Josephine Munholland, "Joe" and "Josie" to friends, taught
kindergarten at the Jackson School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.* For
the Christmas holidays in 1903 she traveled first to Rockford,
Illinois where she spent Christmas with George and Blanche Peck, then went on to Chicago to visit friends
there. Her first stop in Chicago was with Fred McFarland his
wife. On Wednesday, December 30, she and Mrs. McFarland planned
to attend an afternoon matinee of
Mr. Bluebeard at Chicago's newest luxury playhouse, the
Iroquois Theater. The McFarland's daughter, Gladys, felt poorly
and Mrs. McFarland didn't want to leave her alone so Joe went on
by herself. Her plan was to then go to Clark and "Addie"
Griffith's home for dinner and to spend the night.
Soon into the second act a fire broke out on stage that quickly
spread to the auditorium, killing over six hundred people.
Josephine was among them.
the daughter of Irish immigrants, the widow
Catherine "Cate" Gibbon Munholland
(1833-1918) and the late
Robert Munholland (c1835-1887), a civil war veteran.† She and her
four siblings grew up in Bloomington, Illinois where
she graduated from high school in 1882.
Her sister Kate died the following year, the same
year Josephine was elected as an officer in the
National Ladies Aid Society, associated with the
Grand Army of the Republic. She would later
participate in another organization connected with
the G.A.R., the Women's Relief Corps. (Her
brother, Thomas Munholland, shared her commitment
and until relocating to California at the close of
the 1800s was active in the Cedar Rapids, IA
Josie moved to
Cedar Rapids, about three hours northwest of
Bloomington, around 1898, first working as superintendent
of the Universalist Church school, then becoming a
public school teacher, assigned to the Jackson
school on Fourth St. In 1903 she lived at 615 West Ninth
Street or at 865 Fifth Street or at 1031 Second. All
three addresses were
When Josephine did not arrive
for dinner at the Griffiths, they contacted the
McFarlands. By then news of the fire was
quickly spreading through Chicago by word of mouth and the McFarlands and Griffiths began
searching Chicago hospitals and morgues. The
search went on for days before finding Josephine's
body at Rolston's funeral home. She was
officially identified by Clark Griffith.
as the Old Fox,
Clark C. Griffith (1869-1955) became a fixture
in baseball history as a pitcher, manager and owner.
He and Anne "Addie" Robertson (1876-1957) had
married in 1900. Prior to her marriage to
Clark Griffith, Addie attended social outings in
Cedar Rapids with the McFarlanes, Pecks and
Munhollands, including Josephine and her brothers.
Clark was a pall bearer at Josephine's funeral,
along with her brother-in-law, Charles Stephenson,
and friend, George Peck.
Some newspapers reported that
Josephine's sister, May Gibbons Munholland
Stephenson, and her husband, Charles Stephenson,
clerk in the Chicago & Alton Railway trainmaster's office,
traveled to Chicago to accompany Josephine's body to
Bloomington. Newspapers also
reported that May was unable to attend her sister's
funeral due to her three children being ill. (They
were Warren, Robert and Catherine, aged seven, four
and 6 mos.)
White lie to a grieving
mother, the widow Cate Munholland, did not see her
daughter's body but reportedly spoke with the
physician who examined the body and was told that
her daughter's death was instantaneous from gasses.
The undertaker, John A.
Beck of Bloomington, persuaded Cate not to view the
horrific remains of her daughter's burned and
mutilated body. That fits with reports of the McFarlands and
Griffiths having conducted a long search for
Josephine's body.‡ They likely visited most or all the hospitals and morgues more
than once yet failed to recognize Josephine's body
because it was damaged beyond recognition. Cate Munholland
was not the only grieving parent to be told
that her loved one died instantly and without pain.
Of those found nearly untouched by fire or trampling it
was probably true. Such was not the case for
Josephine's funeral service
was conducted by reverend John A. Mueller, personal
friend and pastor of the Unitarian Church at
East and Jefferson Streets in Bloomington she had
attended as a young woman. Mueller closed the
service with a description of Josephine's cheerful
nature, capacity for hard work and positive
influence on young people in the church and at
school. Josephine's brothers, Thomas
Munholland (1861-1921)§ and John Munholland
were businessmen in Los Angeles and Long Beach,
California. Distance prevented their
attendance at their sister's funeral.
In the years after the
In the odd coincidences
department Josephine's sister and her husband, May
and Charles Stephenson, ended up in Elkhart,
Indiana, my hometown, and both are buried here in
Rice Cemetery. On the other side of town, in
Will J. Davis is buried, manager of the Iroquois
Theater and the man most responsible for the
Iroquois disaster that took her sister's life.
She would have if she could have
Who could have witnessed and told the
family about the heroism in the newspaper clipping? Who stood outside the theater
and watched Josephine push through throngs of hysterical people
running and pushing in the opposite direction, massed so at the
foyer doors that they fell, became entangled and had to be picked up and
helped along by passersby, then persuading police
guards to let her back inside as the fire petered out and
smoke belched from the auditorium?
Josephine's best Chicago friends, the McFarlands
and Griffiths, were not at the theater that afternoon so it was
not them. The summer before the fire Josephine and a Chicago
woman named Jennie Liddle (possibly related to John T. Liddle of
Cedar Rapids, IA), had planned to travel to Canada, Boston,
Baltimore and Philadelphia. There was no report of a
person named Liddle in connection with the Iroquois fire.
suspicion is that no one witnessed Josephine's Iroquois heroism
because it did not happen. The condition of her body makes
it a near certainty that she sat or stood in the balcony or the
gallery. If she was with friends, they could have
witnessed her turning back to help children up off the floor,
for example, then lost track of her in their struggle to escape
from the auditorium. That is a reasonable scenario but despite
lengthy stories about her death and funeral in newspapers in Bloomington, IL and Cedar Rapids, IA, no companions were mentioned.
Would a reporter fail to offer the story above without at least
a passing credit, if he had one, i.e., "according to friends.."
More probable is that a remark from one party to another along
the lines, "She would have..." several tellings later
"She did.." and when it reached the newspaper they ran it,
possibly suspecting it was more rumor than fact – ergo it's
brevity and page
five position in the paper – knowing it
would soothe Josephine's family and friends.
In Cedar Rapids where Josephine taught
school, with its 1900 population of around 25k, or in Bloomington,
IL, where she'd grown up, with around 23k citizens, it was
probably easy to imagine someone recognizing Josephine at the
theater. In Chicago, however, with roughly 1.6 million people,
where Josephine had visited a few times in a decade, a chance
recognition was slim to none. True, there were Chicago public
school teachers at the matinee, one of whom may have been
acquainted with Josephine - but few
lived to tell the story of a brave Iowa kindergarten teacher. The chance
is slim that one of those who survived, or
someone else, saw and recognized Josephine Munholland at the
Iroquois then watched her bring
children from the theater and return for more, then described it
to someone who in turn told it to someone so that the story got
back to her mother.
It is probably a tribute to Josephine that she
was viewed by those who knew her as someone too vibrant,
determined and courageous to have lost her life quietly. In life she'd stood far out from the crowd so
must have done so in death as well. In reading newspaper clippings of her life
prior to the fire I saw glimpses of a person
who if able would have gone back into the burning theater to
save others. In an era in which women were expected to be
demure Josephine traveled, chaired committees, hosted social
events, judged fine art at the county fair, had many friends,
performed in literary recitals and songs at parties and in
amateur theater, and her performance as a kindergarten teacher
helped motivate Cedar Rapids to make kindergarten an established
part of the curriculum.
Discrepancies and addendum
* Josephine's name on several
death lists was misspelled as Mulholland rather than
Munholland. Some newspapers incorrectly
reported that she was a school principal. Many
death lists reported her age as thirty-three rather
† Robert Munholland was
reportedly was one of the early volunteers in the
Fifth Illinois Calvary but a fall from his horse
resulted in his hospitalization at Camp Butler in
Springfield, IL. His performance there during
a smallpox outbreak there resulted in Illinois
governor Yates appointing him Hospital Steward, a
position giving him control of supplies. His
wife and sons were able to join him in Springfield
for the next three years, during which time he added
daughter Josephine to his family. Soon after
the war he relocated the family to Bloomington, IL
and founded a steam dying firm.
‡ One report said they
searched for six days but newspapers reported
identification of her body on Jan 1, 1904, two days
after the fire.
§ Thomas Munholland joined
his father in the dye business.
Beyer family of 3 Iroquois Theater
Second unidentified woman
Harry Powers Iroquois Theater co-manager
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