In 1903 William Kranz
(1856-1944) and Sarah Ann Gebhardt Kranz (b. 1856) were
forty-seven years old and had been married for twenty-five
years. They took a train from
their home in Racine, Wisconsin into Chicago to
visit relatives over the Christmas holiday. On
December 30th they attended an afternoon matinee of
Mr. Bluebeard at Chicago's newest playhouse, the
Iroquois Theater on Randolph Street. They had planned to
attend the performance with friends from Racine,
Ollie and Julia Botsford. A family death prevented
Ollie and Julia's attendance so their daughter, Mabel Botsford,
and her fiancé, Harold Bliss, used the tickets instead.
found their seats at the front of the second-floor
balcony. About ten minutes later, they saw Mabel and
Harold enter the balcony and take seats five rows
behind. The couples nodded to one another.
Mabel's father was also a shop keeper in Racine,
owner of Botsford & Wooster books, stationery and sporting
the beginning of the second act, a stage curtain
drifted too close to a carbon arc lamp, caught fire
and within minutes, the stage was engulfed in flames.
Along with hundreds of others in the balcony,
William and Sarah Ann Kranz were moving toward an
exit, groping in the dark, the only light coming
from the flames. Just as they reached the exit, they became separated
with William on the stairwell outside, unable to push
back inside to find Sarah.
it out but not in time to avoid inhaling noxious
smoke. She died shortly after midnight at the Samaritan
Hospital. At the Polyclinic Hospital (or St. Lukes;
both were reported), badly burned on his face and
hands, William survived to speak with Mabel
Botsford's father, Ollie. Newspapers
reported that the family concealed Sarah's death
from William for a week. If so, newspapers informed
all of Racine before her husband learned he was a
Herb Jillson, the husband of
Sarah's sister, Julia Gebhardt Jillson, identified
Sarah Ann Kranz's body. He had ridden the train from
Racine to Chicago with Ollie Botsford. They arrived
too late to see Sarah before she died but spoke with
William, who predicted Mabel Botsford and Harold
Bliss had not escaped from the auditorium. Ollie and
Herb checked all the hospitals, then began looking
for Mabel Botsford and Harold Bliss in morgues.
Married in 1878, the Kranz's
did not have children but lived in a large
five-bedroom home at 1336 Main Street in Racine.
Sarah was one of three
children born to Frederick Gebhardt and Magdaline
Schuettler Gebhardt. Her father was a cooper, making
barrels, wood buckets and cisterns. In 1890 his shop
was just a few doors from her childhood home at 817
Union St. in Racine. Her parents and siblings† were
still living at the time of her death. I was not
able to find a photo of Sarah but there was probably
a resemblance between her and her sister Mary (see
William's father, John Kranz
1819-1904), had founded the family's stationery shop
in 1850. The firm soon concentrated on packaging
materials and janitorial supplies. William joined
his father in the company in 1881. He expanded the
business by adding a wholesaling arm and increasing
the territory to include northern Illinois.
William was one of ten children
born to John and Elizabeth Ritchie Kranz (1831-),
and one of four who survived as of 1900 when John
and Elizabeth celebrated their 50th wedding
anniversary. Both had emigrated to the United
States in the mid-1840s, John from Germany and
Elizabeth from Switzerland.
Gebhardt, Kranz and Jillson families were active
in the Methodist church in Racine. Will Kranz
played the organ for several years, Mary Gebhardt
sang in the choir and Herb Jillson was a
William was still in the hospital during Sarah's
closed-casket funeral in Racine on Saturday, January
2, 1904. Reverend Dr.
Albert Cotton Grier (1864-1941),
pastor of the Universalist church, conducted the
service. Pallbearers were James Armstrong, George
Klinkert, Emil Ernie, Warren Walker, Elmer Hanson
and Curtis Washburn. Burial was in Mound Cemetery in
In the years after the fire
William remarried in 1905, to a woman named
Florence. In 1917 he sold his business
interests and retired. The new owners retained
the name and the
Company is still in business today.
William and Florence moved to Los Angeles, where he
died in 1944.
William Kranz was active in civic
affairs in Racine. One of his interests was
the city's parks.
Discrepancies and addendum
The Racine community lost three of its citizens to
the Iroquois Theater fire, Sarah Kranz, Harold Bliss
and Mabel Botsford. A fourth Iroquois patron, Clara
Hanson, a school teacher, survived. A former Racine
was also among the fatalities. So closely are the
stories of the Kranz, Bliss and Botsford stories
intertwined that I should have combined and
presented them as one theater party.
* Stories of relatives
concealing death news from their loved one were
common. The mothers of Harry Bliss and Mabel
Botsford were spared news of their deaths for a few
hours. A report about the concealment from William
Kranz stated physicians did not find any
deterioration in his condition after learning of his
wife's death. It was a time when
headlines were common.
† One of Sarah's brothers,
William Gebhardt, founded a home-based broom
manufacturing company on Liberty street around the
corner from his parent's Union-street home. Makes
sense, probably learned some things about wood
fabricating, supply sources, etc. from his father.
The Kranz company offered janitorial brooms and
Gebhardt may have been a supplier to Kranz.
Sarah's sister Mary married Henry Hall, and they
lived in the Gebhardt family home on Union St.