On February 12, 1904, two
weeks after the Iroquois Theater fire, a detective*
for the states attorneys office testified at the
grand jury trial that twenty-two-year-old Joseph Seymour
carried twenty small children from the theater (or twenty-two
children – different papers reported different numbers) and
died when he went back inside for yet another.
The story of Joseph's heroism was learned from
his mother, Mary Kline Seymour (1861-1942) when the
prosecutor accidentally attempted to serve a subpoena
on the deceased man. Reportedly Joseph was
the primary support of his widowed mother and four
siblings who were left destitute after his death.
They were relieved of some of their financial
troubles by Iroquois Theater manager Will J. Davis who
gave money to help the family with burial costs and
to move to less costly lodging. Grand jurists considered and
rejected the idea of taking up a donation for the
family, fearful they would appear less
than objective as jurists.
The story about Joseph was
reported on page seven of the February 13, 1904
issue of The Inter Ocean newspaper. It was
part of a larger story and transitioned into several
paragraphs about contradictions between testimony
from ushers and
audience members as to who opened doors in the
theater so that people could escape. While
several ushers described efforts to help, testimony
from many dozens of audience survivors described
ushers refusing to open doors. An exact
enumeration of usher responses will never be known.
Based on newspaper reports of trial testimony, some
helped, some ran away, some flapped their arms in
indecision. I found no newspaper evidence of
condemnation of any particular usher but numerous
reports that the public and journalists attributed a
portion of the high death toll to inadequate
training of young and inexperienced ushers, thus to
their immediate supervisor,
George Dusenberry, and ultimately to the men who
hired and supervised Dusenberry: Iroquois owner-managers
Will J. Davis and
Harry Powers, and business manager
Two of the children saved by
Joseph Seymour may have been twelve-year-old
Marjorie Wetmore and her fourteen-year-old cousin.
Marjorie's father, insurance man Ethelbert R.
Wetmore, would later credit their survival to an
unnamed Iroquois usher.
Information about other Iroquois Theater ushers.
One, two, three...eighteen, nineteen...
The specificity as to the
quantity of Joseph's rescued victims, whether twenty
or twenty-two is not believable. Joseph's fellow ushers, or a police
officer guarding the front entrance of the theater, could have seen
him bringing out multiple people but the scene was
far too chaotic for anyone to have had the
opportunity to count the comings and goings of one
man. That he made many trips seems likely but
the exact number has to have been an
His grieving mother
believed what she was told of her son's heroism but
who relayed the story to her? Joseph was
not taken to a hospital alive where she might have
heard his dying words; the day after the fire his
body was still among the unidentified at the county
morgue (see accompanying image). The only
probable answer is that in the two months that
elapsed before the grand jury trial, Mary
Seymour heard the story from one of Joseph's
co-workers at the Iroquois.
In the newspaper story Mary Seymour's fourth child,
Ray Seymour, was reported to have been eight
years old and a lifelong invalid. He was actually twelve years old
but did die four years later at age
sixteen, so the reference to his poor health was
Mary's reported ill
health was exaggerated or temporary – she lived
another thirty-nine years.
Mary Seymour was described as widowed from her husband,
Marcus "Mark" D. Seymour, who had been alive in
1900 but for which I found no evidence of death
1900 – 1904. In the 1910 U.S. Census Mary
described herself as married but still used the name Seymour.
another child, born in 1906.**
Each of Mary's six
children was born in a different state,
suggesting that husband Marcus may have had some difficulty
in finding work.
(In the 1900 U.S. Census the collection worker's
handwritten notation as to his occupation is
illegible but an 1898 city directory reports his
occupation as a "penman," a job title given to a person who drew letters for documents
and logo design. A year
later he worked as an insurance agent.)
Whatever the reason, over a ten year period the
family relocated every two years.
Family entitled to feel proud
Seymour (b. 1881) was one of the ushers at the
Iroquois who tried to do the right thing when the
fire started. Whether he rescued one or twenty, he
died while engaged in a selfless and courageous
effort to save others. His body was found at
the county morgue the day after the fire, wearing
his usher's uniform over a shirt labeled with his
late father's initials, carrying a silver watch and
gold chain. He was identified by his teenaged
younger brother, Gordon
E. Seymour (c1886-1929).
In 1903 Joseph, his mother and siblings, Eva, Ida,
Gordon and Ray Seymour, lived at 758 W. Lake St. in
Chicago. With Will J. Davis's help, the
family found a presumably less costly four- or
at 984 West Madison, near the corner of Madison and
In the years after the fire
Gordon Seymour (see below) worked as a musician for Standard Oil
during World War I. Mary and the children remained in
Chicago until at least the 1940s and stayed together
through marriages, divorces and career changes.
Discrepancies & clarification
There are many missing and
iffy pieces in the Seymour story. I do not know
what became of Marcus Seymour, Joseph's father, for
example. I suspect his mother, Mary, may have been a Longnecker
at some point. The frequent moves prevented
the family from leaving much of a a trail. Their longest
stay was in Chicago so after 1898 there are bread
crumbs for Mary and the children, but before that, not
The surname "Seymour" was
attached to three individuals in connection with the
Iroquois Theater fire. One was Fred "Slim"
Seymour, a member of the stage crew who usually
lowered the fire curtain but had gone home sick the
morning of the fire. Another
was A. L. Seymour who appeared on early victim lists
but not on later lists and for which a death
certificate was not issued. Joseph is the only
verified Seymour fatality from the fire. The
newspaper reported that his brother, Gordon, was
nineteen but according to the 1900 U.S. Census
Gordon was born in 1886 and, according to his WWI
draft card, born in 1887, making him seventeen or
*The two detectives from the
states attorney office who went to the
Seymour home and spoke with Mary were named Thomas
E. McAuliffe and Frank H. Been.
** I have come across
divorcees in the 1900 and 1910 U.S. Census who
claimed to be widowed. Such was the stigma of
divorce. If Mary was divorced rather than
widowed, she would not have wanted to be labeled a
divorcee in the newspaper. If Marcus was still
living, he may have been briefly married to
a wealthy divorcee named Francis
P. Torey Avery. In 1920 a
seventy-two-year-old Marcus D. Seymour lived in a
Main Street hotel in Kansas City, MO, describing himself as widowed
working in the grocery industry.
born in 1906 and claimed as a daughter may have been the child of Mary's daughter, Eva, who died that same year.