One of the most troubling Iroquois stories.
In the 2003 book Tinderbox, author Anthony Hatch relates a story told
to him by eighty-nine year old retired Chicago firemen Michael J. Corrigan
(1872-1966) during a 1961 interview. Corrigan described receiving a surprise
while working to remove the dead from the Iroquois Theater.
Interior stairwells and balcony doorways were piled high with victims,
impeding access to the third floor balcony where there might be survivors.
As painting contractors had done earlier, firemen used a
ladder to make a bridge from Northwestern to one of the fire escape exits on
the third floor in the Iroquois. It was the door closest to the back
of the balcony where the audience had converged after leaving their seats.
People were packed at the door, waiting to exit when the fireball hurled
from the state into the auditorium, killing them instantly. So tightly
packed were the bodies that some were still upright. The only way for
firefighters to get inside to look put out the last of the fire and look for survivors was to clear
bodies. Some had to be dropped to the ground sixty feet below but over a
hundred were carried across the ladder to Northwestern.
As the firemen worked, a semi clad girl, blackened with burns and soot,
suddenly rose from between
the rows of seats. According to Corrigan, the girl ran toward the 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),
but she did not run across a narrow plank because Bessie was by that time sightless, her eyes having
been destroyed by the fire. Elizabeth’s February 11, 1904 obituaries
were not without discrepancies – one said she was found beneath a pile of
bodies and another that she was found beneath the seats – but both agreed
that she was carried across a plank to Northwestern. 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.
In her obituary, Elizabeth was said to have 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 “Bessie” “Effy” Bowen
Clingen (b. 1872).
Then came Grandma Lizzie
At the time of the 1900 census, and until 1901, Elizabeth and Margaret for
some reason 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 Newman (b. 1850). 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 stepchildren to assume
a stepfather's name.
William Clingen can be forgiven for not having cabled the Newman
grandparents immediately with
the sorry news that their granddaughters were hospitalized. 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
and nothing is known of their mother Bessie’s condition.)
That said, William
had an additional reason to do some foot dragging in contacting Lizzie Newman:
agreed with his wife's decision to turn one of Lizzie’s injured granddaughters over to
the care of a faith healer – a practice Lizzie considered to be driven by
Satan. In fact, Lizzie had spent the last several years working on a book on the
subject. Directed, said Lizzie, by God.
Read more about Lizzie below.
More details about Elizabeth’s rescue
Elizabeth and her companions were seated or standing in the gallery
(third-floor balcony). As the audience fought to reach safety, Elizabeth
fell or was knocked to the floor.
Surrounded by seats and/or, depending upon the obituary, layered beneath other
people, she was protected somewhat. 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 hopefully given opioids during the
most painful first hours, before her nutso mother could interfere).
Reportedly Elizabeth's stepfather, William C. Clingen, heard about and ran
to the fire, reaching the front doors of the Iroquois
Theater about the same time that Elizabeth was being rescued.
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 (but since it also noted she accommodated her mother’s belief in faith healing, I am suspicious
her reported insistence
to go home may have been as much motivated by a wish to please her mother as
to leave the hospital).
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 arranged
her thinking properly. ("Your agony is your own fault.")
As she lay there in
blindness, while her ears and toes sloughed off.
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, whose screams, despite medication, could be heard in nearby
parents transferred her
to a so-called hospital that was actually a former laying-in home for pregnant
women. It was operated without physicians, by a single Christian Science nurse practitioner.
Like the decision to move
her from the hospital, the decision to be moved from her home (thereby
silencing the neighbors), was attributed to Elizabeth. (Read a bit more
about her care below.)
On the subject of olive oil, it is an old time lubricant for simple abrasions but to prevent
infection, burn wounds need antibiotics and modern medicine specifically
warns against the application of ointments to third-degree burns.
William C. Clingen (b. 1862) was from Detroit and his wife, Bessie Bowen
"Effie" Ricketts Clingen (b. 1872), from Iowa. They
had married in 1899 in Milwaukee, WI. William was Bessie’s second husband.
She divorced her first husband, butcher Harry J. Ricketts, father of
Elizabeth and Margaret, in 1894.
From the limited information in period newspaper reports it appears that
grandmother Lizzie accepted that Elizabeth’s death was inevitable but
condemned her daughter’s faith in Christian Science for the unrelieved pain
Elizabeth suffered as a result of withholding pain medication. It is not known if
personally witnessed Elizabeth being urged to suppress pain, heard about it
from a third party or read about it in Elizabeth’s obituary. Wrongful death
suits were brought against Christian Science parents as early as 1887 but
(as deputy coroner Buckley might have concluded) though the Clingen’s decisions extended and worsened their daughter's suffering, they did not
kill her. The Iroquois Theater did that.
years after the fire
By 1908 William and Bessie were living in Lake Bluff, Illinois where he
invented and patented a fireless cooker. They eventually
divorced and William remarried.
Lizzie and William lived in Joplin, Missouri at the end of their lives.
Elizabeth’s younger sister, Margaret Edith Ricketts Clingen, attended Parsons college, married Abram Van Voorhis Haight II of Poughkepsie, New York, had two children and lived in
Evanston, Illinois when she died in 1918 at age twenty-seven.