One of the most troubling Iroquois stories.
In the 2003 book Tinderbox,
author Anthony Hatch relates a story told to him in 1961 by a retired
Chicago fireman who was among first responders at the Iroquois.
Eighty-nine-year-old Michael J. Corrigan (1872-1966) described receiving a surprise while working to remove
the dead from the theater.
As painting contractors had done earlier, Chicago firemen made a bridge of a
ladder stretched from the dental department at
#37 at the Iroquois. That door led from the back of the
third-floor balcony to the eastern-most fire escape. A majority of the
audience in the third-floor gallery had converged in the standing room area
behind the seats. There were masses of victims on the south side at the
doors leading to the lobby (door nos 38 & 39) and on the north side at the
doors leading to the fire escapes (door nos 35-37). When the fireball hurled
from the stage into the auditorium, most died instantly. Feet and legs held
partly upright, rooted in the densely packed crowd, upper bodies fallen
sideways haphazardly. Several first responders described the arrangement of
bodies as looking like Timothy grass.
Interior stairwells and balcony doorways were piled high with victims,
impeding fire fighter's access. To
put out the last of the fire and
search for survivors,
firemen had to clear a path through the bodies. Some were dropped to the ground sixty feet below.
hundred were carried across the ladder to Northwestern.
As the firemen worked
amidst hundreds of dead, a semi-clad girl, blackened with burns and soot,
rose specter-like from between
the rows of seats. According to Corrigan, she ran toward the fire escape exit and
across the ladder into Northwestern, firemen chasing after her with a
I have little doubt that girl was thirteen-year-old* Elizabeth "Bessie"
Ricketts Clingen (b.1890). While she may have run toward the open door, and
whatever dim light and cold air streamed through it, she did not run across
a narrow plank. Bessie was sightless, her eyes destroyed by the fire.
Elizabeth's eventual obituary, on February 11, 1904, contained discrepancies
depending upon the newspaper – one reporting she was found beneath a pile of
bodies and another beneath the seats. All reports agreed she was carried across
a plank to Northwestern by firemen. Walking across a twenty-foot plank sixty
feet off the ground would take great courage. Doing it while carrying a body
is the stuff of heroes.
Elizabeth's later obituary reported she attended the theater with two
companions, with no mention of their identities or if they survived. I kept
delving and learned that one of the companions was Elizabeth's younger
sister, twelve-year-old Margaret Edith "Effy" Ricketts Clingen (1891-1918).
I suspect the third party member was the girls' mother, for whom Elizabeth
was named, Elizabeth Caroline Bowen Clingen, and that she escaped from the
theater with the younger child, Margaret.
Then came Grandma Lizzie
At the time of the 1900 census, and until
1901, Elizabeth and and her sister lived with their grandparents
in Decatur, IL, 180 miles southwest of Chicago. The grandparents were
William L. Newman (1838-1914) and Pennsylvania native, Kate “Lizzie” E.
Shank Bowman Newman (1850-1940). By 1903 the sisters
lived in Chicago with their mother and stepfather and used their
stepfather’s name, Clingen, instead of their birth name, Ricketts.
It was a common practice of the time for children to assume
a stepfather's name, without evidence of a legal adoption procedure.
When a man married, his wife and her children became his property.
William Clingen's failure to immediately cable the
Newman grandparents with the sorry news of their granddaughter's
hospitalization is understandable. The girls were in two different hospitals
and he did not locate Elizabeth until the day after the fire. It is not
known when Margaret was released from the hospital. If their mother
was also at the theater, nothing is known of her condition.
William had an additional reason to do some
foot-dragging in contacting his mother in law. He had agreed with a decision
of his wife, a devout Christian Scientist, that was sure to incur Lizzie's
wrath. They'd removed Elizabeth from the hospital and turned her care over
to a faith healer. They believed God would do what was best for
Elizabeth. As it happened, Lizzie Newman had also been communing with
God and asserted the book she was writing on the subject of Satan's
involvement in Christian Science and faith healing was at His direction.
Elizabeth became caught in her family's contradictory interpretations of
Lizzie accepted the inevitability of her granddaughter's death but condemned
her daughter for preventing Elizabeth from taking medication that could
relieve her pain.
Read more about Lizzie below.
More details about Elizabeth’s rescue
Elizabeth and her companions were seated or standing in the third-floor balcony. As the audience fought to reach safety, Elizabeth
fell to the floor.
Surrounded by seats and/or, depending upon the obituary, layered beneath other
people, she was somewhat protected from the fireball. Enough to survive while many others
perished at the scene, but not enough to prevent mortal injuries.
Elizabeth was transported to the
Passavant Hospital where she was probably given opioids during the
most painful first hours, before her mother could interfere.
Reportedly Elizabeth's stepfather, William C. Clingen,
heard about the fire and reaching the front doors of the Iroquois
Theater about the same time that Elizabeth was being rescued.
Elizabeth tried to conceal her pain from her
Passavant physicians did what they could for Elizabeth but advised the
parents that their daughter would not survive. One obituary said Elizabeth
insisted upon going home the second day. Since newspaper reports also noted
she accommodated her mother's belief in faith healing, her interest in
leaving the hospital may have been motivated by a wish to please her mother.
To physicians, she privately confessed that the pain was awful. Her
burns probably varied from second to third degree, the worst injuries at the
extremities. Since she was not expected to live, treatment would have
been limited to pain management. The least injured areas were probably
the most painful.
Skin on ears and toes sloughed away
Elizabeth was initially taken
to her home at 291 Ashland Blvd. For the next forty days the teenager received no medication. Her burns were treated with olive oil† and she was
told her pain did not exist, that she would recover if she put her faith in
Elizabeth's suffering hidden from protesting neighbors and authorities
Pressure came from neighborhood nurses and the health department to
re-hospitalize the girl. They may have been alerted by Elizabeth's screams,
as were the neighbors of another Iroquois victim, who received pain
whose screams could be heard in neighboring homes. Elizabeth's parents
transferred her to a so-called hospital that was a former laying-in home for
pregnant women, operated without physicians, by a Christian Science midwife
without training in burns.
Like moving her from the Passavant Hospital, the decision to be moved away from
her home, was attributed to Elizabeth. (Read
more about her care below.)
William C. Clingen (1862-) was from Detroit. Mother, also named
Elizabeth, (by the end of her life her full name being Elizabeth Caroline Bowen
Ricketts Clingen and nicknamed Bessie and Effie (1872-1959), was from Iowa. They
had married in 1899 in Milwaukee, WI. William was Bessie’s second husband.
In 1894 she divorced her first husband, Elizabeth and Margaret's father,
butcher Harry J. Ricketts (1869-1913), for adultery and extreme cruelty.
years after the fire
By 1908 William and Bessie
lived in Lake Bluff, Illinois, where he
invented and patented a fireless cooker. They eventually
divorced. In 1920 William remarried divorcee Lina Plumer Wamboldt.
Bessie left the Christian Science faith and became a
Lizzie and William Newman lived in Joplin, Missouri at the end of their lives.
I found nothing to indicate whether there was a reconciliation between Lizzy
and her daughter or whether Margaret Ricketts Clingen joined the Christian
Science faith as an adult.
Elizabeth’s younger sister, Margaret Edith Ricketts Clingen, attended Parsons college, married Abram Van Voorhis Haight
II. They had two children and lived in
Evanston, Illinois when she died in 1918 at age twenty-seven. She
named her daughter after her mother and late sister: Elizabeth Virginia Haight (1912-1993).
Nicknamed Ginny, she participated in basketball and volleyball, in the
orchestra and school newspaper, and in the drama club, acting in four plays
one year. The accompanying picture might be the only clue as to the
appearance of her aunt Elizabeth Rickets Clingen.