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Iroquois Theater Fire: Topics in Chronicling America

In 1903, a fire in a Chicago theater traps and kills patrons. This incident later brings fire code reform. This guide provides access to materials related to the "Iroquois Theater Fire" in the Chronicling America digital collection of historic newspapers.

Introduction

"False exits in Iroquois Theater plunge audience into death trap." January 1, 1904. The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, CA), Image 1. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

A fire rages through Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre with over 1,300 patrons inside. The asbestos curtain malfunctions and several doors are barred while others that open inward are quickly blocked. When firemen arrive fifteen minutes later, they find over five hundred dead in the silent theater—there are none to be saved. The tragedy creates national horror and outrage and leads to widespread fire code reforms. Read more about it!

The information in this guide focuses on primary source materials found in the digitized historic newspapers from the digital collection Chronicling America.

The timeline below highlights important dates related to this topic and a section of this guide provides some suggested search strategies for further research in the collection.

Timeline

November 23, 1903The Iroquois Theater opens and debuts its first show, Mr. Bluebeard.
December 30, 1903A fire tears through the Iroquois Theater. The final death toll will exceed 600 in the second deadliest fire in American history.
January 1, 1904Nineteen theaters, opera houses, and museums across Chicago are closed because of fire code violations. Later in the week Mayor Harrison will issue an order closing all theaters in Chicago pending a review of their fire code compliance.
January 26, 1904The coroner’s jury orders eight men to be held before facing trial in connection with the fire. Among these men were: Mayor Carter Harrison, theater manager Will Davis, the Chicago building commissioner, a building inspector, and the Chief of the Chicago Fire Department.
February 20, 1904The grand jury returns manslaughter indictments against the theater’s owner, business manager, and stage carpenter. The building commissioner and a building inspector are also indicted with culpable omission of official duty in office. Mayor Harrison, the fire chief, and two others brought before the grand jury are not indicted.
June 8, 1904New York introduces new building standards for theaters in response to the Iroquois tragedy.
September 20, 1904The Iroquois Theater reopens under new ownership despite protest from the public and the Iroquois Memorial Association.
December 30, 1904A memorial service is held for the victims on the anniversary of the fire. The same day a judge rules that the City of Chicago is not liable for damages relating to the fire.