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Major American Fires: Iroquois Theater Fire- 1903

Iroquois Theater Fire: Introduction

Ruined stage of the Iroquois Theater after the fire, looking down from the balcony. Taken by a Chicago Daily News Photographer January 4, 1904. DN-0001586, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum

The Iroquois Theater Fire occurred in Chicago on December 30, 1903. At least 602 people were killed; many were children. The theater, which had only been open one month, was considered to be architecturally excellent, and advertisements had declared it fireproof. The fire occurred during a sold-out performance of the musical Mr. Bluebeard. The fire began when one of the lights over the stage shorted out and ignited a muslin curtain. The fire quickly spread through the flies to the hanging scenery, and a fireball travelled from the stage to the back of the balconies. The high death toll was the result of a combination of faults in the design, construction, and operation of the theater. Lack of extinguishers and alarms, a malfunctioning asbestos curtain, sealed vents, a confusing layout, locked doors, and locked metal gates that blocked the balcony stairways all contributed to the fire's high death toll.  



In a video available on, Nat Brandt leads a discussion at the Chicago Public Library about his book, Chicago Death Trap: Book Discussion on Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903

Primary Sources