Trials By Fire: A winter remembrance of two tragic Chicago fires

Amid the laughter, merriment, and festivities accompanying the time-honored traditions of holiday celebration in Chicago, the distant echo of two ghastly building fires occurring at the Iroquois Theatre and the Our Lady of the Angels School, respectively, reverberate every year around this time through the living memory of a graying Baby Boom generation and through the historic record left to us by the Iroquois survivors and first-responders from an earlier time in our city’s history.

It was a few minutes past 3:30 p.m. on December 30th, 1903, a gray and cold afternoon. Engine Company No. 13 received the first alarm that one thousand nine hundred men, women, and children were trapped in the burning Iroquois Theatre on Randolph Street. Scores of school children, accompanied by their parents and teachers, celebrated the Christmas break with a trip to the theatre to preview a matinee performance of the musical comedy “Mr. Bluebeard,” billed as a “delight for children” and starring Eddie Foy Sr., patriarch of the famed touring Vaudeville family. At 3:15 p.m., a double octet sang “Let Us Swear by the Pale Moonlight,” one of the hit show tunes of the year, when a lick of flame from an arc light came in contact with red velvet stage drapery. A pillar of fire shot upward toward the ceiling just as one of the female performers, fastened to invisible wires, prepared to sail over the audience. In two minutes, she was consumed by flame.

Eddie Foy, who would suffer pangs of guilt and depression in his advancing years, implored the audience to remain in their seats and tried to calm them with a joke or two. Turning to pianist Antonio Frosolno, the famed comedian and song-and-dance man implored him to, “Play! Play! For God’s sake, keep on playing!” From the back of the theatre, a door opened and a rush of wind blew in, escalating the flames and spewing poisonous gases and burning embers into the crowd by now maddened with fear. The gallery light was smashed as a stampede for the safety of the street ended in panic and chaos because the exit doors turned inward, blocking the escape path of a thousand terrified patrons.  Rescuers entering the charnel house found victims on the main floor aisles grotesquely stacked like cordwood, as high as six or ten feet. Others were burned to death in their seats or trampled to death in the panicked rush to flee the inferno.

Eyewitness Arthur McWilliams recalled the jarring scenes from outside of the theatre as, “the bodies piled along Randolph Street [and] didn’t look dead. They looked just as if they had gone to sleep.” The breathing of super-heated air had destroyed lung tissue leading to swift death. Arriving on the scene, a detachment of firefighters raced over to the Marshall Field’s basement to appropriate enough blankets to cover the staggering number of dead and dying on Randolph Street.

A cutaway diagram of the Iroquois Theatre shows what happened when patrons tried to escape the gallery as the fire spread. (Printed in the Tacoma Times)

A cutaway diagram of the Iroquois Theatre shows what happened when patrons tried to escape the gallery as the fire spread. (Printed in the Tacoma Times)

An appalling number of victims, six hundred two in all, perished inside a public hall advertised as the nation’s safest and most advanced live-performance venue. “Absolutely fireproof!” gushed architect Benjamin Marshall and theatre promoter Will J. Davis as the new Iroquois prepared to throw its doors open to the public. The panic and horror inside the building that gray December afternoon told a completely different story. The elegant and beautiful interior of gold and red appointments masked shoddy construction. To many of the workmen and inspectors, the Iroquois smelled of cheapness, greed, and venality.

Beginning in 1905 and continuing each year thereafter until 1960, the Iroquois survivors and rescuers faithfully gathered in the Grand Army of the Republic Room inside the Chicago Library (now the Cultural Center) on December 30th to commemorate “Mercy Day” with the time-honored custom of ringing old “Firebox Alarm Box No. 26,” at precisely 3:32 p.m. The anniversary observance served as a powerful reminder of the deadly peril of faulty construction and inadequate safety measures inside public buildings when codes were ignored or bribes paid. Presumably important lessons were learned from the Iroquois tragedy and its aftermath. Public officials had responded in kind to ensure that there would never be another repeat of such a horror as this.

Or had they?  In the years to come, other epic Chicago fires exposed the same shocking levels of gross neglect, incompetence, disregard, and unconcern for public safety.

One of the worst examples occurred on North Avenue near Clybourn on the North Side of the city on April 16th, 1953. A dust explosion inside the Haber Factory claimed the lives of thirty-five trapped workers because the fire escapes had been removed in order to allow a general remodeling of the facility to proceed. The negligence of the Haber chairman, Titus Haffa, a big shot nineteen-twenties’ ex-bootlegger turned businessman, along with the construction company he hired, and a raft of building code violations were initially blamed by a blue ribbon coroner’s jury. Multimillionaire Haffa, a master of evasion and denial, said the fire “was just a big mystery” to him. The jury concluded it was a “tragic accident,” nothing more. Despite preliminary findings of liability, neither Haffa, the construction firm, nor any of the Haber executives  faced charges of criminal negligence. The financial “settlements” were minimal, and the public memorial and recreational park Haffa promised to build never materialized.

Politicians mouthed the usual platitudes of grief and outrage with an earnest promise to the public that building codes would be re-examined and necessary steps taken so that nothing of this magnitude could happen again. Sadly, and in deeper and more profound ways, it did.

The fire horror returned on a bitterly cold Monday afternoon, December 1st, 1958, at the Our Lady of the Angels School at Iowa Street and Avers Avenue in Humboldt Park, a densely packed working-class neighborhood on the city’s West Side. Before it was over, ninety-two children and three nuns died in a fire that broke out just twenty minutes before the final bell signaled the end of the school day.

A 2-11 alarm, followed by a more urgent 5-11 call for additional manpower, summoned twenty-four engines, nine ambulances, seven trucks, two tower trucks, and nearly every available piece of equipment in Chicago to the scene. Firefighters escorted children out of the first-floor classrooms in a reasonably ordered manner, but the second floor of the north wing convulsed with flame and proved to be the death trap because there was no fire door between the hallway and the stairwell.

The trapped children pressed against the second-floor windows, but only one or two youngsters could jump into the fire department net at a time. Firefighters called the second-floor devastation a “hot box,” because once the windows and classroom doors opened, the flames and gases accelerated from the oxygen. Firefighters arriving on the scene simply could not penetrate the accumulated heat, dense smoke, and fire on the second floor.

Then the roof caved in on several of the school rooms where only moments earlier the nuns had implored their students to pray to God for divine intervention.

There were many individual acts of heroism—one nun managed to rescue dozens of children—but the memories of the youngsters she was unable to rescue stayed with her long after she had consoled grief-stricken parents at the morgue.

The Fire alarm bells linked to the city rooms of each of the Chicago newspapers. In 1958, there were still four of them around—the Tribune, the American, the Daily News, and the Sun-Times. Reporters racing to the scene were one step behind the fire companies. For the often cynical and detached men and women of the press covering the mean streets of Chicago, this horrendous devastation was a scene beyond belief and too much to bear because the victims were children.

The late Tribune columnist Bob Wiedrich remembered that in the aftermath of the horror, the Christmas lights and tree decorations in the windows of the homes on Iowa Street in this predominantly Italian neighborhood were turned off and holiday wreaths removed from the neighbors’ front doors. To the veteran newsman, it symbolized powerful feelings of despair and wounds that would never heal.

Wiedrich and his colleagues from the fourth estate remembered Mayor Richard J. Daley standing in the blackened winter slush with Cook County Coroner Walter McCarron openly weeping. In the twenty-one years of Daley rule in Chicago, Wiedrich could not recall another moment when the mayor was so deeply affected. Daley and Archbishop Albert Gregory Meyer announced the formation of the Lady of Angels relief fund. By the end of the first night, the fund had raised in excess of twenty-three thousand dollars.

At 4:19 p.m., Commissioner Robert Quinn declared the fire put out. It was now left to investigators to determine the origin and root cause. Sifting through the ruins of the scorched building, they found the haunting, visible reminders of an ordinary school day that had turned lethal. Winter coats that would never be worn again hung from hooks in the cloak room. A porcelain statue of the Virgin Mary stood on a bookcase overlooking rows of charred and blackened desks.

How could this have possibly happened?

It soon became apparent to arson investigators that the blaze started in a waste-paper barrel located at the northeast stairwell in the basement. Indications pointed to an arsonist, but it would take three years to establish the identity of a likely suspect. An anonymous letter received by Cook County State’s Attorney Dan Ward in October 1961 accused a then-thirteen-year-old Cicero boy of arson. The boy had already undergone therapy from the Catholic Counseling Service by the time he was taken from his home and thoroughly questioned inside the Audy Home on Roosevelt Road. The troubled youth was placed under Family Court supervision as the pertinent facts came to light.

State’s attorney’s investigators extracted an eight-page confession from the boy who said he had allegedly been excused to go to the bathroom, and it was then that he flicked lit matches into the trash barrel. Returning to Miss Tristano’s classroom, he was among a group of children led to safety by their teacher. Tristano later said she did not recall giving the student permission to leave the classroom.

Out of harm’s way, the boy ran to the home of his Cub Scout den mother who was to host a meeting of the Scouts that afternoon. The woman called the boy’s father who had previously threatened to beat him if he was caught setting any more fires.

Polygraph examiner John Reid administered a lie detector test on January 12th, 1962, and found the confession to be credible in every way. What possible motive could have driven this young man? He explained that his intention was to get a few days off of school, nothing more. The youth then told Reid, “I didn’t think I was going to hurt anybody.” The investigators were incredulous.

His descriptions matched what Chicago Police arson investigators had initially theorized. The youth also admitted to setting fire to a garage can and the hallway of a Cicero apartment house, but later recanted both confessions before Judge Alfred J. Cilella of the Family Court.    

The courts and the city faced a moral conundrum. How could the State prosecute a boy, ten years old at the time of the fire, for a capital crime? On the other hand, something as morally reprehensible and unforgiveable as this, how could they not?  The criminal code provided the answer. The law held that a boy under the age of thirteen would be “incapable of committing a crime”; therefore, the court would be precluded of imposing criminal punishment.

Cilella cleared the accused of complicity in the Lady of Angels fire and ordered him removed to a psychiatric institution outside of Illinois for evaluation and care. Through the years, the identity of the arsonist remained a closely guarded secret, leading to whispers and allegations of a “cover-up” of the facts to spare the Archdiocese costly settlements; although, the Church agreed to a schedule of damage awards and compensation following a case-by-case review. The courts never prosecuted the boy, and he is believed to have died in 2004. The fire origins officially remain an “undetermined cause.”

One night in 1983, Chicago Police Officer James Viola spotted a man propositioning a prostitute. Viola pulled his police cruiser to the sidewalk and demanded identification from the man. He carried a California driver’s license and nervously explained that he had returned to Chicago for a visit. Under questioning, the “john” revealed that years earlier he had started a trash-barrel fire igniting a garage in Cicero. Viola pressed him for further information. The man spoke of the big school fire in the nineteen fifties, saying he asked permission to go to the washroom and was led to safety as the flames engulfed the building. But he stopped short of confessing his guilt.

“He struck me as someone very unsure of himself,” Viola recalled. “He was easily intimidated and shuffled from foot to foot looking at the ground. I later talked to the youth officers in Cicero, and they thought he had severe psychological problems. Personally, I do not believe that he ever intended to kill those kids. He had a fascination with watching fires and the emergency responders, but he never understood the consequences of what he did.”

Viola grew up in this former Italian-American neighborhood and, as a boy, remembered seeing pillars of smoke emanating from Iowa and Avers that afternoon. “Before the fire, I remember the summer picnics, the togetherness and the sense of community,” he said. “After the fire, we would see women wearing black mourning clothing—there was only sorrow.” Then the longtime neighbors began to leave. “The fire killed our innocence and a way of life.”

Mementos and gifts lie at the grave of Our Lady of the Angels fire victim Margaret Anne “Peggy” Sansonetti, who rests with many of her classmates near a memorial at Queen of Heaven cemetery. (Photo by Joe Coughlin)

Mementos and gifts lie at the grave of Our Lady of the Angels fire victim Margaret Anne “Peggy” Sansonetti, who rests with many of her classmates near a memorial at Queen of Heaven cemetery. (Photo by Joe Coughlin)

The Lady of Angels tragedy marked the third-highest death toll in a school building fire in the United States. While the building had complied to existing fire codes, a grandfather clause did not require school facilities to retrofit to new safety standards if the earlier regulations had been previously met. Other deadly hazards aiding and abetting the flames were uncovered by the Chicago Fire Department and arson inspectors. 

In a building constructed almost entirely of wood, there were no sprinklers and only one fire escape. There was no automatic fire alarm or smoke detectors, not to mention the absence of fire-safe doors from the stairwells to the second floor or a direct alarm hook-up to the fire department.

Senseless, tragic, and entirely avoidable, Chicago’s deadly December fires, separated by time and memory, had much in common. The hope of a human spirit seemed to have died in the afterglow of December revelry in Chicago in those years, but out of it all came long overdue reform measures benefitting the common good. The Iroquois Memorial Emergency Hospital, a life-saving homage to the victims, opened in 1911. Members of the Iroquois Memorial Association would meet there each year on December 30th to reminisce, reflect, and mourn. 

Tougher building codes passed by the City Council required theatres to provide for unlocked fire exit doors that opened outward, fire-proof scenery, steel stage curtains to serve as fire walls in an emergency, the elimination of asbestos curtains hanging on wooden battens, and a limit to the number of standing-room tickets allowed to be sold for a performance.

The Archdiocese rebuilt the Our Lady of the Angels School. Opened in 1960, the building was constructed entirely of reinforced concrete and stone with enclosed stairwells. The church acted on the key provisions of the coroner’s report to provide an automatic sprinkler system in all its schools, but turned to parishioners to pay for the added safety expense. Monthly school fire drills were mandated, the installation of panic-bar hardware on all doors ensured a fast and orderly exit in the event of another emergency, and fire alarm pull boxes were positioned within one hundred feet of school entrances.

Changing neighborhood demographics, an irreversible pattern of “white flight” from the West Side, and declining student enrollment in the nineteen sixties and seventies forced the closure of the new school in 1999. It was not unexpected. Since 2007, the facility has been leased to the Galapagos Elementary Charter School.

Iroquois Theatre managers Will Davis and Harry Powers were fortunate to escape jail time. Although acquitted on manslaughter charges, Davis endured public censure after his connection to an earlier theatre fire that occurred during his watch surfaced in the press. The theatrical promoter managed the Columbia Theater at Dearborn and Monroe streets when that playhouse suddenly burned down on March 30th, 1900, when the building stood empty. In a strange and jarring bit of irony, the Chicago Tribune commented at the time: “Thus far Chicago had no memorable theater fires. It is hoped it will never have one.”   

Work crews gutted and cleaned out the blackened interior, and once the dreadful task was completed the doomed Iroquois reopened as the Colonial Theatre not long after. Outraged civic groups called it a “mockery of the dead” and a great public scandal, but the show just had to go on without so much as a memorial marker placed on the site. In May 1924, the Colonial came down, replaced by the new Civic Tower office building with ground floor occupancy taken up by the Oriental Theatre, a movie house. Today it is the Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theatre, a fully restored live performance venue. Stage technicians and costumers believe the building to be haunted. Spectral apparitions, thought to be Iroquois victims, have been reported in the alley behind the Civic Tower. 

The famous stories of yesterday’s Chicago, through its moments of valor and times of shame and tragedy, transcend generations. Walk the streets long enough and you will surely meet someone holding a deeper personal connection to these Christmas-time tragedies—a great-grandparent who put his life on the line battling the Iroquois inferno, or the friend of a friend pulled to safety from the smoke-filled corridors of Lady of Angels.  So many stories handed down like heirlooms form a living scrapbook. We are a city with a conscience and a heart, and we will never forget those awful December days.

The past speaks to us in profound and unexpected ways. The artifacts left behind can serve as doorways to our past. This year, Chicago History Museum presented a special exhibit billed as “The Secret Life of Objects.” The collection showcases nineteen twenties’ “thrill” killer Nathan Leopold’s eyeglasses, Charlie Chaplin’s bamboo cane, and the battered but recognizable electric arc lamp that ignited the Iroquois’ asbestos stage curtain. In quiet repose, it sits in a darkened corner of the exhibit room. It has quite a story to tell.

About the author

Richard Lindberg is a Chicago historian and the author of seventeen published books about the Windy City including “Chicago Yesterday and Today” and the award-winning, “The Gambler King of Clark Street: Michael C. McDonald and the Rise of Chicago’s Democratic Machine.”

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