Harrison was hunting in Oklahoma at the time of the
Iroquois Theater fire and upon receipt of a telegram
from his secretary, Ernest McGaffey, took the first train back to Chicago,
arriving the day after the fire, on December 31,
1903. Newspaper reports of his remarks and
actions for the next week demonstrated his capacity to adapt.
His initial defensiveness was replaced by fact finding and
Not intimidated by their honking and flapping Harrison
informed the delegation
that the city
council was as much to blame as anyone else in
the Iroquois disaster, pointing out, "Gentlemen,
on Nov. 2 of this year I transmitted to the city
council a report on the condition of the theaters of
Chicago, calling the attention of the council to the
failure of all the theaters to comply fully with the
terms of the ordinances. The report was prepared by
the commissioner of building. [George Williams]. The
council sent the communication to the committee on
judiciary for consideration, and pending a report
from that committee directed the commissioner of
buildings to suspend enforcement of the ordinances."
Harrison added that according to his recollection
the judiciary committee then sent the report to a
subcommittee that went to sleep.
Alderman Herrmann defended the ordinance suspension
as having been a delay to give them time to modify the ordinance
regarding proscenium arches, a modification that had
been suggested by the mayor, and went on to assert
that shows such as Mr. Bluebeard should be
outlawed. "They are immoral shows, and the
inflammable machinery needed to carry them through
is a menace to the lives of those who are induced to
go and see them."
To the suggestion that the theaters should all be
closed until compliant with the ordinance, Harrison
replied: "It would be just as sensible to stop
running railway trains because there is an accident
on a railway as to stop theaters because of an
accident of this sort, no matter how deplorable it
Harrison instead sent two firemen to every Chicago
theater – then changed his mind about closing
Chicago's theaters. Over the next two days he
would close thirty-five playhouses.
left the mayor's office, grumbling about ways to pay
him back for his harsh position - just as soon as
the judiciary committee and revoked the ordinance
– January 1, 1904
Harrison toured the Iroquois with building commissioner Williams,
alderman William Mavor, Iroquois designer,
Ben Marshall, a Chicago Tribune newspaper
reporter, architects Charles R. Adams, Emery Stanford Hall,
George Beaumont, Isaac Stern, George L. Pfeifer and
contractors Addison E. Wells and Victor Faulkenau.
Harrison and Marshall discussed Iroquois gallery
exits to the front of the theater.
In addition to the theaters, three hundred dance
halls were closed.
Harrison recommended that the city council form a
committee to investigate the disaster. He
instructed the building department to instantly
prohibit performances at theaters that did not have
asbestos fire curtains and
prohibited "standing room" ticket sales throughout
the city. He instructed the city Electrician,
Edward B. Ellicott, to order every theater in the
city to immediately discontinue use of arc lamps.
Harrison invited the city's architectural societies
to appoint a representative to sit on a committee to
study the Iroquois disaster, including the Illinois
chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the
Architects Business association, the Builders club
and the Traders and Builders exchange. This
assemblage was effectively created by the
Chicago Tribune's investigation.
ordering building commissioner Williams to
close Chicago's theaters, and directing that
they remain shuttered until they complied with the
city ordinance, mayor Harrison shifted some of the
responsibility for future actions from
his office to the theater owners and city council.
The closings made most everyone furious but he had
few choices. Amending the city's existing
ordinance, or drafting a new ordinance, was a job
for the city council, not the mayor's office, and
meeting those requirements was the job of the
theaters. The mayor's job was to enforce
whatever ordinances were in place. He hadn't
done so back on Nov 2, 1903 when he received
Williams report about the unsafe condition of
Chicago's theaters. Harrison had instead given
the council time to act and theaters time to comply.
The council responded with lollygagging, theater
owners did nothing and six hundred people died.
Closing the theaters was Harrison's way of saying,
"Game's over, boys. Time for all of us to
put on our big boy pants. Or, in his exact words, "I am tired of packing responsibility for this
city. I will not do it any longer. The city
ordinances shall be enforced. I will give the city
council a chance to amend and revise them. If
the aldermen do not change the laws they will be
enforced as they are. I will close every building
which does not conform. That means churches,
factories, office buildings and stores."
Harrison's secretary, Ernest McGaffey
(1861-1941), was a poet, newspaper
journalist, attorney (partnered with alderman John
Smulski) and painter of miniatures, a democrat and a
failed candidate for
alderman in the 28th ward. He was also a Ohio
native, son of John and Louisa Pratt McGaffey and
married to Mississippian, Cecile Rafalski. Their
first child was born two months before the
Iroquois Theater fire, for which he was
congratulated by president Theodore Roosevelt.
He had once worked as Roosevelt's personal press
agent and they corresponded while McGaffey worked as
Harrison's secretary. By 1920 the family had
relocated to California where he worked as a writer in
the publicity department of the Auto Club of
southern California. In 1941, the year of his
death, McGaffey wrote an article advocating
construction of a coast to coast road, 100-ft wide
as an important security need for America.
McGaffey first appeared in the Harrison
administration as assistant secretary to the new
board of local improvements in May, 1901, a position
paying $4,000 annually ($112k today), giving the
anti-Harrison Inter Ocean newspaper an
opportunity to criticize the mayor for appointing
inexperienced men to the board. Harrison had a
Twain-like response: "I have found that it is
better to put in honest men who have to learn the
duties of their office after their appointment than
to appoint experts who will have to learn honesty."
McGaffey was appointed to the job as Harrison's
private secretary in June, 1903. It was
rumored that he got the secretarial job because his
place on the board was given to another fellow as a
reward for having dissuaded celebrated attorney
Clarence Darrow from running for mayor and to switch
his support from Labor's mayoral candidate, Daniel
Cruice, to Harrison. McGaffey left his city
office along with Harrison in 1905.
Northwestern med students
accused of body snatching
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