was an important part of Robert Murry's job at the
Iroquois. His ears told him almost as much as
his eyes about how a motor or boiler was running,
about a leaking roof or vent operation.
He was responsible for three boilers but I haven't
sufficient knowledge to make sense of the
On December 30, 1903 he recognized
uncommon thumps and sounds
coming from the floor above.
Iroquois, dressing rooms for headliners were on
multiple floors at the south side of the stage,
accessed by an elevator. Dressing rooms for
supernumeraries were in the basement, along with the
costume department, engine room and coal room.
Also in the basement was a smoking room for theater
patrons, accessed from the east side of the lobby. A second
door led to
basement dressing rooms, engine room, etc.
Robert was in the engine room when he heard
unfamiliar sounds up on the stage and went to
stage he would have noticed the
fire immediately because it created the strongest
light in the building. The auditorium and
stage were in darkness
for the Pale-Moonlight dance performance. His
eyes would have been drawn to a display of moving lights
and shadows on the stage floor, cast
by the flames in the loft above, leaping from one hanging drape
to the next. His ears would have heard the
crackling and dull roar of the fire, greedily
consuming everything it touched.
With a bit
more time, Robert would have seen
fireman Sallers straddling the rail of the south fly
bridge about twelve feet up the proscenium wall, on
which sat the arc lamp that started the fire.
Sallers was making hurling and striking motions with one
arm while holding on to the rail with the other
to keep from falling off the bridge. Sallers
was trying desperately to force the powder in the
Kilfyre can to reach further into the air toward the
flames, but it was
an impossible task. The fire was well above
his head and quickly spreading across the stage from one
hanging drape to the next.
the stage men shouted for someone to lower the fire
curtain. Robert looked to the other side of
the stage and in the glare of the flames could see
John Dougherty in the loft, frantically hauling in a
rope. Robert may have remembered that the
regular flyman in that station, Slim Seymour, had
been taken home sick and Dougherty was substituting.
Though only twenty-four years old, Robert Murry, like
William McMullen, was everywhere during the
fire, helping performers escape and seeing to tasks
to prevent the disaster from worsening.
He helped Sallers and
Daugherty try to lower the fire curtain and when it
became obvious that that was a hopeless task, he ran
back down to the basement and helped performers
and costume workers escape through the smoking room
that led to the front lobby and exit doors.
When the smoke grew too heavy in the smoking room,
he led them to coal chutes and pushed them up and
out through manhole covers.
headed back toward the engine room, determined to
shut off the boilers, when he found aerialist Nellie Reed.
The young woman was badly burned, screaming
and clawing at a wall, presumably blinded, unable to
find her way out. He led her
upstairs and handed her off to another stage worker
who took her outside, then got to the engine room
and turned off the boilers. By then the smoke
was thick enough that he didn't dare go back up to
the stage. He grabbed his tool box and climbed
up through the coal chute and out to safety.
Murry had worked for Davis at the Illinois Theater
and throughout the final months of construction at
the Iroquois. He was more familiar than anyone
else with the placement, condition and operation of
fire stands, hoses and vents at the Iroquois.
His testimony on January 9, 1904 before the coroners
jury provided the best overall picture of what
equipment was present and what was not.
Firefighting left enough water in the Iroquois
basement that it was feared bodies would be found
there after pumping but everyone in the basement got
Things to learn
Why was Murry so determined to
close the boilers? Were they in danger of
explosion from ambient temperature if the fire
reached the basement?
What stairs did Murry use to lead
Nellie Reed up to ground level? The stairs on
stage next to the light control panel or the spiral
stair on the north side of stage? Why didn't he
use those same stairs to direct other cast members
to safety, instead of taking them through the
further east stairs off the smoking room and into
the lobby? Did fire and/or heat directly
beneath the stage become hot enough to make the more
eastern stairwell preferable?
newspaper story the day after the fire mistakenly, I
think, credited a stagehand,
James Hamilton, with leading people out through
the coal chute. The story is almost identical to
Murray's, with Hamilton's name substituted.
Biographical info about Robert Murry (1878-1950),
Iroquois Theater stationary engineer
During the Iroquois investigation, newspapers
spelled Robert's last name with the more common
spelling, Murray, but in city directories and in
fifty years of census it was reported as Murry so
I believe the newspapers got it wrong.
Robert roomed with his older brother, Patrick
(Perry) C. Murry (1875-1937), at a boarding
house in 1900. Both were Iowa natives and both
worked as stationary engineers. They were
the sons of Edmund S. Murry (1850-1925) and
Ellen Murry (1855-1943).
Robert remained with the Iroquois until 1909
when it was named the Colonial.
By 1910, Robert had married Elsie Eyler (or
(1882-1929), had a son and owned a summer resort
hotel in Momence, Illinois. By 1930 he was
operating a truck farm in Momence and widowed.
His father was gone by then too and Robert's brother, Alvie, and widowed mother, Ellen, lived with he
and his son, bookkeeper Edward Robert Murry
Robert, his parents, siblings, wife and son were
all buried in a
family plot at the Momence, IL cemetery.
Discrepancies and addendum
*At the Iroquois/Colonial, Murry
was responsible for three boilers described as "90 hp, 4
amps, 3 arc 3,000 inc coal."
Iroquois Theater stage
carpenter Frank Barr
Assistant stage manager
Cummings Iroquois Theater stage carpenter
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