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The Deadliest Theater Fire In History


February 13, 1875 – readers of the Chicago Times open their papers and are met with a rather alarming headline: “BURNED ALIVE!” A seeming news bulletin of a horrific and
gruesome fire (caused by an overturned gas burner) that engulfed an unnamed Chicago theater – burning alive some 157 patrons as they fought desperately to escape the flames. Victims, many trampled to death, were pulled from the rubble as blackened corpses. Listed in the paper were the initials of numerous casualties (a custom during that time.) To the casual reader skimming through the paper, the story is quite real, but a careful examination of the article’s closing lines
reveal that the event was simply hypothetical. A fictional account presented as reality,
meant to enlighten the readership to the very real fire hazards present in Chicago’s theater district. This piece of shock-mock journalism? A public service, of sorts. Chicago Times’ readers are, of course, equal parts disgusted and incensed. A flood of letters pour in, telling the paper off for such ill-conceived sensationalism. The Time’s rival paper, the Chicago Tribune, publishes a scathing
article in response, reporting that one local woman had died from the shock of seeing what she believed were her husband’s initials in the article. Of course, THIS story is ALSO made up, in the Tribune’s half-hearted attempt to showcase how such articles are in poor taste. The city’s readers eventually walk away
from the episode disgusted at each publication’s self-imagined hoaxes. Respect is lost – but so, too, is the message The Chicago Time’s had hoped the readership would walk away with – that Chicago Theaters are in desperate need of safety improvements. [music] November 23, 1903. The Ribbon Cutting for The Iroquois Theater. Located at 24–28 West Randolph Street – a location chosen specifically to attract women on day trips from out of town, who would be more comfortable attending a theater near the police patrolled shopping district, as
opposed to the more dangerous sections of Chicago under the dark of night. Thus far, the theater’s grand opening has
been delayed for a number of reasons – from labor disputes to architectural roadblocks
– still, the venue is illustrious – a capacity of 1,602 attendees spread throughout three impeccably adorned audience levels. The theater’s single entrance – a broad and beautiful stairway that leads from the foyer to the balcony level, allows patrons of all shapes and sizes to
“see and be seen” regardless of the price of their ticket. An ornate, 60-foot high ceiling held up by
white marbled walls is awe-inspiring, and a glass skylight over the stage makes every performance look magical. Advertisements and playbills for the Iroquois Theater, in an effort to win safety-conscious customers, claim the building is impervious to fire. A declaration that certainly ruffles the feathers of one Chicago Fire Department captain, who made an unofficial tour of the theater days before, finding numerous safety deficiencies. Exit signs are missing or obscured by thick drapes. There are no sprinklers. No Fire Alarms. No Water Connections, and no backstage telephones. An editor of Fireproof Magazine, who toured the building during construction, noted the absence of an intake, and also expresses concerns about the abundance of wood trim used in the theater’s aesthetic design. By the time of the opening, the only firefighting tools on hand consist of six metal canisters containing a dry chemical product called Kilfyre, meant to be forcibly hurled at the base of any flames. Business is business, though. And deadlines, even more so… and with the stage now ready, Iroquois Theater opens its doors. It will take only a single month for disaster to strike. [music] December 30, 1903. Wednesday. The theater is presenting a matinee performance of the popular Drury Lane musical Mr. Blue Beard. The play, a burlesque of the traditional folk tale, features Dan McAvoy as Bluebeard and Eddie Foy as Sister Anne. The show has been playing at the theater since opening night, but the attendance has been more – many staying home due to poor weather, but on this day, things are looking up. Every seat in the house has been sold, and the theater owners, eager to make up for lost revenue, sell hundreds of standing room tickets for
areas in the back of the theater – causing such a crowd that many sit in the theater
aisles, blocking the exits. Many of the estimated 2200 patrons attending the matinee are children. Shortly after 3pm, as the show is well into
the second act, and 16 performers are on stage, delivering a rendition of the song “Pale
Moon Light.” – An electrical short circuit cause the main spotlight to shoot sparks into the air. One of the stage’s curtains begins to burn, and wood trimming on the front of the stage catches fire. A stagehand rushes backstage to fetch the emergency metal canisters, and by the time he returns, some of the singers start to notice smoke. Kilfyre is meant to be thrown at the base
of flames, but the fire in the theater is taking place high above the stage, thus, when the stagehand throws the canisters, the chemicals spill uselessly to the ground. Embers begin to fall toward the nervous singers below, and in moments, the audience realizes the emergency. The patrons panic, and show star Eddie Foy, set to go on stage – rushes out and attempts to calm the crowd. Chunks of the burning scenery fall around
him as he tries in vain to maintain order in the room. There is no telephone backstage. A member of production is ordered to run from the burning theater on foot and alert the nearest firehouse. The Chicago Fire Department will not arrive in time. The fire spreads in seconds, and the audience attempts, in vain, to flee. The design of the theater, which includes large hung mirrors, disorients many in the crowd. Others arrive at the exits only to find locked accordion
gates, set up to prevent people from sneaking to better seats after the start of the show. The audience is locked in. The broad and beautiful staircase proves to be a deathtrap – there is a REASON, after all, that Chicago fire ordinances require
multiple staircases and exits for the various balconies and sections. One single staircase means one single exit – and 2200 disoriented theatergoers, desperate for air and fighting for their lives do not
form an orderly line. The theater goes black, and hundreds are trampled in the chaos. In just 20 minutes, 575 people are killed.
At least 30 more will die of injuries over the following weeks. The Iroquois Theater is destroyed, in what
will be the worst single-building fire in U.S. history – more than doubling the number of fatalities seen during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. And the next day, theaters in New York City and around the country eliminate standing room seating. Building and fire codes will soon be reformed; theaters all over the world will close to be retrofitted – exit signs from this point
forward will need to be clearly marked, and in many cases, installed. Theaters in Chicago will close for six weeks. Investigations will take place. In January of the next year, Will Davis, the
theater’s manager, is arrested, and charged with criminal neglect. After a short time, he will be acquitted. Before too long, newspapers across the country report on the disaster. The victims names are published, and this time is no hoax. This time, what happened in the paper happened in Chicago. This episode of Really Weird History is sponsored by CuriosityStream. A subscription streaming service that now offers offer 2400 documentaries and non-fiction titles from some of the world’s best filmmakers, including exclusive originals. If you love learning about true stories like
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100 Comments

  1. Emerald Mara Author

    You know who else doesn't care about safety? Elon Musk, he got rid of the safety guidelines in his car factories because he didn't like the color. And no, he didn't replace it with another color.

    Reply
  2. LEMONS Patusky Author

    Austin one week “a children’s book!”

    Austin the next week “a deadly fire that killed people.”

    I love the randomness of this channel

    Reply
  3. Daniel Chan Author

    Austin McConnell: You're an excellent storyteller. Everything—from pace to enunciation—kept my attention to the end. Though I want you to keep this channel going for a long time, I hope storytelling takes you much further.

    Reply
  4. cushmanproductions Author

    Because I went to a theatre school in Chicago, we all learned a lot about the Iroquois fire in detail. A few things to add:

    Not only were some paths barred by gates, many of the exit doors swung inward. When rushed with a crowd, it became nearly impossible to open these doors.
    There were also some doors that looked like doors, but were actually just a wall made to look like a door.
    Some of the outdoor fire escape platforms had no way of getting to the ground.

    Finally, the fire curtain. This is a fireproof curtain that can be lowered to prevent the fire from spreading from the stage to the audience. When they attempted to lower it, it got caught by a light sticking out in its way. Nowadays, in Chicago, many theatres must test their fire curtain every single day to make sure that nothing impedes its motion. (Side note: the fire curtain at the Iroquois likely would not have done much due to it being made with mostly wood, likely as a "cost-cutting" measure.)

    Also, due to Chicago's various "problems" with fire in the past, it is nearly impossible to use any sort of pyrotechnics or fire effects in Chicago venues. It can be done, but takes nearly an act of God.

    Reply
  5. Liam Smythe Author

    Just letting you know, your bio on youtube says you’ve been “making moves since 1990”. If that’s what you meant to write, then carry-on, just thought you meant to write “making movies since 1990“.

    Reply
  6. Georgina Toland Author

    My husband: Here are tickets to an Austin City Limits taping!

    Me, eyeing the one staircase to the studio: What safety precautions are in place in the event of a loss of power and/or fire?

    Reply
  7. Yeetus YEET Author

    May i just say that i loved this? (not the hundreds of people dying, the video.) I have no clue how you find this history, but I love learning from vids like these. They have really high quality and i feel like I’m actually learning something.

    Reply
  8. EZG Author

    And around 100 years later Rammstein was denied permission to use their iconic pyrotechnics during a Chicago performance, despite their experience and the fact that it was outdoors. I believe it was their first American tour, and many came specifically to see the flames.

    Damn shame.

    Reply
  9. trollbreeder Author

    What did we learn about this? Talk about the topic directly and never lie.

    For example, instead of putting in a fake story of a theater fire, put in the dangers of fire and burning buildings.

    Reply
  10. Charlotte Howard-Check Author

    I saw the stage light that sparked. They have it in the Chicago history museum. The doors also opened inwards, and it was so packed that they couldn’t open the door

    Reply
  11. Suchiththa W Author

    Interesting. I wonder how many people will read this and think twice about railing against modern health and safety regulations. Once upon a time we had none, and this happened.

    Reply
  12. Stephanie Feytser Author

    Can you make a video on how movies find songs to put in them…I’m curious because movies always seem to have songs that fit them perfectly pretty much always and I wonder who gets the job of finding songs

    Reply
  13. moviemagic Author

    When I had evening classes by State St. in Chicago, I used to walk by the Couch Place alleyway of the Oriental Theater (now called the Nederlander) where the Iroquois Theater used to stand and you can sense sadness and dread in the afternoon. Some may not feel it but knowing about the history of the building where the alleyway is now can change your perspective.

    Rest in peace to those souls who perished and didn't deserve this.

    Reply
  14. Tbo Hobo Author

    Oh my God, For the longest time I read your channel name as Autism Colonel. Until I heard it for the first time at the end of this video.

    It's still going to be Autism Colonel to me forever.

    Reply
  15. Patrik Author

    God damn this channel is so good. I usually place things I wanna see in Watch Later and just… watch later. When it's a video from Austin, I click immediately. Granted, I'm late AF to this party though.

    Reply
  16. Euquila Author

    2:46 you said foyer: you need to say it like "foyay" because it is a french word. In french, an "er" at the end of the word sounds like "ay"
    and theater is not a gator… just say it like "theeter". The `a` should be bearly noticeable.

    Reply
  17. Vince Lestrade Author

    What a terribly designed theatre construction. Something is so very respectable about the leading cast member taking time to calm the audience, from your description; it brings forth memories of the described violinists playing a calming, fitting tune as the great Titanic began to sink.

    Reply
  18. Eric Marley Author

    I feel like if the Tribune maybe wrote a sensational story about how unsafe the theatre was without making up a fake scenario and taking advantage of their readers, maybe this wouldn't have happened.

    But who am I kidding, the theatre probably wouldn't listen anyway.

    Reply

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