William Hennessy’s* sons went to the Iroquois
Theater, where they sat in the third floor balcony.
The middle son, Willie, did not return home.
Sixteen-year-old John Earl Hennessy's (1887-1972) life was
threatened by his severe burns, including the loss
of one hand with his other hand deformed and his
face badly scared. He also suffered internal
injuries and was not expected to live.
Earl survived and as an adult
became a writer of short stories. He continued
living with his mother after his father's death in
obituary it was reported that he was the last
Iroquois Theater survivor. The unnamed source
for this information was probably the Iroquois
Memorial Association (IMA) but I strongly doubt the
accuracy of the statement. The association
knew the identities of fatalities but can only have
known the names of survivors who chose to make
contact with the association or whose names appeared
in the press in connection with media interviews or
courtroom testimony. The theater did not keep
record of ticket purchasers. Based on the
number of tickets sold, there were around 1,400
survivors, from a half dozen states. The IMA
could have scoured newspaper reports for decades
after the fire but not every death notice would have
included note of the deceased having survived the
Iroquois Theater fire and the library did not
subscribe to every newspaper in the country.
Twelve-year-old Donald Francis
Hennessy (1891-1912) also survived and as an adult
became a bookkeeper, dying when only twenty years
old, never marrying.
Fourteen-year-old William James Hennessy (b. 1889), nicknamed
Willie, perished. Willie attended the
Forestville School in Chicago. Other
Forestville students who were Iroquois Theater fire
Erna and Ernest Reiss and
Minnie Schaffner, a teacher.
Earl and Willie were the sons of William Henry
Hennessy (1863-1923) and Annie McEnery Hennessy
(1865-). William immigrated to America from
Ireland with his parents as a youngster in 1868,
becoming a naturalized US citizen in 1883, and
Annie/Anna was a native of New Hampshire. They
married in 1887 in Hyde Park.
In 1903 the
Hennessy’s lived at 4411 Calumet Ave in Chicago.
William Hennessy, worked in sales for the Jefferson
Theatre Program printing company. That meant
he worked with Chicago theater managers every day.
Based on their homes, William was a good provider
which meant that to support his wife and two
remaining sons, he had to continue working, like all
the other fathers of Iroquois Theater fire victims,
but for William Hennessy that meant selling and
writing orders while listening to discussions about
the fire at work from co-workers and theater manager
customers, all with conflicting opinions about the
fire, some sympathetic to the owners, some
condemning, some critical of the audience for not
having calmly filed from the theater – while their
hair and backsides were in flames. Then he
to share the grief of his wife and sons, helping son
John with the pain of his severe injuries and
learning how to function with one hand, and finding
time to assuage the guilt of his youngest son,
Donald, who not only survived but did so without
In the years after the fire
the family received two $750 settlements (around
$20,000 each in 2018 dollars) from Fuller
Construction, the company who built the Iroquois
Theater, for John Earl's injuries and Willie's
death, making them among a handful of about fifty
families who received any compensation.