Thirty-nine year old Ragna Anderson*
lived at 229 Grand Avenue and worked at the
Iroquois Theater. Her job was described as "scrub
woman." That probably meant cleaning restrooms and
perhaps mopping all those white marble floors and stairs
at the Iroquois. No
small task when winter precipitation got together
with 1903 coal
On December 30, 1903 Ragna took her daughter, Carrie
B. Anderson (b. c.1890) with
her to work so Carrie could see the season’s
Christmas pantomime, Mr. Bluebeard. Carrie
lived with her grandparents, Theodore and Ida
Anderson, father, Albert Anderson, and older sister,
Ida Anderson, at 352 W. Erie.
least expensive ticket for a standing space would
have cost about a third of Ragna’s pay for the day
so she may have gotten a free pass for Carrie’s
standing space in the third floor balcony. I found a
reference to the death of an unnamed Iroquois
Theater restroom attendant and suspect that it was
Ragna. That would have put her on the third floor
when the fire broke out.
Ragna would probably have run north on the promenade
toward the auditorium, intending to find Carrie in
the balcony. She may even have passed by the group
that included James Strong and his family on their
way to the fateful utility stairwell. Ironically,
Ragna may have carried a pass key that could have
opened the locked door at the bottom of the utility
stairwell and freed the twenty-five or so people trapped
impassable. Ragna may have become ensnared in
one of the struggling groups of people on the stairs
as she fought to get to the entrance to the balcony
to find her daughter.
Whether or not she made it into the balcony, when
the fireball hurled into the auditorium, she would
have been killed.
Meanwhile daughter Carrie was
out on the fire escape platform, crawling across a
plank to Northwestern, urging others to follow her
Five months after the fire a
benefit choral performance at the Vendome Hotel by
the Amabilita Club for Carrie's education
accumulated $697 on her behalf (over $18,000 in
today's dollars). It was at that time reported
that she was living with her grandfather, Alexander
Anderson at 392 W. Erie.
The only Anderson in
1904 city directories at that address was a
bricklayer named Theodore so Alexander may have been
his middle name and he may have gone by Axel.
Carrie walk across or crawl, across the plank, I wonder? Crawling
in a floor length dress would require bunching the
dress up around the hips and keeping it there, not
an easy task when on hands and knees. If the
skirt slipped below her knees, crawling forward
would have quickly become all but impossible.
she leaned all her weight on one arm so as to use
the other hand to pull the dress back up and out of
the way, the plank might have tipped and she would
have fallen. On the other hand, if she crossed
standing upright, balancing might have been made doubly
difficult by that same dress becoming like a sail.
Whomever positioned the
plank, stories of flames licking out the fire escape
door and burning Carrie before she started across
were probably true because she spent the next forty
days at the Samaritan hospital recovering from her
injuries, including burns and a broken arm. It was
reported that she suffered from burns and trampling.
Carrie was released in time to testify at the grand
jury proceeding but reportedly did not yet know her
mother had not
survived. Questioning her without revealing that her
mother was deceased was not fruitful and she was
instead taken home to be told the truth about her
It seems very odd that Carrie
accepted an excuse about her mother not visiting
during the girl’s forty-day hospital stay but the
explanation might be related to Ragna not living
with her daughters. I failed to find
confirmation that Ragna and Albert Anderson were
married, or divorced. In general, I wore out the web trying to learn more
about Ragna or Ragne Anderson. According to the 1900 census
there were twenty-five women by that name living in the
United States, none in Chicago, and none in 1903
Chicago city directories.
In the years after the fire
Further education must not
have worked out for Carrie. At age 20 she
still lived with her grandparents, working as a
sales clerk in a dry goods store. She may have
been engaged in assembly work a decade later.
Mea culpa! A lesson
for yours truly about assumptions.
For a couple of years now I've
dismissed reports of Carrie having wrestled a fifty- to
seventy-pound wood plank. I've just reread
testimony from one of the painters at Northwestern, Charles Cubbon, before
the coroner's inquest in January, 1904 and am forced to correct that assumption.
Not only did Carrie successfully wrestle with the
plank but she was of small enough stature that the
painter estimated her to be an eight-year old.
hailed as a hero and two months after the fire was a
featured speaker at an Iroquois Theater fire
memorial, describing her experiences. (Note to
fellow WD fans: Judith would have done that :) )