The Iroquois fire was not the result of fire prevention
in theaters being a new or unusual concept.
Books about theater design for twenty years leading
up to the fire commonly
incorporated fire-prevention recommendations.
The advice therein was either not seen or was
ignored by Iroquois manager
Will J. Davis.
The man was a book collector
and, presumably, a reader. Had he read just one
of the books about fire safety in theaters, the
might not have happened. Seven years before the Iroquois fire a 175-pg book
about theater fires was published by engineer
William P. Gerhard. Theatre
Fires and Panics: their Causes and Prevention* (download
searchable pdf file). Gerhard laid out a sobering
worldwide history of theater fire victims dating to
the mid 1700s. He followed with an
extraordinarily detailed and comprehensive outline
of procedures, fire fighting equipment and design
features necessary to reduce the possibility of a
theater fire causing loss of life. He
backed up his discourse with a
bibliography citing other books and
magazines that discussed fire safety in theaters.
Based on a paper delivered to fire engineers in
1894, the book was first published in 1896, again
in 1900 and excerpts were published in several
magazines and reviewed in multiple newspapers.
Davis, his theater associates and people in
Chicago's building and fire departments had ample
opportunity to learn such a book had been published.
The age factor.
After the fire, Iroquois Theater architect
Benjamin Marshall claimed
to have studied theater fire safety. He must
have skipped over the passages that warned against
the danger of complex and winding
stairways. To be fair, however, the minimal
damage to the Iroquois structure might have been
attributable to Marshall's efforts. As to the
building opening before the plumbing was completed,
would his client have listened if Marshall objected?
Ben was a
young man amidst men with formidable chops in
building and managing theaters. Had he
read Gebhard's book Marshall might, for example, have dismissed some
remarks as not applicable at the Iroquois where Will
J. Davis, had been managing theaters since before
Marshall was born. Marshall may have been one
many who gave more credit to Davis'
grey hair than it deserved. Who in the mix
would have guessed Davis would overlook or permit
the situation described in Gebhard's discussion of a
theater's age being a metric in anticipating the
probability of fire:
"Out of a total of 252 theatres, 70, or more than one
fourth of them, are destroyed before they reach an
age of 5 years ... This may be explained,
first, by the fact that in a new theatre the safety
appliances, the arrangements for lighting, the
scene-hoisting devices, the fire-protection
appliances, are rarely in perfect working order, and
the theatre employees have not as yet become
accustomed to handling them, and are likewise
unfamiliar with the rules of management."
To the perfect storm came a
young designer, old theater managers, a young theater and
an old history.
Granting benefit of the
In the course of
working on this project the target of my ire
changes, depending upon my focus at the moment.
When looking at the overall tragedy, however, I
agree with the jurors in three inquests that most of
the blame has to be aimed at Will J. Davis.
Between them, managers Will J. Davis and Harry
Powers, and co-owners Klaw, Erlanger, Zimmerman,
Frohman and Nixon had over a hundred combined years
of experience in theater management. Because many of
his years in the business were spent as a road
manager Will Davis' experience with day to day
theater management wasn't as extensive as sometimes
presumed. His Iroquois partners, especially Harry
Powers, had the experience that Davis lacked but
possibly, like architect Marshall, would have not
imagined Davis would allow such a poorly equipped
theater to operate for five weeks. The history
of stage lamps starting theater fires made the
failure to equip the Iroquois with plumbed stand
pipes, pails of water and real fire extinguishers inexcusable. That
same history condemns Mr. Bluebeard
William Dunn having turned a deaf ear to
William McMullen's complaint that the curtain
was dangerously close to his arc lamp. These
theater men all had to have known they were
gambling. Whether they thought through the
risk to acknowledge to themselves that the ante was hundreds of
lives, we'll never know.
"The majority of fires during
performances break out on the stage, and are due to
open and unprotected or to deficiently protected,
lights in too close proximity to, or amidst a mass
of, unprotected and highly inflammable scenery,
draperies, gauze, ropes and woodwork."
That said, I question whether
McMullen could have put out the
fire had there been a pail of water on his bridge. From testimony
about the start of the fire, from McMullen himself
and other stagehands, it quickly spread upward and
beyond arms reach. How far can water in a pail
be thrown? Was McMullen's position such that he
could have hurled water at the angle necessary to reach
the blaze? If he miss aimed, how long would it
have taken to run down the ladder to the stage floor
for another water pail and run back up the ladder to
the bridge? Would the fire still have been
within reach? He was there, I was not, but it
Paul Gerhard (1854-1927)
Author Gerhard was a civil engineer who
consulted on hydraulic and sanitary
projects, authoring thirteen books and
seventy magazine articles about waste
disposal, gas lighting, fire prevention
in theaters and water supply.
Hamburg, Germany, he had graduated from
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in
1875, emigrated to the United States, married Selma Weiskirch of
Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1881 and became
a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1893. He first settled
in St. Louis, later relocating to
Newport, RI and then to Brooklyn. He and
two sons, both of whom followed their
father's footsteps into the field of
reported he was short in stature with
blonde hair. William died of heart
failure at age seventy-five.