For Bernard Boecker the fire was Act III
Like most patrons seated on the ground floor at the
Iroquois, sixty-three-year-old Bernard B. Boecker
survived the 1903 theater fire. He was unique,
however, in how long he chose to remain in the
theater after the fire started.
Seated five rows from the back of the auditorium,
Boecker was far enough from the stage to escape
injury in the initial phase of the fire.
Having seemingly attended the theater alone
(nothing was reported about companions), he did not
have loved ones to protect. So he stayed and
watched. His observations were those of a man
who had spent his life overseeing processes in a
variety of manufacturing and agricultural
operations, and who had been assistant fire marshal
in his hometown. His description of the
experience, prepared a week after the fire for his
local newspaper, the Naperville Clarion, was
concise than many.
At first sight of a flame
Boecker, like others, thought it was a lighting
effect intended to look like the moon or sun.
That was a logical possibility. The stage was
darkened to produce a romantic scene of a garden
under moonlight. Either an enlarged moon or
rising sun could have been in context with the
When he saw dancers turn to
look up at the top of the proscenium arch, he knew
it was instead a fire. Bernard remained
in his seat to watch Eddie Foy (and, three to four
others*) try to calm the audience. He
remained in his seat while stage workers attempted
to lower the asbestos curtain. He even watched
the fireball shoot out into the auditorium, burning
seats twenty feet away from his, and saw the asbestos
curtain disintegrate into "hundreds of flaming balls
the size of a boy's head."
description of the fireball's trajectory through the
auditorium supports the conclusion drawn later by
fire experts. The fireball surged
through the gap below the north side of the lopsided
fire curtain. It was drawn up and back to the
two balconies by vents in the back wall and open
exits on both side walls. Before arcing
upward, however, it ignited string instruments in
the orchestra pit and seats in the first ten to
Time to move along
When the fire curtain burned
Boecker decided he'd seen enough. He noted a crowd waiting
to exit the auditorium into the lobby and chose
instead a north wall fire escape exit. He had no
difficulty getting out into Couch Place alley but
once there stumbled to his knees. He was
shocked to realize he'd tripped over and fallen upon
As he tried to stand
without treading on people, Bernard was knocked on
the head and flattened by a man who had jumped from
a fire escape twenty feet above. As other
jumpers landed, fearing for his life, Boecker wiggled out from under bodies
and escaped from the alley. Other witnesses to
the Couch Place scene described jumpers surviving
because they fell on a cushion of bodies.
Bernard Boecker was one of the cushion providers who
survived to tell the tale. Once safe he
looked back at a scene of screaming and horrified
people on the fire escape stairs, and motionless
forms on the ground.
Berthold Boecker (1840-1907)
immigrant, Bernard B. Boecker came to
the United States in 1860. After working
for a few years as a farm laborer he
returned to Germany to marry a French
girl, Anna Ohn (1847-1886), and brought
his bride back to Naperville, Illinois.
miles southwest of Chicago, Naperville
in 1903 was home to around 3,000 people.
Bernard was a VIP in that small pond,
elected as mayor and alderman, also
serving as assistant fire marshal and in
1890 president of the Naperville Loan
and Building Association.
Anna had three children. Their youngest,
Arnold, died in a terrifying buggy
accident at the family's quarry. (See accompanying
At Anna's death Bernard married Emily
Hammerschmidt, a union that produced
four children, all of whom lived to old
age. Emily's uncle and cousin,
Ernst von Oven, and Frederick von Oven,
operated a tile and brick yard company
and nursery that were important in
Naperville's early economic history.
Over the years
Bernard sold his farm and for a time
operated a lumber and hay press
business. (A hay press was a
machine used to convert hay purchased
from farmers into bales that could be
transported to market.) He later
sold grain and coal, then in 1884 went
into the stone quarrying business with
Ernst von Oven,
operating the "Little Quarry" (known in
more recent decades as Netzley's Pond).
His son Arnold's death at the quarry in
together with increasing market
competition, contributed to Bernard's
decision to lease the quarry in 1904 to
his competitor, Dolese & Shepard.
D & S operated the larger quarry in
Naperville that later came to be known
as Centennial Beach.