I’ve been examining the big, big panorama of the Iroquois Theatre after the fire that you can download from the Library of Congress – the one taken just days after Dec 30, 1903, when a fire there killed somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 people. An associate once gave me a poster-sized print (they sell them on ebay), but I couldn’t think of a place to hang it in the house that wouldn’t just seem morbid (even for me). The panorama looks like this:
I only occasionally post “ghost” pictures here, partly because I rarely see any thing I think are all that interesting. You know what I always say – “there is no good ghost evidence, only cool ghost evidence.” Well, here’s some of that. One of my most common tour stops is the alley behind the site of the Iroquois Theatre, which the Tribune once called “The Alley of Death and Mutilation” (look at the clip from the paper on the right if ya don’t believe me!). Like any place, we go in and out of periods where people seem to be seeing ghosts there. For a month or two, someone will think they saw something every night, then it’ll quiet down for a long while.
In any case, countless people died here during the great Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903, some were trampled, some died of burns, and some were shoved over the rails of the useless fire escapes (there were fire escapes, contrary to common stories).
But, anyway, dig this pic from the tour, with a vaguely humanesque form back behind the woman on the right’s head. All I’ve done to edit it is blur the faces:
The most obvious explanation here is that it’s a trick of the light, but I can certainly a detect a humanesque form. In fact, it almost looks like Nelly Reed, the trapeze artist who was killed by the fire (see image on left), though one could also connect it to any number of women who were killed in the tragic fire. Nellie is one of the women most frequently said to haunt the place, though she’s usually said to appear as a silhouette on the wall, particularly the garages on the opposite side of the alley from the theatre (more commonly back when they were painted blue).
More on the theatre and its associated ghostlore is in the new GHOSTS OF CHICAGO book!
Tune in tomorrow for a neat new discovery from the archives.
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?
Only hours from the anniversary of the Iroquois Theatre disaster (which I just posted about a few days back), Brandon L got this nifty shot on one of my tours. He says there was no one there when he took the picture, and the person who was standing next to him said so, too; I wasn’t watching at the time so I can’t say for sure. But Brandon showed it to me at the next stop and had emailed it to me before the tour ended (probably setting a new record!)
The Iroquois Theatre fire is the subject of a fantastic new play, Burning Bluebeard, now running at the Neo-Futurist Theatre. The fire in question took place on Dec 30, 1903, during a matinee performance of a spectacle known as Mr. Blue Beard. It just now occurs to me that, while I’ve written here about the ghosts associated with the fire, I’ve never put up a proper post about the fire that occurred only five weeks after the theatre was opened, during an over-crowded performance of a children’s show about a guy who murders his wives featuring a song about “The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous.”
And it was all of these, all right. One paper wrote that, despite a new book and songs written for its American run (it had previously played in London), the show had never shed its “British stupidity.”
Though reviews were known to go on and on about just how beautiful and spectacular the show was – with its cast of three or four hundred, its sparkling set-pieces and aerial ballet – and how gorgeous the theatre was. The Tribune wrote that only a few theaters in the country could possibly compare to the splendor of the Iroquois.
But as for the show itself, featuring such immortal classics as “Come and Buy Our Luscious Fruits, “Oriental Slaves Are We,” and “A Most Unpopular Potentate,” the papers struggled to find nice things to say.
Foy himself seems to have been underused. “Of the company,” the Trib wrote, ” Eddie Foy is the chief and ablest performer. He has little that is amusing to do, but his personality is in itself so good-natured, his humor so infectious, and his cleverness at unmaking so great that he cannot wait to with the tribute of applause.” He had two solo numbers, “I’m a Poor Unhappy Maid” and “Hamlet Was a Melancholy Dane.”
Eddie Foy as “Sister Ann” in the show. He stayed on stage WAY longer than it was safe for him to do so, and was (rightly) considered a hero.
“Of story,” wrote the Trib, “there is little or none – nobody expected there would be any, and nobody cared because there was none. There is the usual loving couple who have hard times getting their love affairs to running smoothly, there is the usual wicked persecutor of the maiden in this enamored couple – in this case he is Mr. Blue Beard – and there is, of course, the regulation good fairy and the magic horn which calls her to the hero’s aid….the music of the piece of hopelessly common, save bits here and there which are flinched from the classics.”
This was the first show to run at the Iroquois, which, like most theaters at the time, was a freaking death trap. The hallways leading down from the gallery lead to locked doors and accordion gates. The three lower-level fire escapes into the alley were kept locked by a new kind of French locking system no one could figure out in the middle of a panic. The ventilation had been nailed shut. They had saved $56 by using an asbestos fire curtain was actually a blend made mostly from wood pulp (a common trick – wood-pulp based curtains were cheaper and lasted longer than pure asbestos. The only trouble was that they were useless in a fire). There were no sprinkler systems installed. Doors opened inward, toward the lobby (contrary to popular belief, this did not become illegal after the fire – it had already been illegal for a good twenty years). It wouldn’t have made a difference if they opened towards the street, though – the manager testified that they were also locked.
When I was last giving tours, we hadn’t gotten a weird photograph in the alley behind the old Iroquois theatre (which newspapers called “The Alley of Death and Mutilation” after the fire in the theatre that killed over 600 people). But since I’ve started up again, we’ve had several. In particular, we’re getting a lot of odd shadows. One my very first night back at work looked like a three dimensional shadow of a human being. The photographer never sent me that one (it’s possible that once they loaded it onto the computer, a more logical explanation seemed obvious), but here’s a shot by Haley Wittwer from this past weekend. Note the odd shadow at the right:
Gosh, it’s cheerful around here lately, isn’t it? Let’s talk about temporary morgues!
Temporary morgues are set up when disaster strikes, leaving too many dead bodies to fit in a regular morgue. You never can tell when a place you’re walking around might have been a morgue once.
A few from Chicago history:
870 N. Milwaukee Ave (formerly 64 Milwaukee) – near Milwaukee and Racine. This was the site of a stable used as a temporary morgue following the great Chicago Fire.
C.H. Jordans Saloon and Annex, State and Madison – Numerous soucres list the seventh or eighth floor (depending on which source you read) of Marshall Field’s as a temporary morgue after the Iroquois Theatre fire. It was really more of a hospital (though many people surely died there). The main temporary morgue was nearby at Jordan’s saloon and annex, 14-16 E. Madison (old numbering). Incidentally, the story of the guy yanking gold fillings from teeth seems to be apocryphal, but the NYT reported that there was a lot of that kind of thing going on.
Harpo Studios, The Reid Murdoch building, and Under the Wells Street Bridge – though most of the bodies following the Eastland disaster were brought to the Second Regiment Armory (now Harpo Studios), some were brought to the Reid Murdoch (right next to the site of the tragedy) and to a floating morgue under the bridge (the LaSalle Street bridge didn’t exist yet). Contrary to legend, none were brought to the building where the Excalibur Club is now.
The Brueschater Buildling – 21st and Leavitt. In 1889 this saloon (then still operated by William Brueschater, whose name is still clearly visible on the turret) was used as a morgue when a building across the street collapsed in a storm, killing at least 8 people.
Our friends at Oriental Theatre regularly tell us their ghost sightings – the place was built over the foundations of the Iroquoid Theatre, which burned in 1903. They have been doing a lot of architectural investigating, too, looking in nooks and crannies for traces of the old Iroquois theatre that may have survived in forgotten basement levels. Far above the basement, though, in a forgotten old loft space, these signed and dated lip prints were found underneath a piece of paper that had been plastered over them:
In the late 1930s, when the lip prints were made, the Oriental was primarily a vaudeville house – a group appearing there the week these prints were made was called The Dancing Sweethearts – that was probably the troupe to which these women belonged. What a cool find! It must have been covered for a very long time – while the thing is tough to photograph (on a shiny wall in an unlit loft, the flash tends to create a lot of glare), the pencil-written signatures are still bold and legible after seventy years!