Chicago fire department was a hornets nest in the
early 1900s. In 1903
chief William H. "Bill" Musham was at the
center, with a half dozen targets on his forehead.
1901 candidates for Chicago fire chief
Musham was appointed by democrat mayor
Harrison Jr. (1860-1953) in 1901 to replace
Denis Swenie (1834-1903).* Swenie was Chicago's fire marshal for
twenty-two years, during which time he helped move the
department from a volunteer to a paid force. Musham worked with Swenie most of those
years, entering the department as a sixteen-year-old
volunteer. Another candidate for the position,
James Horan, was popular with other fire fighters
and with a few of the underwriters. A
John Campion, had on his side long
experience and influential political connections.
Musham wasn't popular, or connected.
He had the approval of a majority of the underwriters,
years experience and a record demonstrating bravery
and a commitment to the department. He'd earned
the right to a shot at the job and the mayor gave it
Horan might have been a better choice but, without
the Iroquois disaster as a tipping point, maybe not.
Until Chicago's mayor, building department and city
council agreed upon changes in ordinances, codes and
enforcement, the fire chief was destined to be
caught in the middle.
Mayor Harrison, in 1901 serving his second mayoral
term, was the first Chicago native to reach the
office of mayor. He would go on to serve five
terms, as had his father, Carter Henry Harrison Sr.
(The senior Harrison was assassinated by a nut case
in the final days of the 1893 Columbian Exposition
Worlds fair. Before his death, Harrison Sr
purchased the Chicago Times newspaper, that Carter jr.
helped operate prior to his first mayoral election
group of insurance underwriters put pressure on
Harrison to replace Chief Swenie, complaining
that his age (sixty-seven) and poor health (cardiac asthma)
were causing higher fire loss. With Swenie's
agreement, the mayor brought in two doctors to
examine him. When they reported that Swenie's
health was precarious, Swenie resigned, to the delight of his family.
(Medical muscle worked so well with the Swenie
situation that Harrison tried it again a couple
majority of the underwriters, eighty percent, favored Musham.
The remaining twenty percent preferred James Horan, arguing that
he was younger than Musham. Horan also had a
history of supporting republican political
candidates, likely a mitigating factor.
Fire Chief shoots his foot
Within weeks of his appointment, Musham took
actions that shook up the fire department and may
have constituted firing the first shot in a war: he
transferred James Horan, the popular guy, from the
prestigious downtown district to one that saw
few fires. Career-wise, a no-mans land.
In Horan's place, Musham appointed Charles Seyferlich.
To the newspapers, Musham gave
no explanation for the transfer, leaving everyone
to conclude he hoped to push Horan far enough into
the shadows to reduce his capacity to challenge
chief Musham's authority. That would be a
goal for someone in Musham's position who had
fiefdom of long standing, and might even have been
beneficial for the department, but it backfired. The transfer
fueled the resistance from Horan and
Campion loyalists, giving them the excuse they
needed to start seriously
chewing on Mushams backside.
Fickle Chicago insurance underwriters.
one. No, this one.
mid 1903, mayor Harrison once again found himself
being pressured by underwriters to replace his fire
chief, this time the same chief they'd endorsed two
years earlier. Led by the Chicago Underwriters
Edward M. Teall, the
underwriters claimed Musham's poor management of the
department was causing undue fire losses.
six months the attacks on Musham were relentless.
Fire loses were increasing, the underwriters cried.
Musham showed favoritism, they accused. He did not impose sufficient
discipline, they said.** He didn't rid the department of
unfit battalion chiefs. He purchased from
vendors without taking open bids. He used salary funds to build engine
houses. Organized labor proponents within the
department joined the chorus and added a few notes
of their own. If there was a fart in the
was reported in the newspaper and blamed on Musham. Each week brought a new complaint from the
underwriters and/or labor. They wanted Musham gone and, to
exert maximum political pressure on the mayor, waged
their campaign in newspapers.
Mayor stood by his man
Harrison stood behind Musham and agreed with data
Musham presented that refuted the underwriters accusations.
In October Musham took action that contradicted the
allegation that favoritism was running the
investigating the son of a competitor for the fire
chief position, John Campion (for which
vengefulness was added to his sins). Also in
response to the charge of favoritism, Harrison repeated the medical
solution and brought in two doctors to examine the
targeted battalion chiefs. Though the
disagreed about the men's fitness, the
underwriters tried to force Musham to fire the
officers. Musham wasn't the sort of man who
tolerated bullying. His
refusal was immediate, and loud. The
underwriters were shocked. Mortified.
Offended. And assured newspapers they would
have a firm talk with the mayor.
No win for Musham
Musham was in a bad spot. Even if he had been
inclined to resign, he could not do so without
giving the underwriters a victory. If there was
one thing Chief Musham and mayor Harrison agreed
upon, it was that a committee of insurance men
should not run the Chicago fire department.
Elephant and malcontents
underwriters weren't the only ones who could use the
press, and mayor Harrison proved himself to be a
wily opponent. He first went public with the
story that the three battalion chiefs with
questionable fitness would resign voluntarily.
sure underwriters got the message, Harrison coupled
the announcement with an emphatic reiteration of his
support for chief Musham.
Harrison's next announcement was to tell the
newspapers of his growing impatience with morale
problems in the fire department and to place the
blame not on Musham but on a handful of anti-Musham/pro-Horan
malcontents. Harrison expressed his eagerness
to learn their identities and instructted Musham to
sniff them out.
Until then, the
behind-the-scenes anti-Musham campaign was the
elephant in the corner. By
reinforcing his support of Musham Harrison paraded
the elephant across the pages of the Chicago Tribune.
He then took it a step further and asserted that Horan loyalists
were responsible for the department's morale
problem, not Horan
himself, thereby giving both Horan and the underwriters an
Horan would make a fine future fire chief and the
underwriters were well-meaning citizens who had been misled
by a soon-to-be-disciplined handful of malcontents.
Purge them and everyone would live happily ever
after. Whether or not this strategy would have
quieted the hounds was never learned because the
Iroquois Theater fire changed the course of things.
days before the Iroquois Theater fire, Musham
suspended the five designated
malcontents, accusing them of carrying
unsubstantiated tales outside the department.
The first hearing about the suspensions was in
progress when word came that the Iroquois Theater
was on fire. All the men immediately headed to
Randolph St. to fight the fire. Afterwards, as
an acknowledgement of their performance at the
Iroquois, they were reinstated.
Fire Chief Swenie's shadow may have outlived him
Jurors at the
coroner's inquest concluded Musham was guilty of gross
neglect of duty for not enforcing city ordinances
and not demanding accountability from Iroquois
fireman, William Sallers. Musham was held over
for the grand jury.
grand jury disagreed with the coroner inquest.
Though it was apparent from Musham's testimony that
he was unfamiliar with some city ordinances, his
testimony was more
interesting in what he didn't say than in what he
did. He admitted he had not demanded the
requisite weekly reports from Iroquois fireman Sallers
– but no mention was reported of reports
from any theater firemen. If his
predecessor Swenie had been meeting with theater
firemen, there would have been a system in place and
the remnants of that system would have lingered when Musham
came on the job. Musham didn't do it,
and was only vaguely aware of it, because Swenie
hadn't done it.
In January, 1904 testimony
after the Iroquois Theater fire Musham asserted he did not know that he
had authority to
close a theater. He had been on the job then
for thirty months and was First Assistant for two
decades before becoming chief. Since it would
have been easy for prosecutors to present evidence
disproving Musham's claim of ignorance, it seems
likely his testimony was truthful. Had a
formal procedure been commonly used during Swenie's term
it would have left behind a trail of departmental
procedures and paperwork that Musham, by most
accounts a stickler for detail, could not have
ignored. Swenie may have been the sort of
fellow who could have stopped Davis on a street
corner and told him the Iroquois didn't cut the
mustard. On the other hand, there was the
Building Commissioner George William's report
the mayor had relayed to the city counsel a few
weeks earlier that described nearly all Chicago's
theaters as fire traps – a condition years in the
making, certainly predating Musham. The grand jury
likely recognized Musham's failure to enforce
ordinances as a case of his having followed the
status quo in a seriously flawed system.
Musham takes jury recommendations
Musham followed the
recommendation from the coroner's jury and grand
jury that more attention would be given to
inspections and safety concerns if handled by a
separate sub department. At the end of March,
1904, he set up a bureau headed by William J.
Burroughs, who had been chief of the first
battalion, and the city council granted the funds
for an additional battalion chief to replace
Burroughs. Musham named John Campion as
Burrough's assistant, transferring Campion to engine
company 5 on Jefferson and Van Buren.
Traditionally the first assistant marshal's office
was in cityhall but Campion had earlier requested
his office be relocated to nearer his home on the
west side. In addition to inspections of
theaters, the new bureau was made responsible for
elevator shafts and other ordinance-mandated safety
Edward J. Buckleysucceeded
Burroughs as chief of the first battalion.
Musham out, Campion in
In October, 1904 Musham resigned and Harrison
appointed First Assistant chief John Campion to the
position of chief. Musham loyalists, including
his son, John W. Musham, asserted that Musham's
resignation (denied by Harrison as being even a
smidgeon coerced) was a consequence of Harrison's political
By some reports, Harrison traded Campion's appointment to
the fire marshal position for political support from alderman
John Brennan of the 18th ward. Harrison denied the
accusation. John Musham maintained
that some of Harrison's past loyalty to his father was
reciprocation for chief Musham having admonished
Horan and Campion for violating department policy by
campaigning while on duty for Graeme Stewart, Harrison's republican opponent. Seems like a
stretch. As Harry Bosch
would say, high jingo.
Musham contracted to supervise double platoon
year after his retirement Musham was hired by mayor
Dunne to supervise an experiment at one fire house
with operating a double platoon. That set off
a storm of opposition that contributed to Campion's
Campion exit gives rise to more Musham bashing
Campion's hold on
the fire chief position was of even shorter duration
than Musham's. Mayor Edward Dunne wanted to
organize the department in platoons and Campion
refused. Dunne suspended Campion and accused
him of graft. Dunne's accusations were
disputed by many Chicago aldermen but to poke a
stick in the eye of insurance underwriters, they
went along with the mayor's wish to dismiss
Campion. The controversy went on after the
dismissal, with fire truck vendors jumping into the
fray on behalf of Campion. An American La
France salesman said Campion was a good guy just
trying to break a long-time deal Musham had with a former sales
representative of a competitor. The sullied
sales representative, Chicagoan Daniel Healy,
of course disputed the allegation, and elaborated on
American La France's errors. In the end it
was he-said/they-said with Campion out of the job,
replaced by Horan.
Grief and Pneumonia take Musham
While 1906 brought a mayoral mauling for Campion, it
was a worse year for Musham. In December came
the unexpected death of his twenty-two-year-old son,
Joseph, of heart disease. When Musham died two
months later, in
February of 1907, it was said his resistance to
illness was diminished by grief. William
and Kate had lost their oldest son, William jr. in
1890 at age seventeen. Five children survived:
John, Frank, Harry, Anna (see sidebar) and Ella.
William Musham biography
William H. Musham
(c.1839-1907) was born to a Scottish father and
Irish mother who immigrated to the United States
before his birth in Illinois. In 1872 he
married Catherine "Kate" Eadgem (or Fagan) (1846-),
an Irish native who came to the United States with
her family at age five.
gave birth to eight children. Of those,
William Musham Jr. died in 1890, another may have
died in early childhood and six survived in 1903:
Harry, Frank, Anna, Joseph, John and Ella. Joseph applied to become a
firefighter that year but was rejected because
he was too thin. He would die of heart disease
three years later, a few months before his
father. One of the boys was an applicant for
the position of fireman at the Iroquois, but his
application was withdrawn when he took a job at the
St. Louis World's fair as a firefighter in the fire
exhibition building. A month later enemies of the
his father would cause his dismissal by exposing
that he'd lied about his age on his 1901 civil
service application. By the time Frank
actually went to work for the fire department he was
of proper age but the deception had given him an
unearned head start on the waiting list so he lost
his job as a fireman about a week after the Iroquois
opened. Chief Musham
could have saved his son's job by bowing to
blackmail by someone who wanted him to reinstate an
engineer, Samuel McDowell, that Musham had fired for
incompetence in June, 1903. Musham refused but
in the end his son was dismissed and the engineer
Find myself wondering if the fire would have
happened had Frank been the
fireman at the Iroquois.
The Mushams owned
their home at 177 Rush Street and were able to
afford a live-in servant, an Irish girl named Mary
William joined the fire
department as a volunteer at age sixteen while learning
the carpentry trade. He distinguished himself
as a volunteer and signed on as a paid pipeman in
1861. His company, the T. Brown, was the first
to reach the site of the Great Chicago fire in 1871.
Musham was promoted to third
assistant fire marshal in 1872 and advanced to chief
of the second battalion in 18756. In 1880 he was
appointed to first assistant by mayor Carter
Over the years Musham incurred
numerous injuries in the line of duty but was proud
a broken bone was never among them. His
direction of the January, 1894 fire fight at the
Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building on the
closed Columbian World's Fair Exposition grounds was
the lines, Musham was all about fighting fires and
probably never well suited to being head of the
department. He made a perfect complement to a
more diplomatic chief like Swenie.
Musham once claimed eminent domain to expropriate
several railway cars of coal to fuel his engines
while fighting a fire. It all worked out in
the end but I suspect it was characteristic Musham
to take the coal to fight the fire and worry later
abut soothing the
angry coal owner.
On another occasion Musham needed to get a fire boat
to a different location but the boat had been docked
by boat regulation folks because its exterior
letters weren't large enough. It cost a $100
fine but Musham got the fire boat moved to where he
Children of fire
Children of Chicago fire
chiefs Campion, Swenie and Musham all became caught up in newspaper stories.
In an odd coincidence, all three men had a son named
Frank but only Frank Campion made the news.
Frank Swenie was also a Chicago fireman.
Annie Musham and her
powder In the early evening of January 15, 1901, Annie, the
twenty-seven-year old daughter of
soon-to-be-appointed-chief William Musham, was on
route home to 177 Rush Street. Annie was Kate
and William's oldest child. Annie had been visiting Mrs.
Sheridan in Buena Park, who gave her a container
of facial powder. Annie was making a street car
transfer at the busy North Clark depot. A
police officer approached and demanded to see the
contents of her parcel. Annie was embarrassed
and took offence at his demeanor but did not back
down. She refused to give up her name or
parcel. Patrolman O'Connell grabbed the parcel,
tore it open and for his effort got a face full of
It turned out that there was a BOLO for a woman who
had just committed a robbery in Lake View and was
carrying a bundle. Annie demanded an
apology. O'Connell said she could come round to
the station the next day but that there would be no
apology. When Chief Musham found his
daughter in tears, he placed a telephone call to
O'Connell's boss, Captain Schettler. Two days
later, Annie went to the Sheffield Avenue police
station, taking along her eighteen-year-old younger
brother Joseph. Patrolman O'Connell
had decided to apologize after all. Imagine that. Annie had
cooled down by then, too, and admitted she was
remiss in refusing to give her name. Anna did
not marry and became a paid housekeeper in her later
The Chicago fire marshal position paid an annual
salary of $6,000 in 1901. With inflation, that
would be like $155,000 today, but now compensation
for Chicago's top fire administrator, the Fire
Commissioner, is $200,000, including benefits.
Upon retiring, Chief Swenie's annual pension was $3,000.
** For longtime Musham observers, the suggestion he
was soft on discipline was laughable. As a
captain his house had been nicknamed the
department's House of Corrections.
Two Chicago Throop school teachers died
at the Iroquois Theater
If you have additional
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hear from you. Chaos and communication limitations of 1903
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