Poor lamp placement and
rectangular proscenium light fixtures installed
via hinges on each side of the stage were mirror-backed concave
reflectors twenty feet high and sixteen to twenty inches
across, each containing a row of thirty incandescent bulbs. The
fixtures were designed to be rotated into wall
cavities when not in use.* The Mr.
Bluebeard production called for the lights to be
used intermittently during the performance. It was
the habit of
William Carlton, Mr. Bluebeard
company stage manager, to leave
the reflector on the north side of the stage open
during acts, with the power turned
off, turning on the power when that type of stage
illumination was needed. The problem
with that method was that if either strip fixture
was left open, the act/fire curtain could not
descend. The curtain bar dropped as far as the
top of the fixture and could go no further.
That problem occurred during the opening night performance.
fire curtain hung up on one of the lamp reflectors
and "tore away a small piece." Carlton and Iroquois stage carpenter
discussed it and Cummings assigned two workers to
close the lamps after every act so the curtain could
be lowered.† On December 30, 1903, the fire
broke out soon after the opening of Act II so the
fixture on the north side was open. The one on
the south side of the stage may have been closed or
had not yet been opened for that act.
curtain vs. reflector
Seconds after the fire broke out stage workers and
performers began shouting, "Bring down the fire
So John Dougherty
With flaming scenery behind and above,
workers, three on the stage floor and Dougherty in
the loft, valiantly attempted to lower the fire
curtain so as to contain the blaze to the stage and
prevent it from moving out into the auditorium.
The curtain descended properly on the south side of
the proscenium opening but on the north side was
hung up about twenty feet from the floor. The
heavy bar at the bottom of the fire curtain weighed
down the light fixture, was perhaps wedged between
the fixture and the proscenium wall, and the men
could not rotate it out of the way and back into its
recessed cavity on the inner side of the proscenium
wall. The simple three-step solution required
Dougherty raising the curtain beyond the height of
the lamp, the men on the floor closing the lamp,
then Dougherty re-lowering the curtain. That
solution was not recognized, however, because
Dougherty could not see that the strip lamp was what
was causing the curtain to hang up and the men on
the stage could not communicate with him because
they couldn't hear one another's shouts.
Dougherty's view of the problem was obscured by
other drops and thick black smoke, and communication
between he and the men on the stage floor had to
compete with roughly two thousand people shouting,
screaming and evacuating the theater. What
happened instead was that Dougherty raised and
lowered the curtain several times, but was out of
sync with the actions of the men on the floor.
They were frantically climbing a ladder in an effort
to raise the curtain bar but could not get close
enough to the bar to leverage it off the top of the
Fred Shott removed a hinge
pin from the light fixture in an effort to take the reflector/plank off the wall but
that did not solve the problem, probably because
there were other pins higher up, beyond their reach.
The pin removal may even have further impeded
rotation if it resulted in misalignment in the
By the time workers realized
the curtain could not be forced free from the lamp,
the rigging loft was engulfed in
flames and all four fled the theater. John's initial remarks
to investigators indicated that as
he fled the theater he did not know the
light fixture was responsible for the curtain failing to
drop but upon hearing the experiences of the men on
the stage floor, he confirmed that the
reflector had caused a problem in the past and that
it would have explained behavior of the curtain the day of the
John Dougherty (1857-1909)‡
Forty-six-year-old Dougherty tried to do the right
thing, for it suffering a broken leg and burns that kept
him in the hospital six days after the fire.
He was a hero but was never recognized as one.
Had the fire curtain come down, fewer lives would
have been lost and Dougherty was the man wielding
the ropes for that curtain so the implication in
newspapers was that he was incompetent.
was a sub
Though a substitute
for either a rig employee nicknamed Mr. Halt or rig
supervisor Fred "Slim" Seymour, Dougherty
was not inexperienced or a fool; rig boss Slim Seymour described
his most experienced man. So why was Slim's
best rigger a part timer? Iron probably paid
more, even if work was slow in the winter, but I
suspect Dougherty may have been proud of being an
iron worker. It was the occupation he reported
on the U.S. Census, in city directories and that his
family reported in his funeral notice. A
six-line obituary notice that did not include the
names of his surviving family members but stated
that he had been a member of the Bridge and
Structural Iron Workers Union Local No. 1 (prior to
named the Bridge and Construction Men's Union).
That suggests his family or people who cared about
him knew that being an iron worker was important to
him. So he worked as a rigger often enough and
performed well enough to earn Slim's respect but
wouldn't go to work for the theater full time.
John escaped from the stage onto the western-most
fire escape. The last rung of stairs on that
escape was frozen and initially could not be
lowered. John jumped 10-15 feet to the Couch
Place alley floor where he was helped by a fellow
Alexander Johnston/Johnson. He was taken
to Passavant Hospital for treatment of burns and a
broken leg but was out and able to testify in the
coroner's inquest on January 7, 1904.
When his time came,
John may have been ready
John F. Dougherty
lived at 136 S. Peoria St. with his wife, Cecelia Rosanna
"Rose" Grist Dougherty, and brother, James "Jack" Dougherty.
His sixteen-year-old daughter Mary Grist
Dougherty had lived there too until her death eighteen months earlier.
She was the last surviving child of seven Rose gave
birth to and in May, 1904, five months
after the Iroquois fire, Rose followed her seven
children to the grave.
Dougherty: spitting on floor
Just which curtain snagged on the way down?
The preceding discussion presumes that a curtain
with life-saving capacities malfunctioned, but was
that actually the case?
Since the fire curtain was lowered
between every act, it should have been very familiar to
stage workers, but there was
disagreement about its appearance. Some said the
back side was off-white in color; others said it was
green. The work stations of some stage workers
on bridges high above the stage might have limited
their observation sufficiently to limit the accuracy
of their testimony.
There was even more disparity in
Some witnesses said
the curtain was green, some said red. Some said it was plain,
others that it was decorated with a painted scene.
A promotional booklet distributed at the Iroquois
premier described the fire curtain as featuring a
painted scene so that is most probable. Some audience members, as well as orchestra musician A. C. Brown, reported
multiple attempts to lower the curtain. Brown testified
that a curtain
first snagged about six feet from the floor and on a
second lowering that it snagged about
fourteen feet from the floor. (How did it drop so much
lower the first time if the lamp was the obstacle?
The height of the lamp did not/could not change.) Some
audience members testified that the curtain made it
all the way down but burned up; others testified
that it hung up on one side, then burned.
Bargain Basement curtain?
The curtain purchased for the Iroquois Theater, made
of canvas impregnated with asbestos and wood pulp,
was manufactured by the C. W. Trainer Company of
Boston. Contrary to newspaper headlines, it was not
at the bottom of Trainer's product line.
Theaters throughout the world were equipped with
similar fire curtains, all subject to the
same endurance limitations.
According to Factory Mutual's insurance engineer,
John Ripley Freeman (a fire expert for decades prior
to the Iroquois fire), there was a false sense of
safety relative to asbestos fire curtains. He
demonstrated that without roof venting or
sprinklers, none of the canvas asbestos curtains on
the market would have withstood the temperature of
the fire on the Iroquois stage (estimated at 1,650º
F) for longer than three to four minutes. With
help from U.L. Labs, he tested
scraps of the Iroquois curtain with samples of
dozens of variously priced and configured fire
curtains from around the world. The
even if the curtain had been interwoven with steel
wire and had descended properly, without
sprinklers or venting, it would have been
incinerated within minutes after descent.
(Thinking that if I lost a loved one at the
Iroquois, my response to that report would be, "But
how many dozens or hundreds more could have escaped
during those minutes?"
So how long did it customarily take to empty a
theater in Chicago in 1903? A surprisingly
short time. Four minutes,
according to a fellow researcher of John Freeman's.
Of course that is supposing doors are not fastened
with confusing latches, that ushers don't interfere, that
people are not floundering in darkness, that fire
escape doors aren't obstacles, that skirt hems don't sweep the
floors, that balcony floors aren't absurdly raked
that the audience isn't urged to remain in their seats.
John was one of
eighteen flymen working in
the loft at the Iroquois. His
brother, James "Jack' Dougherty also worked
on the stage.
“As a flyman, I
was at my post in the loft when the fire
broke out. The blaze started on the
opposite side of the stage, but it
seemed to cover the entire loft almost
instantly. With the help of others I
tried to pull down the asbestos curtain.
I think it dropped about two thirds of
the way and there it stuck. With our
combined efforts we could
not budge it another inch. Anyone who
knows anything about theater curtains
must know that they drop much easier
than they go up. It was secured by steel
cables, but a manila cable an inch and a
half thick was used for raising and
lowering it. This passed through pulleys
above and below and was operated by
“I cannot tell you how long we worked at
the curtain. It all happened so quickly,
and one takes no account of time in such
emergencies. After abandoning the
curtain I had to run for my life to one
of the fire escapes in the alley. I
jumped twenty feet to the ground to save
myself from being crushed by others who
were jumping from above. It was there
that I broke my leg. I did not realize I
was badly burned until I got away."
The day of the fire
wasn't Dougherty's first experience with
operating the fire curtain, or with
fires in that theater.
charge of the curtain," said Dougherty,
"and two weeks before the big fire there
was a blaze. It was slight and was put
out at once, but it was sufficient to
cause an alarm and a call for the
The curtain started
down, and it caught after coming about
fifteen to twenty feet above the stage,
the same as it did the day of the big
fire. It fell the same distance on both
Disaster moved faster than a
During the coroner's inquest, a story
appeared in newspapers outside Chicago that included more of Dougherty's actions on Dec 30 than
had the Chicago newspapers immediately after the
fire. Rather amazing to realize that at the
moment Dougherty ran to lower the fire curtain, the
fire was small enough that Dougherty did not see it.
Discrepancies and addendum
* There was also a jerry-rigged
five-foot long wood plank involved in some way as a support
or stabilizer for the fixture. Unfortunately trial
testimony did not elaborate on that plank or its
† There was
conflicting testimony. Some stage workers
Carlton as the man responsible for assigning a
close the strip lamps, usually choosing his
but house stage workers at the Iroquois were
critical because the assignment was ad hoc and the
task done hit or miss, which means that sometimes
the curtain hung on on the way down, probably
eliciting a titter from the audience.
‡ In initial
newspaper reports Dougherty was identified as Joe,
Joseph or John, with E. or T. as his middle initial,
and the last name spelled as Daugherty or Dougherty,
and referencing a brother named Jack as also working
at the Iroquois.
During the coroner's inquest his address was
reported and from that I was able to identify that
John F. Dougherty was the primary rigger involved
with the fire curtain, nicknamed Joe, and his
brother, James Dougherty, who also worked on the
stage, was nicknamed Jack.