Chicago Fire Department
have been disconcerting for Chicago firemen in 1903.
The Iroquois fire was front-page news around the
world, including Chicago newspapers for weeks,
leaving an indelible imprint on the minds of Chicago
residents. For the department, however, the disaster
had few of the components traditionally used to mark
and celebrate its history. Being a fireman was about
courageously battling blazes but there was none of
that at the Iroquois Theater. No firefighter's lives lost
and property damage was
minimal. In terms of agonizing grief and sheer
numbers the Iroquois Theater fire supplanted
the 1871 Great Chicago Fire but possessed none of
its stories of dangers shared and acts of bravery.
In the worst theater fire in America's history, the
role of firemen and police was that of a ghastly
For the Chicago fire department,
the Iroquois Theater disaster was one of
many detonations in a tumultuous period.
Chief Swenie out, Chief Musham in
1901 retirement of fire chief
Denis Swenie, who had
been the city's first paid fire chief and managed
the department for nearly a quarter-century,
triggered a six-year power struggle that involved
three mayors, four fire chiefs, multiple scandals
and political intrigue. From 1901 to 1907 it
was a rare week without newspaper reports of
controversy involving the Chicago fire department.
Amidst that climate, the
Iroquois Theater fire was less cataclysmic for the
department than other events.
For months leading up to Swenie's
retirement, there was jockeying in the ranks as the
top replacement candidates and their supporters
endeavored to improve their position.
William Musham (1839-1907) was first in
line for the position of Chief, and the Chicago
Underwriters Association endorsed him. Though
from the opposite political party,
Harrison gave him the job.
had been First Assistant for two decades before
being named chief and probably did not do things
much differently than his predecessor but that's
where the similarities ended. Swenie had been popular and knew how to play the political game. Musham did not
and was not much interested in trying.
Meddling, underwriters and mud
into Musham's term, Underwriters decided they wanted a different fire
chief. Harrison refused and the battle was
on, with mud slung far and wide. The department and,
to a degree, the city of Chicago, was
split into camps of supporters backing Musham,
A portion of that fight,
hearings involving the suspension of malcontent
firemen, was in progress when word came that the
Iroquois Theater was on fire. If this were a movie,
everyone would have been so humbled by the
experience of the Iroquois disaster that all would have
joined for a round of Kumbaya and set about making a
great department. In real life Musham reinstated the suspended men but the ante on
his hide increased tenfold as his detractors used
the Iroquois disaster as a lever with which to
The grand jury did not prosecute
Musham or the mayor for their conduct relative to the
Iroquois Theater because neither had broken laws.
Before that ruling, in a newspaper interview,
Harrison demonstrated his smallness and blamed the
appointments of Musham and building commissioner
George Williams on bad recommendations from
Musham stayed on the job
for ten months after the Iroquois fire, until
October of 1904. Reportedly he had been
retire and mayor Harrison said it was Musham's
decision, but the common assumption, supported by
angry remarks afterward from Mushams son, was that
Harrison showed Musham the door. I prefer to
believe it was a mutual decision.
Chief Musham out, Chief Campion in, more mud, Chief
Campion out, Chief Horan in
replacement, Harrison appointed
(1849-1920), the man who had served as Musham's
First Assistant. Harrison's successor, mayor
Edward Dunne, reappointed Campion. Dunne and Campion probably
agreed on something but I don't know what it was.
Campion wasn't on the job a full year before he and
Dunne's disputes were in the news. By the
following year, the city council was considering
whether to accept the mayor's dismissal of Campion
for insubordination, graft and corruption.
A few years later the fire union
would be fighting for a double-platoon system but in 1906
Campion opposed the mayor's determination to install
a second platoon. Campion
wanted the department to purchase La France engines
and Dunne wanted competitive bidding from
several engine manufacturers. When Campion
disobeyed the mayor's instructions about preparing
less restrictive engine specifications, Dunne fired
him and appointed John McDonough as temporary Chief. Insurance underwriters jumped into the fray and
threatened to raise Chicago's rates by 10% if the
mayor appointed McDonough permanently. As
usual, Underwriter Association president and chief
Edward Teall pushed for Horan's appointment. The
council begrudgingly supported the mayor's dismissal
of Campion, the mayor appointed Horan, and the city
was spared a $1,000,000 increase in insurance rates.
Musham and Campion relationship
Bill Musham and John Campion came
up under Denis Swenie when the department was in its
foundational years. Both were part of the Old
Guard who had fought the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.
They should have been friends. Their opposite
personalities made that nearly impossible.
pragmatic, Bill Musham had little patience for non-essentials.
Drawn to carpentry as a young man and inventions in
middle age, he valued logic and order. He
resented the subterfuge and time waste of politics.
John Campion was an extrovert who
liked being part of a competitive team – on the job, at the
ballpark and in his political ward.
Musham focused on efficiency and
results, Campion on taking care of his men and the
win. If insulted, Bill Musham might have taken
a poke at the offender. John Campion would
have suggested working it out over a beer. It
would have been hard to dislike Campion; Musham made
it easy. Each represented a side of their
former Chief but the lack of
their missing half made both of them flawed as
leaders of the department. It might be that in James Horan
the political animal and procedure monk were combined, as they had been in Denis Swenie.
If so, Horan's early death at the stockyards prevented the city and its
fire department from benefiting fully from his leadership.
The only common ground for Bill
Musham and John Campion was probably their mutual dedication
to the Chicago fire department and fire fighting.