Put it out!” But the flames had suddenly grown larger and were beyond reach. Black smoke was starting to rise.
Another light operator, W. H. Aldridge, heard no crackling sound but thought he saw “a flash of light, about six inches long, at the place where the 110 volt line connected” to McMullen’s lamp. “As I looked,” he said, “a curtain swayed against the flames… in a moment the loose edges of the canvas were ablaze…”
[… cut details of the flames spreading further and the audience beginning to notice something was amiss… ]
High above the stage, Charles Sweeney, assigned to the first flying gallery, had seized tarpaulins and, with some other men wielding wooden battens, was slapping at the flames.
“It got out of our reach,” he said, “It went along the border toward the center… then it blazed all over and I saw there was no possibility of doing anything.” Sweeney dashed up six flights of stairs to a roomful of chorus girls whom he led down to the small stage exit. In the rush to escape, most of the girls dropped everything, including their purses, and left the building wearing only flimsy costumes or tights. Other men raced downstairs to rescue girls in the dressing rooms below the stage level.
High up in the theatre’s gridiron, the Grigolatis, sixteen young German aerialists – twelve women and four men – who operated their “flying” wires, had a frightening bird-eye view of the scene. Clouds of thick black choking smoke were rising towards them and some blazing pieces of canvas the size of bed sheets were falling over the stage and the footlights.
The Grigolatis Aerial Dancers
The Grigolatis had only seconds to act. One, Floraline, some distance away from the others, suddenly found herself engulfed in flames from a burning piece of scenery. Before the others could reach her, Floraline panicked, lost her grip on the trapeze, and fell with a sickening thud onto the stage behind the burning castle garden set, nearly sixty feet below. She lay there unmoving. By the time her companions could unhook themselves from their harnesses and scramble down some metal scaffolding to the stage, Floraline had vanished and the could only hope that someone had carried her out to safety. In all the confusion, no one had thought about aerialist Nellie Reed, still attached to her wire.
[To Be Continued…]
Culled from Tinder Box: The Iroquois Theatre Disaster 1903
There’s a lot of controversy about whether Floraline was Floraline, a woman, or Florine, a man, and whether he or she lived or died, but I found a newspaper snippet from the Indianapolis Journal stating that he or she died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Oh, and It turns out that the Chicago History Museum has in its collection the spotlight that supposedly started the fire. Why, here it is on their website!
But is it on permanent display at the museum??? Oh no, of course not. Which proves, yet again, why this is the most disappointing museum on Earth. (Hey, don’t try to tell me how they have only a limited space and so many artifacts that they have to pick and choose what to display, yada yada… THIS should be on permanent display, don’t question me!)
Tinder Box: The Iroquois Theatre Disaster 1903
by Anthony P. Hatch
This is an excellent overview of Chicago’s infamous 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire. Unlike many books about tragedies, which usually peter out quickly after the tale of the tragedy, I actually found the chapters detailing the legal aftermath every bit as interesting the fire itself. Reading about this tragedy, which resulted in the death of over 600 people, made me think about large-scale fatal fires and how rare they are in America in this day and age. So many tragic 20th century fires – the Iroquois, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the Cocoanut Grove, the Circus Fire, Our Lady of the Angels – resulted in improved safety regulations and inspections which have significantly reduced the number of such tragedies in modern life. The Station nightclub disaster is one of the few in recent history I could recall.
Of course, before I could finish the book, news came in of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, killing 36 vibrant young artists who found themselves trapped upstairs with a blaze raging through their only escape route below them. Naturally, in the wake of this disaster, there has been a lot of finger pointing, both at the city of Oakland for not performing inspections on the makeshift warehouse residence and on the Ghost Ship owner for not providing a safe environment for his artist community. (Of course, this overlooks the real culprit – unchecked Capitalism that has resulted in a lack of affordable housing options in the Bay Area. Sometimes you take unnecessary risks because… they actually ARE necessary!)
In any event, the blame game reminds me of the Iroquois Theatre disaster, when a battle of public opinion was waged between the theater owners (for not ensuring the building was complete and safe before opening for business), contractors (for not completing the ventilation system and fire escapes), management (for locking exit routes and not providing adequate fire extinguishers), architect (for designing a grand promenade that resulted in a log-jam of patrons trying to exit and for disguising emergency exits so they looked prettier) and the City of Chicago (for an inadequate safety inspection).
Ultimately, as with so many American atrocities, there were so many to blame for the fire that NO ONE was legally held to blame for it. It was a perfect storm of incompetence, greed, and poor decisions that doomed the audience of mostly women and children who attended a matinee performance of the musical Mr. Bluebeard on December 30, 1903. Much like the Titanic disaster which would follow nearly a decade later, the fate of the crowd in the “absolutely fireproof” theatre was largely dependent on social class, with a majority of victims residing in the balcony and gallery “cheap seats”. As if it wasn’t bad enough that the panicked balcony patrons found their exit corridor had been blocked by an accordion gate (which had been locked by theater employees to prevent the peasants from trying to sneak down to the more expensive floor seats during the show), they were also doomed by the construction company, struggling to meet an oft-delayed deadline, neglecting to finish installing the ventilation system in the roof. And they were doomed by the installation of an “asbestos curtain” designed to protect the crowd that turned out to neither be made of asbestos nor lowered properly. It caught on some equipment about 20 feet from the stage floor, and when the backstage doors were flung open to allow crew to escape, the suddenly influx of oxygen turned the inferno into a fireball that shot beneath the curtain, straight up into the balcony, incinerating those in its path.
Some of the balcony patrons were able to make it to the upper level fire escapes… only to discover that they had never been finished; there were no stairs. The rush of people behind them pushed many to their deaths. Students in Northwestern University across the alley saved some people by putting long boards and ladders across the chasm, but many people fell to their deaths trying to cross the slippery, rickety escape route. The area became known as “Death Alley” as at least 125 died on the cold cobblestones.
Those who shelled out the extra money for floor seats had much improved odds of escape, since the fireball blew over their heads and they didn’t have to contend with the unfinished fire escapes, but the confusing layout of the dark, smoke-filled theater lead to many tragedies there as well. There were emergency exits with confusing locks that could not be opened, mirrored ornamental “doors” that were not actually exits, dead-ends, bottlenecks where multiple corridors converged into one, and inward-opening doors that could not be opened due to the pressure of the panicked crowd crushing behind them.
A lot was learned about fire safety in the aftermath of the Iroquois Fire disaster, but as The Station nightclub and Ghost Ship warehouse fires prove, despite all our safeguards, we’re all still just a stray spark away from disaster. As I sit here typing, I look around at my studio apartment with both exit doors placed right next to each other. Were a fire to start in that section of the building, I’d have nowhere to go except out a third story window, just like those who jumped into Death Alley. How many of us can say the same? Ultimately, for all the safety measures we take, we’re all just delicate fleshy creatures at the mercy of the elements. And sometimes we end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
More books about fire tragedies can be perused at The Library Eclectica’s Intense Infernos aisle.