On December 30, 1903 forty-nine-year-old Mary J. Frazier Dawson (b. 1854) took her five-year-old
granddaughter Gracie Dawson (b.1898) and grown daughter,
elementary school teacher, Mary Ellen “Nellie” Dawson (b. 1877), to the
Mr. Bluebeard matinee at Chicago's newest
luxury playhouse, the Iroquois
Theater. They were seated at the north side of
the third-floor balcony.
Gracie and her grandmother died at the Iroquois the
day of the fire, their bodies later
identified by William T. Dawson Jr. – Mary's son
and Gracie's father. Nellie incurred severe burns
to the face and hands
from flames leaping out of a lower level window
as she descended fire escape stairs. She survived
for nine agonizing days at Passavant hospital. Twenty-six-year-old Nellie boarded at 239 N. Harvey
street and taught second and third grades at the
64th Avenue elementary school in Oak Park.*
Mary may have felt a special bond with Gracie.
She was named after a daughter lost in 1886 when the
seven-year-old was just two years older
than Gracie at the time of the theater outing. Gracie and her parents lived at 334 N. Harding.
The three Dawson's were
buried side by side in the Dawson family plot
at Evergreen cemetery in Barrington, IL with
matching gravestones. Mary's and Gracie's
stones are engraved with Dec 30. 1903 as the date of
death and Nellie's with Jan. 8, 1904. Family
members of some Iroquois victims who died in the
first week after the fire, technically in 1904,
chose to have 1903 engraved on their tombstones but
the Dawson's went with accuracy.
Railroading seems to have been the family business.
William T. Dawson Jr. worked as a railroad engineer
for the Chicago Northwestern and
his father, English immigrant William R. Dawson Sr.
(1851-1936 ), worked as a railroad watchman.
At the time of the fire William R. Dawson and Mary
Frazier Dawson had been
married for thirty-two years.
In the years after the fire
In 1905, two years after losing Grace, her parents,
William (1873-1960) and Myrtle E. Craney Dawson
birth to a second child, a son named Leroy
William R. Dawson, widow
of Mary Frazier Dawson, father of Nellie Dawson and
grandfather of Gracie Dawson, lived with a common
law wife, a dressmaker named Sarah Hannah Gaylord
Mary Dawson's name was omitted
from the coroner's inquest list, or was submitted
with an alternate spelling I've not yet found.
Nellie's name was omitted from some victim's lists.
There is no doubt, however, that all three were Iroquois
* Built at 416-420 64th Avenue in
1901, electrified in 1902, the name of the 64th
Avenue elementary school was changed to Hawthorne
School, then in 1985 was renamed the Percy Julian
Middle School. The name of the street was changed as
well, and is known today as South Ridgeland Avenue.
The structure was replaced in 2002.
To get to her job at the 64th
Avenue elementary school from her room on N. Harvey,
Nellie may have walked south on Harvey for two
blocks, turned right on South Blvd for two blocks,
then continued south on 64th/Ridgeland for another