The Great Chicago Fire destroyed over four square miles of the city and killed 250 people. On this date in 1903, more than twice that number died from a fire in a single building.
The Iroquois Theatre opened in the fall of 1903. Located on Randolph Street just west of State, it had more than 1,700 seats and was a state-of-the-art playhouse. Ads claimed that it was "absolutely fireproof."
On this Wednesday afternoon, the Iroquois was featuring the musical comedy "Mr. Blue Beard," starring Eddie Foy. Every seat was filled - school was out for Christmas vacation, and the audience was mostly women and children. About 200 more people were standing in the aisles and in the rear.
Midway through the second act, a defective lamp set a backstage curtain on fire. The flames quickly spread to props and scenery which were stored nearby. The audience didn't realize anything was wrong. They thought the glow coming from behind the stage was part of the show.
Then the truth began to sink in. The audience grew restless. From the stage, Eddie Foy asked for calm. He ordered the asbestos fire curtain lowered. The curtain stuck halfway down. A piece of burning debris fell on stage. Someone screamed.
The panicked crowd rushed for the exits. But the balcony doors were locked, to keep people from sneaking down into the expensive seats. On the main floor, the doors to the street swung inward, and the crush of people made them hard to open. And if a door did open, the blast of outside air fed the fire.
Eddie Foy was still on stage, trying to restore order. He finally accepted that the situation was out of control. He turned his attention to his troupe, and got them safely out of the building.
Out on Randolph, firemen arrived. There was no smoke and the street was quiet, so they thought it might be a false alarm. At first they couldn't get the theater doors open. They soon found out why--dead bodies were piled up against the inside.
The final death toll was 602. Some had died from burns, the majority from smoke inhalation or from being trampled. Investigations were launched. In the end, a few of the victims' families received compensation. Chicago's fire laws were also revised.
The Iroquois Theatre eventually reopened, but with a new name. Today the Oriental Theatre occupies the site.