Frank Thomas was two years old when his
father died in the American Civil War,
thirteen when his mother died from suicide,
her throat.* Adopted by a well to do
uncle, Ambrose Thomas, Frank enjoyed a
couple decades of normalcy. He worked
as a library messenger and book binder then
at nineteen came west to
Chicago with his uncle when Ambrose joined David Lord to form Lord &
Thomas advertising agency, forerunner of
Foote, Cone & Belding (FCB).† Frank
married, had two children, pursued a career
in his uncle's agency and became active in a
December 30, 1903 his eight-year-old son
went to a fairytale at Chicago's newest
luxury theater and did not come home.
Thomas went to the theater with a grown cousin.‡
Millie Overlock, a twenty-four year old from
Saluda, Virginia, was visiting her aunt's
family over the 1903
Christmas holidays. The
pair attended an afternoon theater matinee at
the Iroquois Theater. Playing was Mr. Bluebeard, imported from England
and produced in America
by theater syndicate founders,
Klaw and Erlanger.
after the start of the second act, a thin curtain, about
twelve feet off the stage floor, drifted
too close to an arc lamp stationed on the fly bridge
on the south side of the proscenium. The fabric caught fire
blaze instantly spread up the frayed edge and across the
top of the curtain, leaping to adjacent drops.
In moments, thousands of yards of hanging
oil-painted fabric scenery in the loft
above the stage were engulfed in flames, showering
embers that ignited the scenery below. When
obstacle prevented the fire curtain from being
lowered, a large gap was created on one side of the
stage, becoming a wind tunnel. As performers and stage workers fled
through a stage door at the back of the theater, the
incoming rush of winter air produced a back
draft that hurled a ball of flame through the gap
below the fire curtain. Out in the auditorium it was drawn up toward vents in the back walls
of the second-floor balcony and third-floor gallery, instantly killing theater goers
who had not yet been able to evacuate the auditorium. At
doorways, in aisles and on stairwells, terrified
people floundered in darkness, tripping over ankle
length skirts and falling
atop one another, crushing those below. In less than a half hour, six
hundred people, a majority women and children, were dead and dying.
found and identified his son's body at the
Rolston's funeral home.
Remington Hewitt Thomas
a student at the James R. Doolittle elementary
school on 35th street in Chicago, probably in the
third grade. (Two other
Iroquois Theater fire victims who attended the
Doolittle school were
Frances Irene Swartz
Born in 1895 to a pair of Maine
natives – thirty-nine-year-old Frank Henry Thomas
(1861-1928) and thirty-five-year-old Sarah Hewett
Thomas (1865-1959), Remington descended from revolutionary and civil war soldiers.
He had one sibling, a younger brother, five-year-old
Kenneth H. Thomas (1898-1973).
Remington's family lived at 62 Woodland Park in
Chicago (changed in 1908 to 658 Woodland Park).† The family attended the St. Mark's
Episcopal Church and Frank Thomas worked for his
uncle at a successful and historically significant Chicago advertising agency
named Lord & Thomas.** The agency's headquarters was
in the Trude Building just two blocks away from the
Iroquois Theater but it is not known if Frank was in
the office that afternoon. If so he may have been
among the hundreds who raced to the
theater upon hearing of the disaster, frantic to
find loved ones. Barred by police from
entering the structure they huddled in bitterly cold
temperatures watching an endless stream of first responders carry
Triage was simple
The living were taken to hospitals in
carriages or wagons, anything that rolled.
Those maybe living were taken into Thompson's diner adjacent to the theater
where physicians attempted to revive or add to the
piles of dead. Obviously deceased, were laid in rows on the sidewalk
awaiting wagon transport to whichever funeral home
around the city was not yet overly full. If
first responders were mistaken, death from exposure while lying on the
sidewalk in temperatures below zero was a real
possibility. One such
fellow regained consciousness to find himself in a
wagon, surrounded by corpses, on route to a morgue.
burial location is not yet known but might have been
Mt. Hope cemetery in Worth township of Cook County,
Illinois, southwest of Chicago, where his father was interred
twenty-five years later, as well as a few other of
the Thomas family.
(1879-1965), nicknamed Millie, in some newspapers
mistakenly called "Minnie," was born in
Thomaston, Maine. She was the daughter of Katherine “Kate” Rose Hewett
Overlock Kellam (1856-1945) and Anson Overlock
(1853-1882). In 1899, widowed, Kate married a
Virginia pharmacist, Dr. Stewart Kellam (1845-1907). Kate was the sister of
Remington's mother, Sarah Hewett Thomas.
In the years after the fire
Frank and Sarah had a third child
five years after Remington's death – Elizabeth Hewett Thomas (1908-1960).
Remington's younger brother, Kenneth, served in the
army during World War I, married, went into
advertising for a while, moved to Florida and seems
to have escaped horrific
tragedy. His son, Dr. Kenneth Eastman Thomas,
earned a bronze star for three years of service in
On Thanksgiving Day two years after the fire,
Millie Overlock married a divorcee, sign painter James Manson Batchelder
(1883-1967) of Baltimore, but left him two years
later when he was arrested for mail order fraud.
Millie moved in with her mother, who by 1920 was widowed
and working as an upholstery tailor for a furniture
store. (Kate may also have done contract work for her uncle, Abner Crossman
who, in addition to being a gifted illustrator, operated a decorating company in Chicago
that would have involved drapery and upholstered furniture.)
1930 and until 1940, both Millie and Kate lived with
Abner and Marietta Crossman next to the late
Remington's widowed mother, Sarah Thomas, and
unmarried sister, Elizabeth Thomas, on
Woodland Park. Millie then described herself
as a widow but her ex husband outlived her by two
years and eventually remarried.
By 1950 both Kate and Millie were deceased.
Remington's mother, Sarah Thomas, outlived her
husband, all four siblings and two of her children.
Frank Thomas endured many
sorrows in his life but left behind a legacy.
Remington's father, Frank H.
Thomas, might have cited
his hallmark non-business achievement as dearer to
his heart than advertising. He earned a place
in Chicago history by committing to building a
fledgling community organization named Juniors, begun in 1898 by
"Brother" John McMurray, into a neighborhood youth center.
Off the Street Club is still in operation today,
serving 3,000 kids in a tough neighborhood.
Initially involved to please his aunt Marietta
Thomas Crossman, Frank went on to serve for many
years as president and primary fund raiser, muscling
his contacts in the Chicago advertising community to
put OTSC on the top of their philanthropic list.
(Description of Off the Street Club's
After his son's death, Frank funded the club's
Remington Thomas Library at its Van Buren Street
location. The club has since moved a couple of
times and found a home in the West Garfield Park
area. The books from the Remington library are
surely long gone and it's likely few in today's OTSC
family know the role played by a man who was himself
orphaned and who lost his boy to a tragic death.
Discrepancies and addendum
* According to a Thomaston,
Maine history and other military records, James H.
Thomas (1836-1862) was a private in the Union Army,
14th Maine volunteer infantry, 4th regiment of
Company E., and died in a Virginia hospital.
Twelve years after his father's wartime death, Frank's mother, Adelaide Jackson Thomas
(c.1840-1874), committed suicide,
reportedly slashing her throat three
times with a pocket knife while suffering from delirium.
† Lord & Thomas was the foundation for one of the
world's largest and best known advertising agencies,
Foote, Cone & Belding
(FCB). The company was founded by David Lord and
reorganized in 1881 when Ambrose Leach Thomas
(1851-1906) became a partner. Remington's father,
Frank Henry Thomas, began working in the agency's
bookkeeping department at age nineteen. Frank was
Ambrose Thomas's nephew, adopted when orphaned by
the early deaths of his parents.
During his first decade at Lord & Thomas, Frank
worked in finance under David Lord and in 1889-1890 spent a year
managing the New York office. In 1903 he was back in
the Chicago office but it is not known whether he
continued working in accounting or if that is when
he shifted to sales. Whatever
department he was in, Frank's elbows may have been
chafed raw by contact with a shooting star: legendary copywriter, Albert D. Lasker (1880-1952). Lasker won client loyalty and
agency billings by going beyond the limited role of
brokering space in newspapers and magazines to also
producing sales-generating ad copy for his clients.
It was a revolutionary concept at
the time and helped
transform the ad agency business into one of
It is not known whether Frank Thomas, twenty years
older than Lasker, was ever a contender for a top spot at
Lord & Thomas. His return to
Chicago after only a year in New York suggests
he was not. Though he would eventually work in
sales, he was then an accounting guy. Still, as Ambrose Thomas's adoptive son,
he may have had a shot. If so, he lost it two months after the
Iroquois fire. While Frank and Sarah Thomas coped with the
death of their son, Ambrose Thomas persuaded his
partner, David Lord, agency founder, to retire, then
gave Lasker a partnership. For nephew Frank the
timing was poor but Ambrose didn't have
much choice. Lasker threatened to set up his own shop – taking with
firm's largest clients. Whatever Ambrose had
in mind for Frank, he may have taken it to the grave.
In 1906 he died
of heart failure while shopping at the Carsen
Pirie Scott department store. By 1912 Lasker owned 100
of the firm and Frank Thomas had left the
agency to work as the head of west
coast advertising for
Comfort Magazine, based out of Chicago.
He would later add Lane's List publications to his
offerings, including Golden Moments,
Illustrated Family Herald, National Farmer,
People's Literary Companion and Sunshine
‡ For 110+ years many Iroquois victim lists propagated incorrect information that Remington
Hewitt Thomas (in some records reported as Hewitt
Remington Thomas) was a teenager when he died at the Iroquois Theater.
An inaccurate AP story told of his having heroically
carried his adult female cousin to an exit. If
Millie attempted to correct the error, the
correction didn't make the news.
Ambrose Thomas and his brother-in-law, Abner
Crossman (married to Marietta Thomas Crossman) owned
adjacent properties on Woodland Park in Chicago, and
Frank and his family rented a home there as well.
Thomas Thomas Thomas
Many, many Thomas's in this
story. The victim's last name was Thomas, his
father's employer/uncle was named Thomas, his
mother's middle name was Thomas, his grandfather's
first name was Thomas, his grandmother's last name
was Thomas, his grandparents lived for many years in
Thomaston, Maine and his cousin's middle name was
Thomas. If you're not Thomased out, read about
Remington's great grandfather, William Hewett,
who fought in the American Revolutionary war, or
Remington's father and great uncle,
Frank and Ambrose Thomas.
Henrietta and Natalie
Stagehands at 1903
Eugene Field Chicago
journalist and poet
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