Survival instinct got
together with youthful strength and agility to save
the life of twenty-eight-year-old Robert Latrobe
France (1875-1937). He escaped from the
third-floor balcony of the burning Iroquois Theater
by swinging and jumping from one fire escape
stairwell to the next, while about fifty feet
above a brick alley.
When the fire started, Robert waited in his seat for
the crowd at the interior exit to the lobby to clear
but when the flames grew too close and too hot he
made a dash for a fire escape exit (probably door
#35 or #36). Flames blazing from other exits and
windows prevented fleeing people from descending the
fire escape stairs, however, so there was a jam on
the fire escape landing. In desperation Robert
climbed beneath the landing and hung from the metal
framework, then began making his way down the steps,
hand over hand, until he reached the fire escape on
the second floor and from there was able to jump ten
feet into Couch Place alley with nothing more
serious than singed hair on the back of his head. He
later described catching several others who jumped
from the fire escape and giving his overcoat to a
chorus girl who had been in a dressing room at the
time the fire started, escaping in her costume or
undergarments into the bitterly cold Chicago winter.
According to Robert's WWI
draft card he was a tall man, of medium build.
Nothing was reported about others, if any, in
Robert's theater party.
His wife of two years, the
former Jeanette Williams (1880-1948), was spending
the winter in California with her two sisters or
this story might have had a different ending.
Robert was the son of Robert
Lee France of Washington DC and Susan Coffman of
Virginia. In 1903 three of his five siblings
and his parents were alive to celebrate his escape
from the Iroquois.
In the years after the fire
Robert worked as a salesman
for National Coal and Coke in 1903 but was later
associated with Pohattan Coal, Hunter W. Finch and
in 1912 co-founded the Puritan Coal Company that by
the early 1920s became Puritan-Tuttle. He eventually was involved in the Victor Chemical
Works Company and in 1915 married widow Mae E. Burry Ruthenberg who survived him, leaving behind an
estate of nearly $700k (just over $7 million in
Discrepancies and addendum
France's Puritan Coal was a
distribution company, not the mining company of
Pennsylvania. In 1945 his Victor Chemical was
among a list of chemical companies fined for
anti-trust violations. Could not discover what
happened to the first Mrs. France and there may have
been a second wife between Jeanette and Mae.