William Bray hit upon the perfect Christmas gift for
his eleven-year-old daughter: a trip to the
theater in the big city of Chicago. As a
clerk, William's wages were modest but as a clerk at the Michigan Central Railroad he knew
how to get the best fare available. Bringing
joy to Harriet probably had particular significance
that year. Her mother and his wife of nineteen years,
Emma Boeckling Bray (1860-1904), had suffered with
tuberculosis for two years (and would lose
her battle with the disease three weeks later).
Putting a smile on Harriet's face meant putting one
on Emma's face too, a gift that couldn't be put
beneath the Christmas tree. In the years after his wife's death he
may have gotten a bit of solace from having been
able to save Harriet from the Iroquois fire though
he'd been unable to save Emma from tuberculosis.
William purchased seats in
the second or fifth row of the balcony on the second
floor, probably on
the north side of the auditorium. The pair escaped
through a window or door out onto fire escape steps.
The last leg of the iron fire escape steps could not
be loosened for lowering so her father jumped twelve
feet to the alley floor and Harriet jumped into his
arms.* Her hair and clothing were singed but
they were safe. She crawled beneath the legs
of fire horses as they hurriedly left Couch Place
alley and made their way to Dearborn street.
From there they probably went to Central Station to
find an east-bound train.
In the first day after the
fire it was mistakenly reported that Gertrude Lutz
and her parents, John and Harriet Beyea Lutz, also
escaped from the theater.
The Lutz family was
also from Michigan City, Harriet was the same age as
Gertrude Lutz and the families lived around the
corner from one another. Gertrude and Harriet
may have been neighborhood playmates and
schoolmates. A few years ago, however, LaPorte
Fern Schultz, reported that the Lutz family made
the trip to Chicago with the intention of attending
the Mr. Bluebeard matinee but for some reason
did not make it to the theater. I cannot
verify that with online sources but as the
historical archivist there, Schultz has access to
local newspapers not yet online.
The Brays lived at 702 Franklin in Michigan City, in
the house where Emma had grown up with her sister Hattie,
Harriet's namesake. In the mid 1890s Emma's
uncle, Frank and William's
father, William A. Bray Sr., were partners in a Michigan City furniture
store, Bray and Boeckling, at nearby 708 Franklin
St. It is likely that Harriet Bray attended
Elston Elementary on Pine & 4th.
William Bray (1854-1930) worked as a clerk for the
Michigan Central Railroad. (Inaccurate character
recognition for 1900 U.S. Census records reports he was an
In the years after the fire
Harriet Bray (1891-1978) would grow up to raise five
children and bury two husbands. With Norman Manny
(1889-1917) she had Mary Jane Manny and William
Four years after Norman's death she married Harry Crumpacker (1881-1969), a widow with three
– Helen Crumpacker, John Crumpacker and Marjorie
Crumpacker. A graduate of the University
of Michigan law school, Harry Crumpacker was an
judge in LaPorte county.
A year after Emma's death, William Bray
remarried. He and Francis E. Stalker Bray (1869-1926) bought a home in Gary, Indiana. He
continued working for the railroad as a timekeeper.
At her death he returned to Michigan City.
When his end came, Harriet was there to plan his
funeral, having spent her entire life in
I wonder if the deaths of
her husbands and father reminded Harriet of those
roller coaster feelings of her twelfth year.
One moment she'd been happy to be sharing time with
her father, amazed at Chicago's large buildings and
busy streets, awed by the large theater and
thousands of prettily dressed people, the music,
costumes and dancers flying through the air.
Her joy suddenly replaced by terror, surrounded by
screaming women and children, the horrific sounds
and sight of people jumping and falling to the alley
floor, crashing onto a layer of mangled bodies.
Relief at realizing they were safe, maybe too tense
to sleep on the train ride home. Eagerly telling
Emma of their experience, reading newspaper stories
about the fire in the days after, as her mother faded away, helping her
father plan her mother's funeral, seeing his grief,
feeling her own. A lifetime worth of
impressions and feelings condensed into a month.
As an eighty-two-year-old,
Harriet said that despite clear recollections of
that day in 1903, she still enjoyed the theater.
She admitted, however, that while there she often
found herself checking the top of the curtain on the
left side of the stage.