Ella* Sullivan (b. 1876) was the principal and teacher at the Flagler School in
Knoxville, Iowa, a small community in central Iowa with a
population in 1903 of around 3,100. Des Moines,
Iowa's capital, is
less than an hour away so Knoxville folks, then and
now, had the benefits of small town life with easy access to a
larger venue for shopping and entertainment.
Lizzie's sisters, Nora and Anna, also taught at the
Flagler school; in fact, the school would later be
renamed after Nora Sullivan, who retired from it in 1955 after
fifty years as a teacher there. In 1903 the school had
fewer than two hundred students
K-8, and the principal position included
teaching two grades.
Over the Christmas holiday in 1903
Ella took a train into Chicago, about a ten hour ride, to visit
her oldest sister, Lizzie. Mary Elizabeth Sullivan Stewart (1871-1968) was
married to a traveling salesman, Charles L. Stewart (1862-1920)
and had two children then, one five years old and one six months old.
The afternoon of December 30 the pair
attended a matinee performance of Klaw & Erlanger's
Mr. Bluebeard pantomime at Chicago's newest luxury
playhouse, the Iroquois Theater. It might have been
Ella's first trip to a Chicago-style theater extravaganza and
for Lizzie it might have represented a welcome respite from the
responsibilities of motherhood. When a fire broke out on stage shortly after the beginning of the
second act, it became America's worst theater fire when it spread to
the auditorium, killing over 600 people.
Lizzie Stewart escaped
from the theater with serious burns and was taken to
a hospital. Their older brother, William
Sullivan, who lived in Chicago and worked as a
jeweler, began searching for
Ella's body at 16 morgues and hospitals.
Back in Knoxville, Iowa
the girl's mother, Mary, had
received a letter from Ella that said they planned
to attend a Wednesday matinee. When a "Miss
Stewart" appeared on newspaper death lists,
Mary and her other daughters feared the worst but
their frantic telegrams went unanswered initially,
probably because William was busy going to
hospitals, searching. Possibly, too, because
Lizzie's husband was a traveling salesman who may
not have been in Chicago at the time of the fire and
was on his way home.
Ella's body was found the next day
at Perrigo's Funeral Home where it was identified by
L. C. Flurnit, of unknown relationship to the family. One
newspaper reported that Ella died from shock after
escaping from the theater which probably means she
was not badly burned. Nothing was reported as
to where the women were seated in the theater but it
is almost certain it was in the second or third
For weeks after the fire newspapers were still
published that reported both Lizzie and Ella were lost.
Nothing was reported about Ella's funeral. She was
buried in the Graceland Cemetery in Knoxville where
three of her siblings and their mother would later
Ella and Mary were two of eight children born to
Mary Hayes Sullivan (1852-1952) and the late Daniel
H. Sullivan (1845-c1887).
In the years after the
Mary Sullivan Stewart and
Charles had two more children, the four of them
producing her six grandchildren. Like her mother,
Mary was widowed for many decades. Charles
died in 1920 when she was forty-nine and she lived
on without him for forty-eight years.
In Dec 1904 a wrongful death suit for $10,000 was
filed on Ella's behalf. Like the dozens of
other suits, it was dismissed when Iroquois manager
Will J. Davis was acquitted. The Sullivans
were not among the thirty-five victims families who
received $750 settlement from Fuller Construction
paid in 1909 ($21,000 today).
At Mary's 100th birthday the Des Moines Tribune ran
a nice story. Ella was not mentioned, nor were
Mary's other five children that had not survived.
When she became a widow at age thirty-five she had
seven children and finances were difficult.
Nonetheless, most of her children went to college
and five of her daughters became school teachers.
Mary became handicapped from a broken her hip
twelve years before her death but it didn't weaken
her self discipline. She continued to rise
at 5:30 am and to eat her meals at the table. She
was an avid radio fan and follower of politics,
voting by absentee ballot after her hip accident.
She counted fourteen grandchildren, fourteen great
grandchildren and one great great grandchild.
Four of her daughters, Lizzie, Nora, Margaret and Anna were still teaching in 1952.
If not for the Iroquois, Ella would probably have
been doing the same. Like their mother, Mary's
girls were extraordinarily long lived.
Michael Sullivan, one of
Mary's three sons, survived the Spanish-American war
and went on to make the largest contribution to
Mary's grandchildren by having nine children.
Like his father, he supported his large family by
working as a traveling salesman. He
named his first born daughter after his sister