party of four women ranging in age from seventeen to
sixty-three went to the Mr. Bluebeard matinee
at Chicago's newest luxury playhouse, the Iroquois
Theater. Included was a mother and daughter, two sisters, and
aunt and niece and a lifetime friend of all.
When a fire broke out on stage and spread swiftly to
the auditorium, the oldest
and youngest in the party perished, joining nearly
600 others in America's worst theater fire.
The twenty-eight-year-old and
They were unable to find four
seats together so Belle and Nellie sat on
the first floor and Wilma and her aunt Winnie sat in the first balcony on the second floor.
Belle Christopher and Wilma Porter Barry died;
Nellie Barry and Winnie Coleman escaped.
Nellie made it out the front door of the Iroquois
but the crowd trampled over Belle. Wilma and Winnie
made it to a fire escape exit.
Jostled by the crowd, Wilma fell to the alley below.
She died of a fatal head wound at St. Luke's Hospital.
Winnie was climbing down the fire escape stairs when
she was hit by a falling body. The blow knocked her
off her feet and left her temporarily unconscious.
She woke up in a nearby saloon but did not suffer
Wilma and Nellie
Wilma Belle Porter Barry lived with her mother,
Nellie "Nells" Priscilla Landers Porter Barry
(1866-after 1940) and stepfather, Edward P. Barry
(1842-1908). Wilma had a seven-year-old half-sister,
Marion B. Barry (1896-1977), a two-year-old half
brother, Edward P. Barry Jr. (c1901-), and two grown
step-siblings, Frederick Ernest Barry (1865-1936)
and Ada E. Barry (1869-1931). Frederick was the one
who identified Wilma’s body.
It was common in 1903 for children to assume the
last name of a stepfather, without a legal adoption
procedure. Thus, though Wilma’s surname was Porter, the burial permit was
issued for Wilma Porter Barry. Wilma's father
was William Porter Jr., son of William and Lucy Ives
Porter. Edward Barry was Nellie’s second
husband, and she was his third or fourth wife. Oddly,
according to the 1900 census, Wilma lived then with Edward
Barry and his wife that preceded Nellie, a woman
named Charlotte. There seem to be missing
pieces in the Barry and Porter puzzle.
Chicago, Edward Porter managed a life insurance office but
in 1870 lived in Tawas, Michigan and worked as a
minister while married to the mother of Fred and Ada,
the former Charlotte Fitzgerald Barry (Charlotte #1;
in 1900 he married Charlotte #2).
Winnie V. Landers Coleman (1873-1959),
Nellie’s sister, lived in Decorah, Iowa. Winnie
and Nellie were two of ten children born to Sarah
Wilson Mulholland Landers (1830-1901) and Frederick
Beckner/Becker Landers (1829-1997). Just before her
death, Sarah lived with Winnie and her husband,
dentist William Coleman, at 505 Broadway St. in
Sixty-three-year-old Norwegian, Belle Christopher
(b.1839), was a nurse, visiting from Decorah, Iowa
where she lived with her sister Mary’s family at 408
Mechanic Street. Mary and Belle's brother,
Martin M. Christopher, lived next door with his
family at 410 Mechanic Ave. (Martin died the
year after Belle.) One newspaper described the
family as wealthy but I’ve not been able to verify
Iowa congressman Fred Bierman would later own Belle
& Mary's home. He was the son of another of the
Christopher sisters, Martha. That home is still
standing but Martin's home at 410 Mechanic is gone.
Belle immigrated to America in 1854. She, Mary,
Martin and Martha were four of eight children born
to Jens Christopher (1810-1897) and Gjertru Jertra
(1818-1900). As a twenty-seven-year-old in
1870 Belle had worked for Nellie and Winnie's
parents in Decorah as a domestic servant. So
strong was the bond between them that Nellie named her daughter after Belle: Willma
Belle died from her
Iroquois injuries but there were conflicting reports
as to whether she died at the theater or St. Lukes hospital. Perhaps she died
during transport. Winnie Coleman accompanied Belle's
body back to Decorah for burial. Some reports said
Nellie identified Belle's
remains, other reports said it was Katherine Landers Lott
(1869-1939), a sister of Nellie Landers Porter Barry
and Winnie Landers Coleman.
In the years after the fire
Edward Barry died in 1909
and the following year Nellie married Henry
Marshall, her third husband, whom she outlived.
She spent her last years living with her daughter,
Marian Barry Landzer, in Miami, FL. Marian
outdid her mother in husbands. Charles O.
Lanzer was Marian's third husband - and there would
be a fourth before her death.
1910 Winnie Coleman had married a seed merchant,
Burton H. Adams and had a two year old daughter
named Helen. Helen Adams would grow up, marry
Leonard Bodensteiner and spend thirty years teaching
speech and drama at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.
Her sons established the
Helen Adams Bodensteiner Excellence in Theatre
Award scholarship in her name. I wonder how many
applicants today know that Helen the Luther College
drama educator was a first cousin of an Iroquois
Theater fire disaster victim.