Klaw & Erlanger's traveling Mr. Bluebeard
company, Twenty-three-year-old William Plunkett
(1881-1942) (possibly having John as his actual
first name) was
assistant to stage manager
One of Plunkett's
tasks at the Iroquois Theater, when
Carlton remembered to assign it, was to close the
strip lamps on either side of the stage so that
the ornamented fire curtain could be lowered.*
On December 30, 1903 during the second act, a fire
broke out on stage. In the pandemonium that
followed, Plunkett neglected to close the strip lamp
on the north side of the stage. According to
one witness, lamp operator H. Hill, Plunkett did,
however, remember to hit the switch†
that turned on a light bulb, possibly one that
flashed, up in the loft to signal
that the fire curtain should be lowered.
Reportedly supervisor his supervisor, Carlton, was
not on the stage when the fire broke out, but in the auditorium
or lobby. House boss
was also away from the stage, at the hardware store.
And a substitute was manning the fire curtain ropes.
And the theater manager was at a funeral. So
contributing to the perfect storm was that several
key people were unavailable.
Not the Iroquois, just a loft shot to suggest
what confronted substitute John Dougherty
The fellow manning the fire
John Dougherty, was substituting for Fred "Slim"
Seymour, supervisor of all the flymen, making him
responsible for hundreds of curtains and drops.‡
Assisting Dougherty in the post was
John Schmidt. A few moments passed between
them spotting the fire curtain light bulb and remembering which rope
controlled the fire curtain, but the delay probably had little
impact on what followed. The curtain started
to drop and stopped, blocked by the strip lamp. While a handful of stage
workers, including Dougherty, tried to free the
curtain from the top of the lamp so the lamp could
be closed to let the curtain continue its descent on
that side of of the stage, hundreds of performers
and stage workers, surrounded by
flames, opened large double doors at the back of the
stage and fled out into the alley behind the
At the same time, vents in
the back wall of the theater were drawing air from the
auditorium and audience members opened fire escape
doors from the second and third floor balconies.
The gap beneath the fire
curtain became an opening to a wind tunnel through which the blast
of air from the opened stage door hurled a ball of
flame out into the auditorium and up into the
balconies. Those who had not yet escaped from
the auditorium died
on the spot, at 3:50 pm.
Plunkett was arrested the
night after the fire, December 31, 1903, along
with eleven other stage workers, in part to prevent
them from fleeing Chicago. According to reluctant
confessions from five of the men, Plunkett had persuaded them they
should disappear before the inquest began so they
packed their bags. Police got wind of the
scheme and moved in to make arrests, fearful that
the information sources were scattering like
cockroaches. Interestingly, one of the men who listened to
nineteen-year-old Plunkett's advice was his boss,
Initially police detained
stage workers to prevent them from going back to New
York. After questioning revealed a snarl of
contradictory answers, the men were arrested and
charged with manslaughter due to criminal
Judge Caverly rejected cash bail from Mr.
Bluebeard business manager, Edwin Price, and required
a $5,000 bond backed by real estate for each man.
At his arraignment Plunkett was represented by
Thomas S. Hogan.
Plunkett was the slender and six-foot-tall, fair-haired
and blue-eyed son of European immigrants, Agnes Graffin Plunkett Cheshire
and the late Richard Plunkett, a carpenter. William quit school after
the 7th grade during the turbulent time of his father's death and mother's
remarriage. At age nineteen in 1900 he described himself as an
actor but nothing is known of how he became involved in the theater.
Had a couple female actresses living two doors down so perhaps they gave him
a leg up. As likely is that they looked at him as an important
connection. By twenty-three he'd been working for over a decade and had skills sufficient to gain a position of responsibility in a major theater
road company - and to persuade five older men to flee from authorities.
In the years after the
In 1910 he lived with his mother, stepfather and
older brother, Richard Plunkett, in Manhattan and described himself as a theater manager.
How long he remained in the industry after that is not known. A
William Plunkett was stage manager for a musical comedy that appeared at
the Royale Theater in New York City, Woof Woof in late 1929, but I failed to learn
if it was the same fellow who was at the Iroquois in 1903. Other than
Woof Woof, I found nothing tying a William Plunkett to the theater
after 1910. According to newspaper reviews the show was a dog and
lasted only two months. Given that it opened weeks after the stock market crash
that kicked off the Great Depression, however, even a more promising production might have
Discrepancies and addendum
* It would be
revealed during the investigation that stage workers employed by the theater
were critical of Carlton's haphazard handling of the
† One of the two
Iroquois anniversary books, Chicago Death Trap,
states that Plunkett sounded a bell but
court testimony from operator of lamp #1, H. Hill,
who was standing nearby, expressed his criticism of
the fire-curtain alert, specifically because it was
only visual and not also auditory, thus dependent
upon a busy curtain operator seeing it flash.
‡ Seymour had become ill
and was taken home by another stage hand, Wilson D.
Kerr, prior to the outbreak of the fire.