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
mopping all those white marble floors and stairs. No
small task when winter precipitation got together
with 1903 coal
On December 30, 1903 Ragna took her daughter with
her to work so Carrie could see the season’s
Christmas pantomime, Mr. Bluebeard. Even the
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.
Whether or not she made it into the balcony, when
the fireball hurled into the auditorium, she would
have been killed.
Daughter Carrie, meanwhile, was out on the fire
escape platform, crawling across a plank to
Northwestern, urging a couple other youngsters to
follow her lead. Some newspapers reported that she
first caught the painters plank and wrestled it into
place but that story was not universally reported,
possibly because some reporters were understandably
dubious about a thirteen year old schoolgirl
manhandling a seventy-pound wood plank.
guess is that she was present on the landing when
someone stronger grabbed the plank and that she was
one of the first to risk the crossing.
she 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.
Chicago's east-west winds might have turned Couch Place
into a wind tunnel.
Whoever 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. She was released in
time to testify at the grand jury proceeding but
reportedly did not yet know that Ragna 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
seems improbable to me that Carrie accepted an
excuse about her mother not visiting during the
girl’s forty-day hospital stay and I wonder if Iroquois attorneys might have had a hand in
that story, perhaps fearing what Ragna the scrub
woman’s daughter might say on the witness stand.
Or maybe there was some circumstance that explained
Carrie's resourcefulness in crossing the plank and
her willingness to accept her mother's failure to
visit her in the hospital.
I’ve worn out the web trying to learn something
about Ragna Anderson. According to the 1900 census
there were twenty-five women by that name living in the
United States, none of them in Chicago. There were
one hundred fifty women in Chicago named Ida
Anderson, the name of the woman who
identified Ragna’s body. There were
girls named Carrie Anderson in Chicago, none with a
mother named Ragna. There was a pair of
sisters, however, who lived with their grandparents,
without their mother. One of the girls was
named Carrie Anderson and was the right age.
The other sister, and the grandmother, were both
named Ida Anderson. If that Carrie was Ragna's
daughter, her behavior becomes less puzzling.
A child accustomed to a mother's absence might be
more self reliant and have lower expectations about
Carrie who lived with her grandparents was by 1910 a
clerk in a dry goods store.