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Iroqouis Theatre “Ghouls”

No one ever got in legal trouble for the fire at the Iroquois theatre that killed around 600 people. One judge ruled that while Will Davis, the manager, may have been “morally responsible,” he could not be held “legally responsible” due to some technicalities. The only people who got in trouble were a tiny fraction of the many who robbed the dead bodies of money and jewelry as they lay in the morgues – or even as they lay in the theatre, still smoldering. The press dubbed them “ghouls” or “vampires,” and most of them got away with it.

Rumors circulate that one man, sometimes said to be the owner of the restaurant next door, was sent to jail for stealing gold fillings from the teeth of the dead bodies. This doesn’t seem to be true (in fact, Mr. Thompsons of Thompson’s restaurant went out of his way to help the sick and the dead, shutting down his restaurant for some time in the process), but a lot of similar stuff was going on. The day after the fire, papers were full of stories of “ghouls” being chased off by the police, and the coroner’s office estimated that $100,000 worth of valuables were lost in the fire – much of it stolen.

One report said that half a dozen people were arrested, but it looks as thought just a few ever went to trial. One Louise Witz, who ran The Illinois Saloon at Randolph and Dearborn, is probably the source of the “gold fillings” story; he was a saloon owner arrested for grave robbing, but he didn’t take any gold fillings.  He carried the charred body of one woman into his saloon, where he robbed it for $210 and a watch; much of the cash was spent hushing witnesses. He and a few others were brought to trial the next month,  and Witz and two more men were convicted. These may be the only three people convicted of wrong-doing related the fire. I’m not sure what the sentence was.

A sort of “near miss” involves a man named John Mahnken, a b-rate con artist who claimed to be related to a victim in order to claim $500 found on her person. Mahnken confessed the deed, begged for a chance to live a clean life, and gave his address as 907 Amsterdam Avenue, New York (which was actually the address of a public school). He was arrested, and, when brought to court in May, acted hysterical and claimed to be seeing ghosts in the courtroom. This was probably a ruse he concocted so the jury would find him insane. It didn’t work.

Ten years later, a man named Harry Spencer was arrested for murder. While in custody, he told the police that they could add grave robbing to his crimes. At the time of the fire, he said, he had assisted in carrying bodies into a morgue. One was charred beyond recognition, but he noticed she had a lot of jewelry on. With help from a female accomplice, he returned to the temporary morgue later and “identified” the body as “Nellie Skarupa,” a name he just made up, and took $2600 worth of cash and jewelry. “I guess she’s still buried under the name Skarupa,” Spencer mused. Coroner’s records did show a woman by that name, but said nothing of any valuables found on her, and didn’t list Harry among the witnesses. Authorities at the time thought he was making the story up (he confessed to a LOT of crimes that were probably just opium dreams). In any case, though, Spencer was hanged for murder in 1914, and the name “Nellie Skarupa” does not currently appear in lists of victims. More on Harry Spencer in a future post.

Still another gruesome tail suggests that one man got away with ghoulish activity, but lost a hand in the process. When volunteer rescue workers found one man cutting off a dead woman’s fingers to get her rings, they attacked him with a razor and cut off his hand. Two weeks later, regional papers said that a severed hand – the ghoul’s – had been found in the rubble.

Reading over these reports, it’s a bit jarring to see just how much cash people were carrying on them – $500 was roughly the equivalent of 10-15k in today’s money. Who goes to the theatre with that kind of scratch?

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