Three friends from La Porte,
Indiana, a town about seventy-five miles southeast of Chicago,
took a train into the city on December 30, 1903 to
attend a matinee performance of Mr. Bluebeard
at Chicago's newest luxury playhouse, the Iroquois
Theater. Only one came home. The other
two perished in the worst theater fire in America's
history, claiming the lives of over six hundred
Forty-year-old Ella Wachs
and forty-one-year-old Susie Lefmann perished;
twenty-five-year-old Nettie Mae Dickhut survived –
though reports of her death at the Iroquois
would continue for several years after the fire and are
sometimes reported by contemporary history
enthusiasts who come across the early erroneous
reports of her death at the Iroquois.
See map below showing other LaPorte
County people involved in the Iroquois Theater fire.
Nettie / Nellie Mae Dickhut Lawless (1879-1961)
Nettie, who went by her middle name, Mae, was a self employed milliner from Quincy,
Illinois where she lived with her brother and
sister. She was an Illinois native and, like Ella Wachs, the daughter of German immigrants. John
Dickhut and Eleanor “Nellie” Sibilla Booth Dickhut
had six children, of which Mae was the oldest. Eight
years after the fire she married a widow, Charles C.
Lawless (1873-1949), father of two children. Mae and
Charles then had two children of their own. She is buried
along side her husband at the Quincy Memorial Park
in Quincy. Nothing is known about Mae’s escape from
the Iroquois theater. Her friendship with Wachs and
Lefmann originated from 1896 when she had worked as
a milliner for Susy Lefmann's father, Charles Lefmann.
The Lefmann department store included a millinery
Susie B. Woods Lefmann (b. 1868)
Susie married Charles F. Lefmann (1861-1919) in 1884. I did
not find evidence that they had children. Charles
was an alderman in La Porte, and a prosperous
businessman. He and a brother, coffee
importer/distributor of St. Louis, Julius Lefmann,
had interests in the Summit Hill Mining Company in
Taviche, Mexico. Both Susie and
Charles were born in Missouri. Her parents were from
Kentucky and Virginia; his from Germany. Susie
was buried in the Pine Lake Cemetery in La Porte
following a private funeral at the Christian Church,
conducted by Rev. George Hicks.
Ella Flentye Wachs (b. 1863)
Ella was married to Casper A. Wachs (1862-1945).
She was an Indiana native. Ella and her husband may
have been estranged in 1900; though still married,
he was living with his brother’s family in Penn,
Indiana. After Ella’s death, he remarried and moved
to Gary, Indiana where he worked in a steel mill. By
1930 he was widowed again and living with his
sister’s family and raising chickens for a living.
Ella’s body was identified by her brother, Frank
Flentye (b. 1878). Funeral services were conducted
at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in La Porte, IN by
Rev. Father Messman.
An Indiana native, Ella was the daughter of
Christopher Christ / Chris Flentye (1834-1929), an
engineer, and Abigail “Abba” Usselman Flentye
(1840-1907).* When Ella’s jewelry went missing after
the fire, her father took on the Chicago police
department (see story below).
Ella Wachs jewelry. Christ Flentye versus Chicago police department.
Various early February, 1904 newspapers reported
that Chris Flentye, Ella’s father, gave evidence
against officer William Gibbons. Flentye said that
when his daughter’s body was received at Buffum's
Undertaking, her jewelry was removed and
placed in an envelope that was numbered to
correspond with her body. When the envelope reached
police headquarters, however, the number and
contents were missing. Officer Gibbons’ explanation
was that the envelope was rifled when he put It
down to wash his hands. The stolen valuables
consisted of one ring, set with three diamonds;
earrings, with opal and diamond settings; an enamel
watch and one Marquise ring with diamond center
surrounded with pearls.
February 11, 1904, La Porte Herald newspaper's
report tried and convicted Gibbons, with
only a portion of the evidence.
"Mr. Flentye accepted $500 in cash [another
newspaper reported the amount was $800] and signed an
agreement whereby he would redeem the gems should
the jewelry be recovered and restored to him within a year.
"Probably no stranger story has ever been written
here than the detailing of the disappearance of the
gems, the activity with which the police sought a
settlement of the matter and the willingness with
which they paid $500 for jewelry on which Mr.
Flentye placed a value of $400.
"It may be an old story to the Chicago police, and
it indicates, as previously told in The Herald,
undoubtedly a systematic organization among the
police to rob people. This charge has been made time
and again in some of the Chicago papers, but if an
investigation is started the dust is thrown in
somebody's eyes and then the matter is dropped.
Undoubtedly there were scores and probably hundreds
of instances where jewelry belonging to persons who
were killed or injured in the fire that disappeared
and in most cases the owners or the relatives
dropped the matter.
"Mr. Flentye was of a different make-up. He had some
proof of the fact that a policeman last had the
jewelry and he pushed the case to a point where it
was apparent that somebody was going to prison. In
order to save the man, Mr. Flentye was asked to
place a figure on the valuables, the negotiations
being handled direct by the captain in charge of the
Central police station. This the La Porte man
refused to do upon his visit to Chicago week before
last, at that time giving the police another week in
which to recover the jewelry or suffer the
consequences. When the time was up Mr. Flentye went
to Chicago, but in the meantime he had concluded to
accept a cash settlement, with the understanding
that efforts to find the valuables should be
continued and that in the event of their recovery he
would redeem the gems. Although the jewelry was in
the possession of Officer Gibbons when it
disappeared, Mr. Flentye had no dealings with him,
all the negotiations being with the captain of the
station, a very significant fact. After a few
minutes' conversation and a statement from Mr.
Flentye as to what he would do, the captain offered
the La Portean $500, which was acceptable, whereupon
the officer opened a drawer in his desk and pulling
out five $100 bills handed them to Mr. Flentye. The
latter signed the agreement, which the captain had
his stenographer draw up at the direction of the La
Portean, and then the captain expressed his thanks
for the amicable adjustment of the case.
"The captain then called in Officer Gibbons and said:
‘Officer Gibbons, thank Mr. Flentye for what he has
done for you.’ The policeman stepped up to the La
Portean and said, ‘I thank you very much for what
you have done for me. I appreciate the fact that the
jewelry was in my care and that it was up to me to
produce or make good. I shall always remember your
kindness.’ Mr. Flentye then left, stating Mr. Flentye
did not want money but the gems which were keepsakes
of his daughter, but it became apparent to him that
the police could not or would not produce the
jewelry and so he thought it best, after due
reflection, to accept the offer that was made. The
supposition is that the gems were pawned and
afterward could not be traced.”
Ocean newspaper revealed information
LaPorte newspaper omitted - including
testimony from Flentye and claimant of the
other misplaced envelope, that they had
observed Gibbons washing his hands and
looking for the missing valuables.
LaPorte newspaper story tried and
convicted Gibbons, I
found nothing else prior to this
accusation to impugn
Gibbon's character or reputation on the
police force. In 1908 there were
three complaints published. An ill
woman at a restaurant accused he and
another officer of having spoken to her
impolitely, he received a two-day
suspension along with sixty-one other
officers for carrying a non-regulation
revolver and he was accused of punching
a drunk. Seems to me that a dirty
cop would attract more complaints in
Gibbons was the husband of Mary Tank Gibbons and
father of three daughters, one of them a
year old at the time of the fire.
Nellie Gibbons Hoffarth (pictured below),
had died the
prior January when murdered by her
estranged husband. At that time it
was said that William had a problem with
her husband for the way he treated
Nellie but since the man shot her three
times as she bent over their infant
child, 'sounds like Gibbons had good
cause for concern.
the Central police station, William
Gibbons was the officer at the scene of
the Iroquois Theater fire who was
credited with having sent another
policeman to get all the medical
emergency workers available.
Gibbons had fought under Generals Custer
and Miles in the west before locating in
Chicago and joining the police force
where he served twenty-three years.
At the time of his death only one of his
four daughters survived.
Other LaPorte County
people involved in the Iroquois Theater fire
Joseph D. Norris
Discrepancies and addendum
There was another Flentye at the Iroquois fire but I
have not found evidence that the families were
Walter Flentye, from a wealthy Glenview
family, testified at the coroner’s trial.
Nurse Sadie Cook
Payson and Bickford
cousins Iroquois victims
Ella Linden and Rosamond
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