In the loss of life the burning of the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago on the afternoon of December 30, 1903 stands without a parallel in such catastrophes. The very popular play, "Mr. Blue Bird," was having a great run at this, the newest of theatres in Chicago. The afternoon performance, as usual, was largely attended by women and children and consequently the great loss of life fell heaviest upon them.
Between 3:15 and 3:30 p.m. the stage scenery was discovered to be on fire and as is usual in such cases, a panic ensued. The theatre is the newest in Chicago; having been opened to the November 23d 1 st, and was supposed to be absolutely fire proof; it being provided with an asbestos fire curtain to be lowered in front of the stage in case of just such a fire as this. It was also thought that fire proof paint had been used in the painting of the scenery, but it seems that the fire curtain nor any part of the scenery was fire proof. At the alarm of fire, an attempt was made to lower the asbestos fire curtain, but when within about six feet of the stage floor, the machinery refused to work and the curtain could be gotten down no lower although men made a vigorous attempt to do so. At this juncture the doors in the rear of the stage were thrown open and the draft caused by this sent the seething flame out over the audience in the auditorium; the force of which was greatly augmented by the throat-like aperture made by the fire curtain standing where it did. To add to the horrors of the situation the lights went out leaving the people to grope their way from this cauldron of death. It is said that of the numerous exits, only five or six were open and these were mostly covered by a heavy curtain, which greatly impeded people in their mad rush to escape what was certain death if they remained. It was perhaps the first time that many of those present had been in the house and everything was strange to them, which added to the darkness which prevailed, heightened the difficulty of getting out. As the fire increased, the smoke from the burning stage fixtures became a deadly gas causing many to fall from suffocation, while those that were still able to go trampled over their prostrate forms; causing the life to be crushed out of many a poor woman and helpless child. It is said that in the foyer of the theatre where the several isles converge, the dead and injured were piled five or six feet deep. No tongue can tell, no pen can write the horrors of that awful half-hour, when the lives of 591 men, women and children; mostly the latter, went out and caused a night of gloom to settle over hundreds of homes; not only in the city of Chicago, but in distant states. People had gone to the city to do their holiday shopping and visiting and to spend an hour or so in the many places of amusement with which the city abounds, but the houses of joy and gladness were in one hour turned into houses of mourning; causing strong men to weep like children.
Our people became highly excited when it became known the Mrs. J. H. Spindler, wife of our townsman J.H. Spindler, and son Burdette, were among the missing. We have never seen our people so worked up as they were last Thursday, and the climax was reached when it became known that Mrs. Spindler and her son Burdette were both dead. The great sorrow of our people was still further augmented when it became known that Mrs. J.G. Johnson, mother of Mrs. Spindler, and Mrs. Frady and son Leon and Mrs. Rife, sisters of Mrs Spindler, were probably among the dead. The ladies were through visiting here with Mrs. Spindler, well known by quite a number of our people. At the time of the entertainment at which so many people gave up their lives, Mr. Spindler was at Chicago Heights and knowing that his wife and son were there, hastened to that awful scene, only to find that his loved ones were no where to be found. Then began the weary and sorrowful search by himself, Mr. Frady, Mr. Rife, and several others, which lasted from Wednesday evening till Friday at 10 a.m. when the last one, Mrs. Rife, was found and identified. Mrs. Spindler was found at Jordan's morgue at 10 a.m. Thursday; Burdette at Carrol's morgue about 1 p.m. same day. Mrs. Frady at Sheldon's morgue about 1 p.m. Thursday and her son Leon in Carroll's morgue a short time afterward. Mrs. J.G. Johnson, the mother was found at St. Luke's hospital badly injured, but will probably recover. Mrs. Johnson was one of those who crawled across a ladder laid by some painters from the burning theatre to the North-Western University building and thus saved her life. She declares she does not know how she ever did it, but she reached the other side safely, terribly burned and scalded. She had not, however, been informed of the death of her daughters and grandchildren.
Mr. and Mrs. Spindler's youngest son, Cecil, being somewhat indisposed did not accompany his mother, but remained home with his grandfather Johnson, and was thus saved to his father. Mr. Frady is rendered wifeless and childless by the catastrophe, while Mr. Rife has a fifteen-months old babe left him and Mrs Johnson lies in the St. Luke's hospital in critical condition. If she dies Mr. Johnson will have been bereft of his entire family with he exception of one son, who was not in the ill fated building.
In the Lowell cemetery is five freshly heaped mounds, beneath which lie the remains of three noble women and two promising boys, and who is responsible for their being there? Undoubtedly it is the men who are charged with enforcement of the laws. Will J. Davis and Harry J. Powers, managers of the Iroquois theatre, Building Commissioner Williams and several others have been arrested and placed under heavy bonds, charged with manslaughter. Behind these is the city government charged with seeing that the law _____ all cases enforced, which was not cone in this and many other cases. How long, oh, how long will the good people of Chicago consent to being ruled by such officers or terrorized by brutal things? There seems to be an awakening of the public conscience and it begins to look as if someone will be made to suffer severely. If good should corne out of this terrible catastrophe all will not have been lost.
The _____ bodies Mrs. J.H. Spindler and son Burdette, Mrs. E.C. Frady and son Leon and Mrs. William Rife, were brought here by special train Sunday, January 3, 1904; the train arriving at 10:45 a.m. About 125 relatives and friends of the deceased accompanied the remains from Chicago. Five hearses--three black and two white, met the train at the station. The floral tributes were numerous and the finest we ever saw. When the transfer of the bodies from the car to the hearses had been completed, the sad procession, escorted by the Lowell Lodge K of P's and a delegation of Elks from Valparaiso, Ind., wended it way to the M. E. church, which was filled to overflowing; fully 600 people being present, while hundreds were turned away; being unable to get inside the church. Rev. D.D. Hoagland preached a most excellent sermon. He was assisted in the services by Elder John Bruce and Elder C.L. McKim. The Methodist church choir, with Mrs. .E. Binyon as organist, furnished some very fine music for the sad occasion. Interment was made in the Lowell cemetery. Funeral Director John Castle, had charge of the burial services and so perfect were their arrangements that everything passed off without a hitch. On behalf of this entire community the TRIBUNE extends to the bereave relatives and friends one and all sincere sympathy and condolence in this their hour of direst sorrow and bereavement.
Mrs. Spindler, Mrs. Rife and Mrs. Frady were the daughters of James G. and Eliza Johnson, who were well known at Crescent City and Onarga, Ill. They came to Crescent City in 1868, and first lived on a farm, and afterwards removed to the village, where they were prominently identified with the organization of the Congregational church, of which they were faithful members. In 1880 they removed to Onarga, where they remained until 1889 since which time they have resided in Chicago. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson were honored and respected citizens when they lived in Iroquois county and have the sympathy of a large circle of old friends in this terrible calamity.
Below is given in full the sermon of Rev. D.D. Hoagland.
My dear friends:--We are brought together today by a call so imperative that we cannot fail to understand its summons. There are moments when the whole world by some unconscious spiritual alchemy is melted into one realm of sympathy and kinship. The present is such a moment. From the palace of the rich to the cottage of the poor; from the great city to the country village; from the homes of culture and refinement to the humble hamlet-home of the unlettered and unpolished; from school, shop and store; from office and forge, from college and cloister; from toil-stained and the burden-free--from every class of homes there went happy, laughing faces of mothers, sweethearts, children to an hour's entertainment,--and to a shroud of flame. In a few hours, over the whole city consternation and dread brooded like birds of prey. The night was one long nightmare of horrible, heart-rending, despairing search. Only one question: "Are my beloved ones safe?" Two answers possible: "Yes" and "No." But those two answers were the keys to two worlds.
Husbands who had never forgotten to show their love were kinder and more affectionate when their homecoming found their loved ones safe from danger; husbands who for a twelve month who had forgotten to be kind and loving took their wives in their arms and kissed them with hungry gladness; fathers who had always been the companion of the children wept for joy when the homecoming revealed the same gladsome household with not one lamb gone from the fold; fathers who had never learned the deep and sacred secret of family devotion hugged their safe loved ones and pressed kisses wet with tears of joy upon cheeks unused to father's caresses; mothers in wild ecstasy of love's possession caught up their darlings and fondled them, petted them, looked _____ into their faces as if unable to believe the _____ fact that the children were safe. Many were devoutly thankful that the fascination of the footlights had never held them. Everywhere a multitude of thankful folks praising God for unbroken home ________ Thus with those who answer to the question was "yes." But meanwhile, and the heart stops as we think of it--meanwhile--we cannot frame the words,-- but we are gathered here to be what comfort we may to these husbands, fathers and stricken relatives and friends. We would blot from our memory the picture if we could. The great city yonder is d__ed in mourning, the great and powerful stand with heads bowed wit~rief at the 100ss of a dear one. The humble, with grief no less keen, stand in clam resignation. To all it has come.
Never have Longfellow's lines been truer than today
The air is full of farewells to the dying,
And mournings for the dead:
The heart of Rachel, for her children crying,
Will not be comforted.'
A sense of universal loss oppresses us all as we meditate upon this event. May God help us to understand! No chief of the Iroquois could have led his braves to a more awful massacre than did the fire fiends that fatal thirtieth of December. With hellish glee they leaped from form to form and laid them low. They wrought their most deadly desire and hundreds of homes are broken now, yea, some of them exist no more, as the result of one moment's destruction.
At this hour of universal sorrow the heart instinctively turns to the promise of the Father Above for hope and assurance. Amidst all the uncertainty and despair my mind has continually reverted to the promises. How precious they are now. "My times are in thy hand," said the Psalms. "The Eternal God is thy dwelling-place and underneath are the Everlasting arms," wrote Moses to the Children of Israel. "The Lord will also be a refuge in times of trouble." "He hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath He hid His face from him." "God is our refuge and strength, a very pleasant help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be removed, and the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though the waters thereof roar, and be troubled; though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof." "Be of good courage, and He will strengthen you heart, all ye that hope in the Lord." "My grace is sufficient for thee; for my strength is made perfect in weakness." "That the trial of your faith, being much more precious that of gold that perisheth, through it be tried with fire might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ." "I will bring the third part through the fire and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried: they shall call upon my name, and I will hear them. I will say, The Lord is my God." And what a beautiful figure is this: "As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings; so the Lord alone did led him." And again let us say with Paul, I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.
There can be no message to the dead. The Spirit speaks to the living, to those who have a future in which to plan and to live. It is to you, to me, to all men that this catastrophe is eloquent with persuasion to a better life. In the olden time God gave an evidence of his presence in a burning bush. Today we read a message in fire. The He lead men by His visible presence, now we have seen the eloquence in the flame and have hidden our faces before the awful fact. We need to learn to say with a faith that we have never had:
We cannot now understand the deep secrets of God's inscrutable ways in the world, we can but trust and try to believe that all is well. We who have opportunity and life can so order our going that we may make the most of our lives while we live. It is hard not to think that blame attaches to some one. We know that it does rest upon some one, but this is not the _______ to say aught but words of _________. One lesson is written to us in letters of fire, we are to live every moment our best lives. We know not when the summons may come for us. We know not how nearly we may have completed the task allotted to us before we are called, before the Master Workman calls us to the great workshop ______ the hills. Let us see, therefore, in this, the call of God to us who are live telling us to be ready, not for death alone, but for that greater thing, the life now, and then. It is God's voice to us, whatever may have been His real purpose in this awful blow.
We see but dimly through the mists and vapors;
Amid these earthly damps
What seem to us sad funereal tapers
May be heaven's distant lamps.
There is no death! What seems so is transition;
This life of mortal breath
I s but a suburb of the life elysian,
Whose portal we call Death.
Day after day we think what she is doing
In those bright realms of air;
Year after year, her tender steps pursuing,
Behold her grown more fair.
Thus do we walk with her, and keep unbroken,
The bond which nature gives,
Thinking that our remembrance, though unspoken,
May reach her where she lives.
And though at times impetuous with emotion
And anguish long suppressed
The swelling heart heaves, moaning like the ocean,
That cannot be at rest,--
We will be patient, and assuage the feeling
We may not wholly stay;
By silence sanctifying, not concealing,
The grief that must have way."
Friends and neighbors let us heed this message. Men with families let this beginning of the year find you resolving in the very deeps of your affection and willing natures to be kinder, truer, more faithful to your solemn trust and obligations. Boys and girls learn from this catastrophy that even the youngest and the happiest of us may be taken out of the world in an instant of time. Resolve to live worthy of the best every moment of your lives.
To the husbands of the sisters we would fain express our sorrow with them. To the father whose heart has been torn by this triple loss of daughters and from whose life have been taken in an instant the buoyant, happy grandchildren we do not know how to bring words of sympathy. If streaming eyes and sympathetic hearts are any warrant of interest and a desire to be of service you have the profoundest sympathy. May the blessing of God be upon you all as you return to your shattered homes, to your cold hearthstones. He alone can bring true comfort and ease the aching heart. Commit thy ways unto Him.
To the grief-stricken father, and to the little brother who is now too young to know the meaning of it all we extend our most heartfelt sympathies. No words of mine can convey to those who are crushed and bleeding beneath this blow, all we would say.
Men, women, and children on the second floor of the Chicago Public library at Randolph St, and Michigan Ave. were startled to hear a fire alarm jangle thru the halls yesterday. They noted with relief that it was shortlived.
But it was not so 50 years ago, when that same alarm, historic No. 26, frantically summoned the city's firemen to the scene of one of the most terrible theater disasters in the nation's history -- the great Iroquois theater fire at Randolph and State Sts., which snuffed out the lives of 602 persons.
Pulled by Corrigan
The alarm was pulled at 3:32 p.m., Dec. 30, 1903, at Clark and Randolph Sts., by a young rookie fireman, who is now Fire Commissioner Michael J. Corrigan.
That portentous moment was reenacted, and No. 26, with a new red paint job hiding its age, sounded again yesterday at exactly 3:32 p.m. It was pulled by Second Deputy Fire Marshal Thomas W. Powers to mark the 50th anniversary of the great disaster.
Sixty men and women, who had escaped death in the fire, were there to witness it, to count their blessings, and to recount the tales of heroism and horror that occurred on that frightful, fateful day.
Speak of Disaster
With fading hair but bright memories, they gathered in the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial hall in the library under the auspices of the Iroquois Fire Memorial association. In awed tones, they spoke of the fire as if it had happened yesterday.
Mrs. Annabelle Whitford Buchan, 75, of 2410 Jackson Blvd., who played the role of Stella, the good fairy queen, in the fantasy, "Mr. Bluebeard," the attraction at the Iroquois theater on Dec. 30, 1903, shuddered in retrospect.
"I was in my dressing room when I heard the commotion," she recalled. "I flew out and saw the flames. A tormentor, which is a valance, had blown against the carbon lamps and ignited. A fly man pulled it up, instead of down, and all the curtains caught fire. We got out thru a back stage door in our flimsy costumes and it was 8 below zero, but we were the lucky ones, even tho my hair was burned."
Recalls Roaring Flames
Mrs. Crystal Haerr McGraw, 60, of 2121 Orchard St., who as a girl of 10 years played the roles of a frog and a Japanese youngster in the production of "Mr. Bluebeard," has a vivid recollection of the roaring flames.
"They tried to take us up the stairs, but the flames made a horrible fence we couldn't pass," she remembered. "We were in the basement. The basement door was locked but they broke it down and we got out."
Mrs. Martha Ellis Humma, of 1570 Oak St., Evanston, who claimed she was "younger than 100," recalled seeing Mrs. Buchan as the fairy queen and Mrs. McGraw as a frog during the play.
"I was there with my little daughter, Anita, who was 11," she explained. "We sat on the main aisle under the edge of the balcony. Those days when the theater was full, all doors were locked. When the fire started, I grabbed Anita and made for a side door. Someone had broken it down, but bodies were piled 10 deep at the bottom of the stairs. I had to drag my little girl over them."
William J. Bock, 68, of 2418 N. Sawyer Ave., chairman of the anniversary observance, introduced the main speaker of the day, Dr. Preston Bradley of the People's Church of Chicago.
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