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The Iroquois Theatre Fire: Chicago's Other Great Fire

Andrew Martin Hayes, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


On December 30, 1903, the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, caught fire and burned. In less than fifteen minutes, over 600 people attending a matinee performance lost their lives. This work examines the fire, its causes, and its impact on American theatre construction and operation. Chapter One contains an examination of theatre fires in America, demonstrating that theatre fires were not rare occurrences in American theatre history. The fact that this disaster took place in Chicago is not entirely coincidental. Chicago was a large center for theatrical activity, and Chapter Two shows that even the fundamental structure of the city's government had an impact on theatrical activity. This chapter also sets the stage for an argument that the city was, at the very least, partially responsible for the disaster. The story of the fire is one of horror and death. What promised to be a joyful holiday outing for hundreds ended in tragedy. Chapter Three recounts the events of the fire and its impact on the lives of families throughout the midwest. When tragic events occur, there is the inevitable rush to blame someone and to determine why the disaster happened. Although several arrests were made within days of the fire, only one individual was eventually tried in a legal struggle that lasted until 1907. While Chapter Four explores the attempts to prosecute someone responsible for the disaster, Chapter Five discusses the plethora of expert advice available to help those who constructed and managed the Iroquois. The chapter also identifies how much of that expert advice was incorporated into Chicago's city ordinances. The information clearly demonstrates that the Iroquois disaster was entirely preventable. Finally, the Iroquois disaster had an immediate impact on theatre construction and operation nationwide, and it prompted many cities to enforce their theatre ordinances with greater diligence. Chapter six examines what happened across the country in response to the fire and how it shaped theatre construction and operations for decades.

Subject Area

Theater|American history|American studies

Recommended Citation

Hayes, Andrew Martin, "The Iroquois Theatre Fire: Chicago's Other Great Fire" (1999). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI9951294.