|Iroquois Theater ushers
According to testimony by Iroquois business manager
Thomas Noonan there were fifteen ushers employed at the
Iroquois Theater. If he testified how many were on duty at
December 30, 1903 matinee, it wasn't reported. Fourteen testified
at the coroner and grand jury inquests, as well as one former
The ushers were under the supervision of
George Dusenberry who was responsible for hiring and
training. According to testimony by Dusenberry, he was
instructed by unspecified managers (Will
Harry Powers or Noonan) to hire medium-sized men
nineteen to twenty-two years old. According to testimony
by many, his instructions to the ushers was non-existent to minimal
and on at least one occasion his directives to an usher were
overridden by Will J. Davis.
Newspaper headlines proclaimed the ushers
were 14 and that they ran at the first sign of fire.
That misleading characterization has stood for over a century.
Information about them is skimpy so I haven't a good guess as to
how many descendants there might be alive today but it seems
like the right thing to do to set the record straight even if
there are none.
The age of three Iroquois ushers is not known.
sixteen and under; six were seventeen to twenty-two.
As to their actions during the fire:
Two probably did flee.
(VonLukowitz and Ohle)
Three stayed to help audience members
escape and were later hospitalized, one
dying. (Jones, Kirwan and fatality Seymour)
Two ran to sound the alarm, one at a
fire alarm box and one calling police and fire departments
from a telephone at the cigar store next door. (Lovett and Norland)
Five testified that they opened doors
to help audience members escape. (Gibbons, Guerin, Meyer/Heyer,
The conduct of two was not reported.
(Boynton and Rattray)
Reading between the lines of newspaper
reports I suspect that in two to three incidents, ushers action
at doors was misunderstood by audience members. The best
example of this was Edward Lovett's testimony that when he tried
to release a bolt so as to open all three sections of a doorway
in the front lobby, thus making it wider so more people could
pass through more quickly, but in the process, of necessity,
putting himself temporarily in the path of fleeing people, they
told him he was crazy. Many of the doors at the Iroquois
had multiple sections that to open required loosening levers and
bolts. Not understanding the fasteners, audience members
frantically broke through glass panels by kicking and poking
with umbrellas. Their desperate fear and shouting
outweighed the voices of those ushers who attempted to help.
"I don't know whether
he said he could not or would not."
Another example happened at one of the
frozen fire escape doors.* During the coroner's inquest in
January, 1904, a bold newspaper subhead proclaimed: "Usher's
Refusal to Open Door." The story quoted portions of Elviro
Penedo's testimony. She had been seated on the ground floor
(that produced a half dozen fatalities) and
was one of the first to line up to exit from a fire escape exit
on the north side of the auditorium, out into Couch Place alley.
In her testimony she first said, "I heard this man ask the
usher to please unlock the door and he refused." Minutes
later she was asked, "Do you recall the conversation that was
carried on with the usher relative to the opening of the door,
as to whether he answered he could not or he would not?"
Pinedo then altered her testimony to answer, "I don't know
whether he said he could not or would not."
Too late. hundreds of newspapers around the world picked up the
subhead and reported that ushers refused to open doors.
The usher in this instance was probably Edward Quigley.
Ray S. Boynton
356-1/2 E. Ohio
Student Art Institute of Chicago.
Became a noted artist, working in oil,
pastels and fresco,gaining the most
attention for his murals. Served
door no. 8.
Response at Iroquois: Unknown.
Testimony from another usher on the ground
floor that he did not see Boynton opening
doors, and references to Boynton being on
the witness list in the coroner's inquest is
the only evidence to indicate that he was on
duty the day of the fire.
James E. Gibbon
434 Oakdale Ave
Iowa-born son of
English immigrants, Robert and Rachel
Elizabeth Dobson Gibbon. The family
1901 W. Wolfram St in Chicago's Diversey
street area for several decades. The
1896 structure still stands. As an
adult James became a
chauffeur for a time, and a mechanic.
According to his WWI draft card the fingers
on his left hand were deformed and he played
the cornet. His brother Albert served
in France. Married & divorced Jeanette
Clark, no children. Spent his last
years in Jacksonvill, IL hospital for the
insane and developmentally disabled.
Response at Iroquois: Told
audience to calm down. Testified that
he opened non-specified front doors.
Archibald E. "Archie" Guerin
widowed mother and siblings. For
excitement began four years after fire.
See panel below.
Response at Iroquois: Opened one
triple-door set in
door nos. 10-16 and two fire escape
exits in nos. 2-4. Testified that
he saw another 1st floor usher opening an
William H. Heyer - see Meyer
Jones (miss reported as Oraa E. Jones or Ora Jones
and Alfred Jones)
476 W. Madison
Canadian born son of bookkeeper William
Barton Jones and Susan Johnson Jones
Ellen H. Hurst in Sept, 1905 and had one
child, daughter Violet, but marriage did not
last. Worked as a finisher of pianos
and automobiles. Spent most of his
adult life in Florida. Died of heart
failure at age fifty-three while operating a
soda concession on Sea Island Beach resort
on Georgia's Atlantic shoreline. He
was a thin, blue-eyed fellow, of medium
height, with brown hair.
Response at Iroquois: See his
testimony in news story below. Was badly
injured and taken to Passavant hospital. On early victim
lists it was reported that he was expected
to die. He said that Dusenberry
instructed him on opening day to open all fire escape doors in case of panic
or fire. The "little girl" in news story below,who caught the painter's
Carrie Anderson, daughter of an Iroquois scrub woman who was a fatality
of the fire.
John G. Kirwan
Prior to Iroquois, worked at another of Will
J. Davis theaters, the Illinois. In
1909 he brought a $10,000 suit against
Fuller Construction and Iroquois management
for injuries suffered at the Iroquois. Son
of Irish immigrants, Thomas and Helen Hogan Kirwan,
with one sibling. He served in WWI
with the 54th infantry in France.
After the war he became head waiter in the
Ambassador Hotel restaurant in Chicago,
married a Missouri girl named Mabel Gould
and the pair had one child, a daughter named
probably 2 or 3
Response at Iroquois: Testified
that he became frightened and awoke in St.
hospital, remembering nothing.
Edward Lovett (sometimes reported as
Response at Iroquois: Was taking
tickets when fire started.
Testified that he ran to a nearby cigar
store to call police and fire departments,
then returned to theater where he opened one
door in the three-door set at the front entrance (door
no.12 in set no. 10-12) and was trying
to unfasten the bolt to open the other two
doors in the set when the crowd pushed him
aside and told him he was crazy – presumably
for being in the way when he tried to
release the bolt that would open the other
two doors in the set.
As to training, Lovett testified that they
were told to remain cool in case of fire or
panic, keep people out of the aisles and
remain in their position until the
auditorium was emptied. This was
contradicted by testimony from Willard
Sayles (below), an Iroquois balcony usher,
who said they were given no instructions
regarding fire or panic.
William H. Meyer
(or William R.
Heyer both names reported with same
story, one likely a typographical error but
Response at Iroquois: Testified
that he tried to calm audience to no avail
and barely had time to open fire escape
nos. 29-31). Newspaper reports of
his testimony did not indicate that he was
queried as to which doors he opened,
interior and/or exterior.
Son of Celia and
the late John Norland. Married nine
years after fire and had one child.
Response at Iroquois: In foyer
when heard the cry of fire and immediately
ran to fire alarm box in front of the
Masonic Temple. Described as too frail
to have been much help with rescuing people
but he went on to live a long life.
Michael "Max" Ohle
743 Irving Park
Lived with his parents, barbershop owner Julius and
Sophia Koenig Ohle, and three siblings.
Seven years earlier, at age fifteen, Max
had become addicted to
cocaine by drinking Birney's cough syrup, a
catarrh formulated with 4% hydrochloride of
cocaine, a strength used for local
anesthesia. Many other catarrh's of
the time contained half that strength.
Max's situation was
a lengthy newspaper story and elicited a
response from Chicago's assistant
commissioner of health, Dr. Reilly. It
was not the first such report his offices
had received, he wanted readers to know. Two years earlier a
druggist had reported addictive behavior by
other users of the remedy, including a
relapse by a former
Keeley Institute graduate. Reilly
reported that he was powerless to do
anything other than warn the public.
Cocaine would not become federally regulated
until 1914. In 1896, Max's fellow
cocaine enthusiasts included Sigmund Freud.
Max's father, Julius, rebuffed doctors
who were interested in studying how Max coped with abrupt withdrawal.
Julius would deal with his son's drug fiend problem himself. Fiend was the
label assigned to drug addicts then. He assured the newspaper
that Max would not be let out of his sight until cured. Max even went
to the barbershop with his father. Nothing more is known about Max and his addiction. He
married and had a child, eventually moving to Utica, NY and becoming a
Max's case helped increase public awareness in Chicago so that this
anti-patent medicine poster appeared in a Chicago drugstore.
Max's response at Iroquois: Testified
that there were only two ushers working on
the second floor balcony. He hurried to non-specified exits to
"clear the way" for people to get out, then
went downstairs to see how serious the fire
was and was swept outside by the crowd.
William L. Quigley
Oldest son of Eugene and Louise Brown Quigley
Response at Iroquois: He opened half of the middle door
set (no. 38) leading from the third floor
balcony out to the stairwell that went to
the lobby. It did not occur to him to open
the other half of the door set that was
fastened by catches at top and bottom.
Testified about his training in his former
ushering job at Powers Theater. There he was
taught to open exits in case of fire and on
how to use the fire hose. He was also
required to open the outer iron fire-escape
doors every night before the performance.
None of these precautions were procedures at
the Iroquois. He opened one of the fire
escape doors out of curiosity the night
before the fire, the first time he'd ever
Said that he
met usher Joseph Seymour (below) the Sunday
before the fire, in front of the theater.
Seymour asked if he wanted to go to work.
Quigley said yes and was immediately taken
to Dusenberry who told him to come to work
the following day.
Nothing was reported other than that
Harry testified at the coroner's inquest.
I suspect he may have been absent from the
theater the day of the fire and was
subpoenaed only to learn if he had received
Response at Iroquois: None known
Willard Avery Sayles Jr
Response at Iroquois:
not present, a former employee
that he had been reprimanded by Iroquois
manager Will J. Davis on opening night at
the Iroquois for following instructions from
his supervisor, Dusenberry, to open fire
escape door (nos.
38 & 39) in
response to an audience
complaint that it was overly warm. He
also said he received no instructions
regarding what to do in an emergency.
Willard was one of four children born to
Willard Sayles Sr and Annette Seacott
Sayles. Seven years after the fire he
married Emma Deneve and the pair had two
children. He went into sales and eventually
became district manager over nineteen states
then vice president at the Canada Dry Ginger
758 W. Lake St
Response at Iroquois:
helping over a dozen from the theater.
James L. (or M.) Treat
Note: birth/death date is iffy. If I
have the right fellow, he remained in the
theater industry, in 1918 managing a theater in
Response at Iroquois:
Testified that he was on the stairs outside
the entrance into the 2nd floor balcony. He
ran to a lower door (no. 28 or 32) and
called to the audience to come out that way
but was ignored. He said they clambered over
the backs of seats and swarmed to the door
where most had entered the balcony (no. 33).
What with the audience shouting and it being
dark, have to wonder how many even heard/saw
8 Sedgwick Court
Was one of nine surviving of sixteen (!!!) children born
to Eli and Isabella McLaughlin VonLukowitz.
Thinking that to survive in such a large
family might have required a hyperactive
fleeing instinct. He married Amelia
Larson four years after the fire; the pair
had one child, a daughter named after
Elmer's mother. He worked as a
chauffeur and a clerk. He was of
medium height and build with blue eyes and
dark brown hair.
Response at Iroquois: Testified that when he heard the
cry of fire he ran out the front door and
did not return.
G. F. Foster?
in 1887 Will J. Davis purchased usher uniforms from
G. F. Foster, Son & Co. When it came to purchasing, Davis was a
creature of habit, so much so that there was much supplier duplication
between the Illinois Theater of 1901 and the Iroquois two years later.
He did not make note of the supplier of uniforms in the programs for the Illinois or
the Iroquois, however.
Theater ushers around the country were organizing in
hopes of raising their compensation (see right). In reading a decade
of news stories, it struck me that what was needed first was a public
This 1896 story ran in dozens of papers and reflections a common
portrayal of ushers as dishonest. That perception may have played
a role in why 1903 newspapers were so quick to paint a picture of Iroquois
Theater ushers as self interested and irresponsible.
I wonder if Iroquois ushers were paid their standard
hourly rate for the time they spent immediately after the fire, collecting
the belongings left in the theater by fleeing patrons.
Completion of that task was soon turned over to the police department
who a month later would find a severed hand in the debris. As the
first clean-up crew, ushers faced a gruesome scene.
Did Iroquois Theater ushers wear top hats to the
grand opening the night of November 23, 1903? The absence of women in
this photo suggests it was taken before the audience arrived, thus the men
pictured might be ushers and other theater staff. The postures of some suggest youthfulness,
so maybe. Presumably they would not have worn formal attire to an
afternoon matinee, however, so were clad differently on Dec 30, 1903.
In 1903 two p.m. was the starting time when more formal
wear was expected from gentlemen. Top hats were viewed by some as an
unfortunate import from London.
Archie Guerin's path from
usher to lawyer
year Chicago newspapers
covered the exciting murder
trial of Archie Guerin's
brother, Webster Guerin,
killed by gunshot in
Accused was Dora Feldman
McDonald, third wife of a
notorious early Chicago
Mike Cassius McDonald.
decade had Dora pursued
Webster as though obsessed, beginning when he was
a fourteen-year-old neighbor
and she a thirty-year-old
bride. The torrid
affair was not well
concealed, motivating Archie
and Webster's mother, Mary
(1858-1904), to plead with
McDoonald to leave the boy
1907 a private detective was
hired, by either Dora or her
husband, to find evidence of
Webster cheating on Dora. It would later be reported
that when the detective
didn't find evidence of
Webster's other women, he
made up a story about
Archie's fiance. At the
time, Webster and Archie
owned a crayon portrait
studio,† the Harrison Art
Studio, in the Omaha
Building – an enterprise financed
by Dora, the story went.
Archie's fiancé, Avis Dargan,
sometimes came to the studio
to see Archie. The
detective reported to Dora
McDonald that Avis was
coming to see Webster.
enraged Dora confronted
Webster and the scene ended
with him dead by gunshot.
Probably the only one
surprised by that turn of
events was the dishonest
detective: Dora had remarked
to several people that she'd
kill Webster if he tried to
said he committed suicide.
Except for when
she said she'd shot him.
And the times when she said he'd
tried to kill her and was
shot accidentally when she
tried to take the gun away. For the next
twelve months she played the
role of the tragic victim,
driven "acutely insane" to
the point of eminent death
by the trauma of the
incident, while a herd of
alienists attempted to
determine her mental state.
Guiding her legally in the
early days was an attorney
who had also been on
Iroquois Theater manager's
Alfred S. Trude.
King Mike McDonald paid
Dora's $50,000 bail so she
could live comfortably at
Sherman House hotel
until her fate was decided.
awaiting trial, Mike
McDonald died and Archie
married Avis. Among
King Mike's last
instructions to his
attorneys was to use every
penny of his fortune if
necessary to save Dora's
life. Turned out those
pennies remained untouched,
along side nearly a million
dollars in his estate.
Witnesses were available for
$5 to $10 per testimony.
twenty-one-day trial began in January, 1908.
A primary witness, Archie
was raked over the coals by
Dora's attorney, "Ham"
Lewis. Archie and
other witnesses who had
appeared on the shooting
scene immediately after the
gunshot testified that Dora
was still holding the gun.
other witnesses changed
their testimony, but Archie
would not, making it
critical for the defense
to discredit him.
Though multiple witnesses
testified to having been
paid for their testimony by
the defense, Dora was
acquitted. The verdict
and inheritance cleared up
her vapers, "emotional
insanity" and weak heart
right quickly. She
lived for another
the former Iroquois usher was inspired to become an
attorney and his first job
as a solicitor was as an
employee of the colorful
attorney Lewis who had defended
his brother's accused
murderer. Not for
long, however. Archie
died in 1913 of typhoid
Discrepancies and addendum
* The steel
exterior doors on the fire escapes were frozen shut
from below-zero temperatures. Even after the
latches were unfastened, most required a heavy
shoulder to open.
second time a crayon portrait studio has come up in
Iroquois stories. Iroquois
Eva Wilcox was married to a crayon portrait
Usher Joseph Seymour
Rose Ginsberg feisty
Aurora girl escaped
Officials inspect stair
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