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 Belle was trampled. Wilma and Winnie headed for
a fire escape. Of the three fire escape exits
on the second floor, the doors could only be forced
open on the western-most exit. Wilma was knocked
from the fire escape
platform and suffered a fatal head wound when she
fell. She was taken to St. Lukes Hospital but did
not survive. Winnie began climbing down the fire
escape and was knocked to the ground by a body
falling from above. She was knocked unconscious
briefly and woke up in a nearby saloon but did not
suffer serious injury.
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 was married to 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 that. In another couple
decades, Belle & Mary’s home was owned by Iowa
congressman, Fred Bierman – who 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. The
strength of the bond formed then is reflected in
Nellie having named her daughter after Belle: Willma
Belle Porter (at right)
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. Her body was shipped back to
Decorah for burial, accompanied by Winnie Coleman on
her return home. Some reports said that Belle's
remains were identified by Nellie, others that the
identification was made by 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.
A scholarship program was established by her sons in
her name and the
Helen Adams Bodensteiner Excellence in Theatre
Award continues today. 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.