Because most daily newspapers
had already been put to bed by the time the
Iroquois fire broke out and reports were sent out on
API, only thirteen reported the fire on the day it
happened, most of those on the west coast, i.e.,
Oregon, Hawaii, California.* Chicago-based
reporters pumped out stories to their editors
throughout the night and by the next day, December 31,
1903, nearly every daily newspaper in the country,
and across the world, carried stories. In the
U.S., most papers gave it above-the-fold exposure,
many with a banner headline.
An API story that appeared in many newspapers contained a
report of two improbable incidents (pictured above,
topmost). One was
the "tiny tongue of flame" story about a heroic stagehand
named John E. Farrell and the other "I'll kill the
first one" story about stage manager
James Cummings. Neither story appeared in a Chicago newspaper.
In general, I've found Chicago-based stories to be
more accurate and less prone to lurid coverage.
This may be because
Chicago reporters were more easily able to background check
their stories but maybe, too, because seeing the
pain in the eyes of their fellow Chicagoans elicited
a more empathetic response.
Nobody named Farrell on
The name Farrell never
appeared in a Chicago newspaper in conjunction with
the fire, not even as a witness in the fire
department's inquest, the coroner's inquest or grand
jury trial, though dozens of Iroquois and Mr.
Bluebeard employees testified. The
man who tried to put out the fire with his hands was
William McMullen. He did not have an
assistant, as some papers embroidered Farrell to be,
and was on the bridge by himself.
He didn't need to climb a
ladder because his bridge was already twelve
feet above the floor. The man who threw
attempted to fight the fire with an extinguisher
was Iroquois fireman
William Sallers and he used
Kilfyre powder canisters, not grenade type
extinguishers, of which there were none in the
The worst journalism by far
came from a couple of Indianapolis newspapers that
reported many inaccuracies and incorporating photos
said to be the Iroquois that were
altogether different theaters.
There was no armed Cummings
He was at the hardware store
when the fire broke out. During hours of
testimony from stagehands, his presence on the stage
during the fire was never mentioned, least of all
while waving a gun. To
appreciate that, remember that Cummings wasn't just
another stage worker. He was The Boss.
His level of authority over all things on the stage
was reiterated by dozens of stage workers during
trials. They might not have recognized the
mayor of Chicago if he'd appeared there but
they'd have recognized James Cummings. Assuming for
a moment that he heard of the fire, ran down the
street to get back to the theater, pushed his way
past hundreds of terrified people exploding out
every exit, got to the stage, saw girls ready to
jump into the orchestra pit, bellowed at them to stop,
then threatened them with a gun, he would would have been
recognized by the crew, even in dense smoke and
pandemonium. They would have described his
court and newspapers would have reported it.
Newspapers didn't publish such descriptions because
Cummings was at the hardware store.
Discrepancies and addendum
exceptions were the Belvidere Daily Republican and
the The Fort Wayne Sentinel. Belvidere,
Illinois is about an hour northwest of Chicago and
Fort Wayne about four hours southeast.
Belevidere flagged its story as the situation as of
5:15 p.m., Fort Wayne 4:30.