Died of shock and
horror eighteen months after the fire.
Twenty-five-year-old Julia Mathlida Berger (b.1880)
escaped from the Iroquois Theater without serious
burns but died eighteen months later. Her family
said that immediately after the fire she developed a
throat infection and became an invalid with insomnia
who lost her passion for painting miniatures. She
died in her sleep in July 1905.
Respiratory complications are a primary cause of
death for burn victims, with a long list of
possibilities, including bacterial pneumonia,
pulmonary edema, arterial obstructions, carbon
monoxide poisoning or direct injury from inhaling
heat and smoke. Breathing problems could also have
caused insomnia and reduced enthusiasm for painting.
Sitting hunched over a table to paint would have
restricted her diaphragm and made breathing even
more difficult. Just sitting erect might have taxed
her strength greatly.
Julia’s doctor and parents, however, attributed her
death to nervous shock and horror at her experiences
at the Iroquois. The limited remarks included in her
death notices said only that she and her friend,
fellow 1901 Chicago Art Institute graduate Ada B.
Lake, overcame an usher’s attempt to prevent their
escape. Having read accounts from dozens of Iroquois
survivors, I wondered what made Julia’s experiences
at the Iroquois so much worse as to lead her family
to attribute her death to nervous shock. Was she a
Victorian victim of PTSD?
Despite hours of web tromping I failed to learn
anything more about Julia’s experience at the fire
but turned up information about her life that helps
explain why her anxiety level may have been already
at a high level when she walked in the door at the
Iroquois. Raised in privilege and wealth, her life
was turned upside down by the actions of people she
cared about and depended upon to protect her. Julia
was rebuilding her life to accommodate changed
circumstances but lost someone important to her a
few months before the fire. Respiratory problems and
weakness resulting from the fire may have been the
final straw, destroying her resolve and resulting in
a hopeless outlook noted by her family.
In the seven years leading up to the fire, the
scandal and financial ruin of her grandfather and
father dramatically impacted Julia’s world. It began in 1896 with the forced
closure of her George Schneider's bank, the largest bank
failure in the nation’s history at that time, amidst
dramatic headlines, bank runs and the suicides of
two other implicated bankers. Disheartened by the
experience, her grandfather
withdrew from society. That represented a major
change for an influential man who had been a
publisher, political organizer, foreign diplomat and
valued campaigner for Abraham Lincoln.*
Schneider was an important figure in Julia’s life.
At her death, she was described as one of George’s
favorite granddaughters. With his background in
printing and her love of illustration, they likely
shared an appreciation for graphic arts. When she
began attending the Art Institute, he may have felt
a personal connection to her education. George was
on the printing committee for the 1893 Columbian
Exposition, for which the Art Institute structure
was built, and he served as a trustee for the Art
Institute during Julia’s years there.
It is possible George paid
for Julia's classes at the art center, given her
financial and legal troubles. Robert Berger was
also caught up in the 1896
banking collapse and scandals.** He was
convicted of embezzling and served a one year prison
sentence. Upon his release, he filed for bankruptcy
with $2 million in liabilities. The family was
forced to give up
their home at 439 N State St. and move to a Roslyn
Seeing George Schneider's humiliation
over the bank failure must have been difficult for
his entire family and his death just months before
the Iroquois fire would have been especially painful
for his favorite grandchild.
Schneider had first settled in St. Louis but came to
Chicago in 1851 to publish the Illinois Staats-Zeitung German newspaper. In 1853, he married
Matilda Schloetzer with whom he had seven daughters,
including Julia's mother.
Schneider was a delegate to the first Republican
National Convention in 1856. As a reward for his
efforts on behalf of the party and the Union cause,
Abraham Lincoln appointed him to Denmark as a
diplomat and Schneider carried the Union's message
to Europe. He sold his newspaper interests in 1862
to become president of the State Savings bank, and
in 1871 became president of the National Bank of
Illinois, 115 Dearborn St., Chicago. For the next
years, the bank would be the foundation of his power
and reputation in Chicago, becoming the second
strongest bank in the city.
1896 action of the Clearing House Association
(commercial banking organization) set off a chain
reaction of bank closings that included bank runs
with depositors lined up on the streets to demand
return of their deposits. The action that triggered
the panic was the Clearing House suspending
National’s membership, thereby forcing it to close.
The story that eventually emerged was that though
National held sufficient assets to satisfy legal
requirements, it was guilty of risky loan practices
and deliberately misleading bank examiners. National
had granted a $2.4 million loan to a newish south
Chicago transportation company, Calumet Electric
Street Railway (CESR). CESR was involved in a bitter
competition with an older streetcar company, Chicago
City Railway (CCR). CCR privately notified the
comptroller of the currency that CESR had overstated
its assets to National. The comptroller did some
investigation and notified National’s directors that
the bank’s exposure and procedures were troublesome.
National’s directors trusted Schneider and did not
take action so the comptroller called the situation
to the attention of the Clearing House. Upon
investigation, the Clearing House discovered the
$2.4 million loan was uncollateralized. When an
additional $900,000 loan to CESR was found hiding in
an account labeled as foreign currency, and other
improprieties were found in the books at E. S.
Dreyer & Co, the bank where George’s son in law was
a partner, the Clearing House forced National’s
closure. The abrupt closure denied the bank the
opportunity to liquidate more quietly and, happily
for competitor CCR, called CESR’s fiscal stability
into question. George Schneider liquidated his
personal assets to raise $200,000 to bring
National’s assets to a level that covered 75% of
depositor’s funds. In so doing he avoided criminal
prosecution but was broken spirited and withdrew
from activity in Chicago, spending the last few
years of his life in Kansas and Colorado
* George Schneider (1823-1903) was born to a middle
class family in the Rhineland-Palatinate area of
Germany. He became a journalist and a revolutionary,
fighting Prussian repression. To escape capture he
immigrated to the United States in 1849 and was soon
active in the Forty-Eighters, a group of immigrants
from failed 1848 European rebellions. In America,
they reorganized to oppose slavery and strengthen
the Republican party.
** Julie was the oldest of four children born to
Robert Berger (1850-1829) and Clara Berger (b.
1857-1927). Clara was the oldest of George
Schneider’s seven daughters. Berger was a partner in
E. S. Dreyer & Co, a bank founded by Edward S.
Dreyer, located at Dearborn and Washington. Berger
and Dreyer defied accounting and banking ethics and
protocols to move deposits around in a convoluted
snarl of transactions geared to cover shortages.
When the music stopped and their procedures were
examined, both men went to jail in Joliet, IL.
Berger went quietly and quickly; Dreyer delayed and
appealed. Also in Joliet were two other bankers
caught in the 1896 Chicago banking scandals. Dreyer
reported the bank’s assets were $1.5 million and
liabilities $1.35. Dreyer was represented by Levy
Mayer who in another few years would be busy
representing Iroquois Theater defendants.