rectangular proscenium light fixtures installed
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
lights were hinged and when not in use could be
folded back to fit into wall cavities. (See
illustration) There was also a jerry-rigged
five-foot wood plank involved in some way as a support
for the lamp. The Mr.
Bluebeard production called for the lights to be
used several times 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
throughout the performance, with the power turned
off, turning on the power when that type of
illumination was needed on the stage.
During the opening night performance the
fire curtain hung up on one of the lamp reflectors
and/or the wood plank. Carlton addressed the problem
with Iroquois stage carpenter
who assigned two workers to close the lamps after
every act so the curtain could be lowered.*
others indicated it was commonly known the curtain
could not be lowered if the lamp reflector was left
Snarl With flaming scenery behind and above, five stage
workers valiantly attempted to free the curtain from
the lamp obstacle, without success. The weight bar
at the bottom of the curtain was too thick and too
far beyond their reach. The workers climbed
step ladders and tried to reach it from the bridge,
but they could not get close enough and did not have
sufficient leverage to muscle the curtain away from
and past the obstacle.
Conversely, with the curtain resting on top, the
reflector could not be folded back into the wall recess.
Assistant flyman Fred Shott helped removed a hinge
pin in an effort to take the reflector/plank off the wall but
that did not solve the problem, possibly because
there was another hinge higher up on the wall.
three-step solution would have required first raising the curtain
beyond the height of the reflector/plank, closing the reflector, then lowering the
curtain again. By the time workers realized
the curtain could not be forced free from the lamp,
however, the rigging loft was fully engulfed in
flames and Joe Daugherty was forced to leave the
bridge. If two men had worked in concert, the
most suicidal one could have run through flames to
locate the fire curtain ropes and raise the curtain
a few feet, then stood waiting in flames while the other
fellow closed the lamp reflector, then re-lowered
the curtain. This Superman would not have needed to
bother climbing down from the loft because he'd have
then died as that was
the entire multi-ton rigging loft crashed to the
it happened, one man did engage in some heroic
measures, suffering a broken leg and burns that kept
him in the hospital six days after the fire.
That man was Joe Dougherty (or John, or Daugherty), a substitute for the regular curtain man
(a fellow reportedly named Mr. Halt - though it
seems oddly coincidental that William McMullen, the
arc light operator, was nicknamed Holt). See Joe's testimony
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 Mutuals 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 aren't advised to remain in their seats.
Joe was one of
eighteen flymen working in
the loft at the Iroquois. His
brother, John F. Daugherty 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 Daugherty's first experience with
operating the fire curtain, or with
fires in that theater.
charge of the curtain," said Daugherty,
"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
Discrepancies and addendum
* There was
conflicting testimony. In other reports
Carlton was responsible for assigning someone to
close the strip lamps, usually choosing his
William Plunkett, but house stage
workers at the Iroquois were critical because the
task wasn't handled reliably.
Caged in a deathtrap
6 Evanston Illinois
teenage girls escaped from Iroquois Theater
Costumes escaped Iroquois Theater fire
Cornell student Howard
Williams son of an ice king
If you have additional
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