Forty-seven-year-old Eddie Foy
(1856-1928) played the role of Sister Anne in Mr.
Bluebeard, with a contract for $800 a week
(approx $20K today). Born as Edward Fitzgerald in
NYC, he moved to Chicago with his mother and
siblings when his father died. With the family
barely getting by, Foy began performing on the
street to help out, eventually making it to the
stage and headliner status. He was a much-loved Chicago success
In the Iroquois Theater fire
disaster, Eddie gained fame that would last
throughout his life. He took his son,
seven-year-old Bryan Foy (1896-1977), with him to the performance on December
30, 1903. His other sons and third wife, Madeleine Morande Foy,
Sherman House hotel. He gave Bryan a
prestige seat in front of the electrical control
panel at the south side of the stage. It was directly below the flybridge on
which William McMullen operated the arc lamp that
started the fire.
Either Eddie gave contradictory accounts or was
misquoted regarding his location at the start of the
fire. According to some reports, he saw the fire
start; in other reports, he was in his dressing room
and ran out to investigate when he heard a
commotion. He hurried to find his son and handed
Bryan to either a stagehand or to a Harry / Henry
Schroeder, an unconfirmed member of the Mr.
and told him to take the boy outside. Eddie then ran
to the stage and tried to calm the audience. He
advised people to remain in their seats to await the
fire department. As the fire worsened, he urged them
to leave the theater, calmly and quietly. As flaming
shards of curtains and scenery began falling from
the loft, he finally fled.* He and Bryan headed back
to the Sherman House, running into his panicked wife
and sons on route to find Eddie and Bryan. Word of
the fire had spread quickly in downtown Chicago.
Before long, there would be seriously injured
victims from the audience at the Sherman House,
intermingled with newspaper reporters and
Eddie Foy's story, universally
described as an act of bravery, appeared in
newspapers around the country, and his name and the
Iroquois Theater fire have remained linked forever
Hero or unintentional villain?
I've vacillated on the
question of whether Eddie's directives saved lives.
He meant well, for sure, but what was the result?
Did people die because they had not attempted to
escape before the fireball hurled into the
balconies? If more people had ignored Foy's
cautions, would it have resulted in more people
dying from trampling at exits? Or would more people
have evacuated and escaped the fireball?
In court later, audience
survivors, mostly people who had been seated on the
first floor, described having followed his
recommendation initially. They remained in their
seats to wait for the fire department. At the last
minute, they changed their minds and fled from the
auditorium. People in the balconies, however, didn't
have time to change their minds. Large crowds at
exits prevented escape before the fireball swept
upwards into the balconies.
Eddie was one of three who
urged the audience to remain calm.
An additional consideration
is that Foy was not the only one to take to the
stage to urge the audience to remain seated and
calm. Two stage workers and one octet performer did
the same. If the recommendation was followed, four
messengers shared in whatever fame or blame was due.
As the celebrity in the group, wearing a distinctive
costume, Foy was the one best remembered and spoken
of by witnesses.
Warnings maybe unheard
In an era without microphones
or amplifiers, it is questionable how many people in
the balconies heard Eddie Foy or the others who
urged calm from the stage, or the continuing musical
performance. Several balcony survivors
testified that they could not hear what Foy and
stage workers were saying. They inferred by hand
gestures and body language that they were urging
them to remain calm. Eddie said he shouted as loudly
as possible, but his was one voice in nearly two
thousand. People were shouting in anger at ushers
and those nearer to exits, and at people blocking
aisles. Sisters and friends were calling to one
another, trying to remain together and find an exit.
Children were crying and wailing for their mothers.
The volume of a single mother's desperate screams to
find her child would have drowned out Foy – and
there were a hundred mothers at the Iroquois. And
rumbling below all the voices was the thundering
sound over a thousand pairs of feet struggled to
reach an exit.
A grim account in an
out-of-Chicago newspaper first drew my attention to
the possible negative of the audience remaining
seated. It suggested first responders came upon the
ghastly sight of balconies filled with rows of
charcoaled victims, looking obediently at the stage
– a scene worthy of a modern horror film. Many
months later, I realized none of the few newspapers
painting that scene were published in Chicago. And
no first responder court testimony described such a
scene. There were two reports in Chicago newspapers
of a few bodies found in seats, but only one of
those reports included details with which to guess
about the last seconds of the victim's lives. That
came from the court testimony of a first responder
who was one of the first to enter the third-floor
balcony, site of the largest proportion of victims.
Fireman Michael Roche
testified that they found fifteen to twenty people
who had tried to jump or climb to a different row.
Their feet became trapped in the folding seats. Easy
to understand when you consider that many wore
ankle-length dresses and petticoats. Of those caught
in their seats, some may have suffered from injured
ankles and legs. Presumably, most were in postures
indicating a frantic struggle to free themselves or
to leave their row and enter the crowded aisle. What
Roche did not describe was rows of corpses
watching the stage.†
Discrepancies and addendum
choreographer named Jack Haskell gave an interview
in 1957, putting himself in the role of hero
regarding Bryan Foy. The
story contains many seeming untruths, but I'll
keep an eye out for evidence to support it.
There are contradictions in stories of Foy's escape
from the Iroquois. In his 1928 biography, Clowning
co-authored by Alvin F. Harlow,
Eddie stated that he left the theater directly
through the Dearborn street exit (door
He repeated that in his testimony before the
coroner's inquest in January 1904. In
Eddie Foy: A Biography of the Early Popular Stage
Armond Fields, however, Eddie is described as having
jumped into the orchestra pit and run from there
into the basement beneath the stage. A stage worker
then led him to a sewer pipe and out to the street.
Referring again to his inquest testimony, Eddie
twice said his only visit to the Iroquois basement
was when the Mr.
first arrived in Chicago. Author Fields cites
sources only by chapter so I don't know from which
source he pulled the Foy escape info. Of the nine
sources cited by author Fields, I do not have access
to one of the newspapers that may have interviewed
Foy at the scene. The
have reported something different than did the Tribune and Inter
both of which reported Foy saying he escaped out the
Dearborn St. exit. Foy was an entertainer. I suspect
that if he escaped through a manhole cover, he would
have exploited it. Since he did not do so, and in
court testimony said he fled through the Dearborn
street exit, that is most probable.
† I came across a
distant descendant of a family of Iroquois victims
who prefers to believe her ancestors died sitting in
their seats, their blackened corpses sound staring
at the stage. A horrific image to me, but though
born long after the deaths of the victims, she felt
very emotional about the tragedy. Seemingly it fit
into a family narrative. Perhaps for her it was
comforting to think of death taking them instantly,
sparing them even fear. There is little likelihood,
however, there was evidence of specific victims
meeting that fate. Contrary to reports in
non-Chicago newspapers, there was only one body
identification at the scene.