According to the fire
department inquest, the first alarm, a still alarm, reached the
fire department headquarters at 3:30 pm. The box alarm
came in 3.5 minutes later. Inside the auditorium,
at 3:50 pm a fireball killed all who yet lived, while the
fire department was still trying to make it inside.
The Iroquois Theater
fire was born too hungry for its environment. It roared to extraordinary size and might in
seconds, quickly destroying the few flammable objects and surfaces, including human flesh and garments, and went out
almost as quickly as it began. Instead of putting out
flames, firemen hauled out hundreds of
charred and smoldering corpses.
For the two
attorneys looking after the best interests of the fire
department and the city, the task must have seemed dicey. The
department's response to the Iroquois Theater fire was flawless.
What fire hazard remained was quickly suppressed and
handling of victims was efficient and heroic. The
department's only vulnerability was its commander.
Taciturn and defensive, fire chief
William Musham, did not see his job description as including
supervising fireman employed at Chicago theaters,
hospitals, schools, etc., or with enforcing ordinances.
Chicago's history with fire chiefs gave Musham good reason to
keep his head down but it became the job of attorneys James
Fulkerson and William Rothmann to prevent the
fire department or Chicago itself from becoming Iroquois Theater fire
moved swiftly, to the annoyance of the coroner's office, calling
ninety-nine witnesses two days after the fire, including most of
those then called in the coroner's inquest. It is not difficult to
imagine why both
coroner Traeger and Fulkerson wanted the first shot at
questioning. Where Fulkerson went wrong was in sharing
witness testimony with newspapers. By the time witnesses
got to the coroner, newspapers had chewed on their responses and
impressions. So much for an untainted pool of information.
Most of Fulkerson's testimony in the coroner's inquest had to be
stricken as hearsay.
For Fulkerson and
first may have also meant the opportunity to steer attention
toward the theater and away from their clients, the fire
department, with its grumpy chief, and other city officials, all
the way up to the mayor's office. After all
the voices were heard, the theater is where the monster share of
the guilt belonged but Fulkerson cannot have known that when he
first began condemning the theater just two days after the fire.
Reportedly Traeger grilled Fulkerson, suggesting he didn't have
authority to interview witnesses, and Fulkerson agreed to delay
the release of his report until completion of the coroner's inquest.*
Fulkerson did not, however, agree not to talk about his findings to the
press, thus giving himself the capacity to influence the public
by sounding off to the media. He was the first to assert
that a draft from an opened stage door caused the diaster. For a time in the early days after the fire, Iroquois
Theater management latched onto that, certain it exonerated
them. Mayor Harrison's response to that idea: Bullpucky.
Eventually, the volume level of theater, fire and engineers
asking: "Why wasn't the roof vent open?" became loud enough that
Iroquois management had to find another scapegoat. It
then fixed on the panicked audience, the hysterical women and
children. If they'd just stayed calm when their hair
caught fire and they couldn't breathe, they could have escaped
from the auditorium before the fire ball and all would have
survived. They killed themselves.
on January 6, 1904, by Fulkerson and William Rothmann:
commonly known by his middle name,
served as chief legal counsel for the Chicago Fire
Because he conducted an investigation, and his
position in some other cities was called "fire
inspector" Fulkerson was identified as such in
conjunction with Iroquois Theater newspaper stories.
His title in Chicago, however, was Fire Attorney and
his activities related to law and
insurance rather climbing through burned buildings.
Educated in Texas and Chicago,
the bar in 1896.
He was the
son of Charles and Virginia Fulkerson,
married to Jessie A. Riley, and had
five children. The Insurance
Underwriters Association recommended
Fulkerson to Mayor Harrison. After the
Iroquois disaster his credibility was
sufficiently damaged that he felt compelled
to defend himself in the press, accusing the
newspapers and city officials of targeting him because of his
youth, an odd accusation since the man was
thirty-seven years old.
(1866-1934) functioned as assistant Chicago
He shared in questioning witnesses in an investigation
seemingly led by Fulkerson on January 7, 1904. Newspaper
reports did not distinguish which of the two
attorneys asked which questions.
Rothmann was husband to Laura
R. Housworth Rothmann and they had one child.
He got his law degree from Northwestern and
was admitted to the bar in 1896. As assistant
city attorney he served as the city's chief trial
Eighteen months after the Iroquois Theater fire Rothmann
returned to private practice, joining the West & Eckhart law firm in
Chicago as a partner.
casts more doubt on Fulkerson
At the coroner's
trial, Fulkerson testified that the city had
not issued a certificate
of safety for the
Iroquois. To everyone's surprise,
Alphonous A. Heer
an attorney paid by the C.P. Whitney fire
insurance company, assigned to assist
Fulkerson in inspecting aisles, exits and
seating capacity in Chicago theaters,
during the last day of testimony during the
coroner's inquest. He reported that the Iroquois safety
certificate awaited mailing with other
documents atop chief Musham's desk. The
documents disappeared after the fire,
however, and there was no report that they were
relocated. Heer toured the Iroquois
the day after the fire with a group of
insurance agents. "The exits were ample, in my
opinion. In my opinion, it is the safest
theater in the city, except the Auditorium,
so far as exits are concerned. I doubt if
the iron stairway in the alley was wide
enough, but I don't believe these stairways
are any good at best. People will not use
Discrepancies and addendum
* A somewhat humorous
story in the Chicago Tribune intimated that
Fulkerson's original report was lengthy and faulted
so many municipal employees that had it been
published it would have exposed the city to $10
million in lawsuits. The official version,
whittled to twelve pages, named no guilty parties.
† It would later be
Chicago mayor Harrison appointed Fulkerson and
canned him when he failed to prevent Harrison's
indictment in the Iroquois Theater case. It
was also reported that
Chicago city council refused to
increase his annual salary from $2,750
to $3,600 (inflation-adjusted: $71,500 to $105,000). City prosecutor
Thomas J. Johnson assumed the vacancy.
‡ Alphonous A. Heer,
sometimes identified as Alph or Alphonsus was
married to Grace M. Warden and the pair had two
children. A third would be born two years
He had passed the Illinois bar in 1899. The
family later relocated to California.
Sprinklered theaters were
rare in 1903 Chicago
Daugherty and fire
curtain at Iroquois Theater
John R. Freeman Theater
Other discussions you
might find interesting