Haunting Iroquois Theatre Photo Details

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:

There are several versions that come up on Google, but that are really clear enough to make out many details, or to examine the legend that you can see “ghosts” in the background. But downloaded the 70mb version and zooming in gives a pretty clear image of the origin of the legend. Quite a few people are lurking in the background of this shot, and a few were apparently only there for part of the time the plate was exposed, leading to images like this, where a couple of people seem translucent. I’m sure there are people who would argue that they were ghosts, in any case: 
Elsewhere in the panorama, you can get a very good look at some of the  architectural details that survived the fire (and most of them did; it really was a fireproof building, just as they advertised it. It was the stuff they put into it that was flammable).
The file is a bit of a pain to find on the Library of Congress, since “Iroquois” is spelled wrong in the listing, but here’s the link.  You can download several versions, ranging from a small jpg to a 72mb tiff. 

Ghost pic in the alley?

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:

This was taken on the tour and emailed to me immediately, so I can at least say he didn’t photoshop it in later, and it doesn’t look much like one of of those “ghost app” shots (after all, those apps paste ghosts over your image, and this one is overlapped by the woman’s head).

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.

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?

Ghost Picture from the Alley of Death and Mutilation

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!)

Just looking at it, my first instinct would be to say the guy was photo-shopped in, but given the circumstances under which it was taken and sent, I don’t see how he could have done it without leaving any traces (trying to do photoshopping on a phone with your finger while on a bumpy bus ride would be a unique and impressive feat by itself). 
As always, I’m not saying that this is a real ghost – I can think of a few possible explanations (though they may not be the RIGHT explanation). It’s a pretty cool shot either way, and kids go nuts when I tell them about it – the “man in a black suit with no face” thing is a description of Slenderman, a ghost story that every kid seems to know about these days. 
 What do YOU think?
Update: a security guard who works in one of the buildings opening to the alley is fairly sure it’s him in the picture.  But the guard in question has a beard, so…
Of all the stops on my tours over the years, this is the one I’ve used most frequently. I have several routes that I switch back and forth between, and a repertoire of plenty of different stops. But this one has been on every route – I can’t think of any period when I was skipping it. 

The Iroquois Theatre Fire (or: How Bad WAS “Mr. Blue Beard?” )

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.”

In the new play by the Neo Futurists, many jokes are made out of just how dumb, inappropriate, and racist Mr. Blue Beard was. 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.

Above: a rare shot of the promenade
And fires were a problem from the start – as I understand it, the muslin drapes near the stage had actually caught fire a couple of times during performances when they caught fire again on December 30th. But this time the fire caught on the scenery. And when the backstage door opened, that created a backdraft resulting in a “balloon of fire” that shot out into the audience while Foy frantically (and heroically) tried to keep people calm. Of course, keeping people calm when a fire ball just shot out at them is not really possible.
And, of course, there was the gallery, where at least one of the fire exits was not yet connected to a fire escape. Stories that a teacher directed students out the door one by one are basically nonsense (the sheer idea that anyone would have formed a single-file line in such a riot is just nuts), but in the pushing and shoving, over a hundred people fell to their doom. Some were saved only when the pile of bodies got high enough to break their fall (I didn’t believe this angle when I first heard it, but there WERE contemporary reports that described this, as well as a few of people making it into the alley below on the ground level only to be killed by people falling from above).
Above: the “alley of death and mutilation.” As the overcrowded (or missing) fire escapes became useless, a ladder was extended from the Northwestern University building (the former Tremont House hotel that had been owned by Ira Couch, now the namesake of the alley) on the other side of the alley. It was useless, but soon replaced by more useful “planks.” Only 12 people were saved by these, though. 
Most reports today say that one only one performer, aerialist Nelly Reed, was killed. Exactly how she died is sort of an open question – some reports say she was still suspended in the air when the fire ball shot through, others say she died of burns in the alley. Another says she was afraid to use the elevator that led from her dressing room to the fire escape, and instead ran down a staircase right into the fire.  I haven’t seen a testimony from the time talking about her being suspended above the stage, and suspect the less dramatic versions are probably correct. A rather detailed 1904 account said that she was in her sixth-floor dressing room and had collapsed from inhaling too much smoke, and was carried out by an elevator boy named Robert Smith, only to die later.
In reality, though most early reports said that no performer had died, it seems that Reed and two other performers were killed: another aerialist who was either a man named Florine or a woman named Floraline (little is known) and a bit part player named Burr Scott. This, of course, is in addition to the six hundred or so spectators known to have died. A temporary hospital was set up in nearby Marshall Fields, and a morgue was created in a nearby saloon. 
The stage door led into a vacant lot fronted by Dearborn Street – roughly where the McDonald’s and the Oliver Typewriter Co. building are now.  Foy was able to get his son out the door with most of the cast and crew before running back INTO the fire to try to hold off a stampede. He yelled for the curtain to be lowered (he had never seen the curtain himself, but assumed that they must have one), even as he felt a “cyclone of fire” building behind him. Exactly what he said onstage is not known (different reports gave different quotes), but by all accounts he begged people to remain seated until the curtain could be lowered, then began asking them to leave the theatre slowly. This is exactly what he should have done, too – the panic killed more people than the fire. To keep people calm, he begged the orchestra leader to play the overture. “Play anything!” he shouted. 
THough most considered him a hero, Foy was very hard on himself. Interviewed only minutes later in his room at the nearby Sherman House hotel, Foy has wracked with guilt and badly shaken as he recounted the story, mentioning that he’d also been in Chicago (his home town) during the great fire in 1871. He truly believed that he had failed the audience. In fact, he probably saved hundreds of lives. 
Lots of people were brought to trial, including the mayor, but none got in trouble. A few “ghouls” reported by the New York Times to have run into the theatre to steal necklaces, rings, and money from the dead may have gotten in trouble, but I’ve never found a good report about it. The Trib wrote that earrings were torn from women’s ears. One story goes that man was eventually arrested for stealing gold fillings from teeth (this is usually said to be Mr. Thompson, who owned the Thompson’s Restaurant next door, but this is certainly untrue, though Thompson’s WAS used as a morgue and hospital). 
What REALLY started the fire is still a bit of an open question. It’s generally believed that the light they were using for the “moonlight” in Act 2, during an octet called “Let Us Swear In the Pale Moon Light,”  arced, sending up sparks that set fire to the drapes. A stagehand, though, said this was impossible, and that the sparks had come from the wiring. 
The theatre was re-opened less than a year later under another name, and then operated as the Colonial Threatre starting in 1905. This lasted until the 1920s, when it was torn down. The Oriental Theatre now stands on the spot (one foundation wall down at the basement level, invisible to the general public) is still original. I’ve never found out what happened to the time capsule that was placed in the cornerstone.  Interestingly, one of the shows in line to open at the Iroquois was the musical comedy revue version of The Wizard of Oz. Just over a century later, Wicked opened in the same space.
Here’s the ill-fated ad, with the infamous bug stating that the theatre was “absolutely fireproof.” And it was, for the most part – the building itself was just fine. But the seats, the scenery, the drapery, and everything else IN it was flammable, all right:
Since it’s hard to read, here’s a transcript describing the whole show:

ACT 1.
Scene 1— The Market Place on the Quay, near Baghdad. (Bruce Smith.)

Mustapha plots to separate Selim and Fatima and sell the beautiful Fatima to the
monster Blue Beard. Blue Beard arrives; purchases slaves. Sister Anne falls in love
with Blue Beard and spurns Irish Patshaw. Blue Beard seizes Fatima and takes her
on board his yacht.

Opening Chorus—

a. “Come, Buy Our Luscious Fruits.”

b. ” Oriental Slaves Are We.”

c. ” We Come From Dalmatia.”

d. Algerian Slave Song and Chorus.

aa. Grand Entrance Blue Beard’s Retinue. Medley Ensemble.

bb. Song—” A Most Unpopular Potentate,” Blue Beard and Chorus.
a. “Welcome Fatima.”
Song: “I’m As Good As I Ought To Be,” Blanche Adams.
Finale: “Then Away We Go.”

Scene 2-On Board Blue Beard’s Yacht. (Bruce Smith.)
Fatinia with Selim attempts to escape from Blue Beard’s yacht, but is prevented.
Selim jumps overboard.

Opening Chorus— “There’s Nothing Like The Life We Sailors Lead.”
Duet— Miss Rafter and Miss Adams.

Song: “Beautiful World It Would Be.” (Harrv Von Tilzer.) Harry Gilfoil.
Song: “I’m a Poor Unhappy Maid.” (Jerome and Schwartz.) Eddie Foy.
Finale—” He’s Gone.”

Scene 3— The Isle of Ferns. (H. Emden.)
Fairy Queen appears to Selim, promises him her aid and the power or the Magic
Fan to reunite him to his loved one and to protect them from evil. 



Scene 4— The Laud of Ferns. (H. Emden.)
Ballet of Ferns- Procession and waving of the Magic Fan, by the Fairies and
Grand Corps de Ballet.

ACT II
Scene 1—The Terrace
Fatima believes Selim dead and agrees to marry Blue Beard. She gets
the Castle from Blue Beard, who enjoins her not to open the Blue Chamber.


Opening Chorus—” Davlight is Dawning.”

Song: “Songbirds of Melody Lane,” Beatrice Liddell, Elsie Romaine, and Chorus. (Ed-
wards and Brvan.)


Song: “The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous.” (Harry Gilfoil, Bonnie Magmn and
Pony Ballet.

Sister Anne and the Pet Elephant.

“In the Pale Moonlight.” (Jerome and Woodward.)

“Ma Honey.” (Hoffman.) Bonnie IMaginn and Chori-

Scene 2 — Chamber of Curiosities.
Conquered by curiosity, Fatima opens the Blue Chamber and discovers Blue Beard’s
awful secret.

Blue Beard’s (dead) wives discovered.

Scene 3— Home of the Old Woman Who Lived In a Shoe. (E Albert, i
The disobedient children.
Song: ” Wake Up Mammy,” Maude Nugent.
.Song: ” Mother Eve.” (Schwartz.) Eddie Foy, Pony Ballet, and Chorus. 


Scene 4— Hall in Blue Beard’s Palace. (E. Albert.)
Dancing Specialty by Frank Young and Bessie De Voie. Music by C. Herbert Kerr. 

Scene 5— Triumph of the Magic Fan. (H. Emden.)

Tableau 1— The Land of Palms. Tableau 4— Japan.

Tableau 2— Egypt Tableau .5— Parisian Rose Garden.

Tableau 3— India Tableau

ACT III
Nellie Reed, Premiere, and Grand Corps de Ballet.

Scene 1— Hall of Pleasure in Blue Beard’s Palace. (E. Albert,)

Scenes of revelry in Blue Beard’s absence. 


Opening Chorus— “Let Us Be Jolly As Long As We Can.”

Song: “Spoony Mooney Night.” (Gus Edwards.) Bonnie Maginn and Chorus.

Pony Ballet Specialty. Music by Jean Schwartz.

Song: ” Julie.” (Wm. Jerome and Jean Schwartz.) Herbert Cawthorne and Chorus.

Blue Beard returns unexpectedly.

Sister Anne gives evidence of temporary insanity. Imagines herself Ophelia.
Song- “Hamlet Was a Melancholy Dane,” Eddie Foy. (Wm. Jerome and John Schwartz.)

Blue Beard discovers that Fatima has disobeyed him and threatens her and her
friends with death.

Scene 3— Below the Ramparts. (Hicks and Brooks.)

Blue Beard gives Fatima one hour in which to accept his offer of marriage or perish with her friends. Selim summons Fairies’ aid. Attack on the castle by the Fairy Army. Fatima and friends in peril . . .

Scene 3— The Fairy Palace.

Blue Beard is overthrown and the lovers are reunited.

Entrance and triumph of the Fairy Queen.

Grand Transformation Scene. 

——-
That the theatre site and alley are said to be haunted probably goes without saying. I’ve never spoken to an actual witness of the famous ghost of a woman in a white tutu (presumably that of Nellie Reed), but several employees of the Oriental (speaking on condition of anonymity) have described seeing odd black forms zipping through the theatre at night, from roughly where the stage would have been in the direction of the exits. A little girl is often heard giggling (sometimes in conjunction with flushing a backstage toilet). One employee describes hearing a solitary scream in the middle of the night. Several strange audio recordings have been made, including some thought be from BEFORE the Iroquois (a decade or two earlier, that section of Randolph Street was known as “hair-trigger block,” the area where shell-shocked Civil War vets would come to drink, gamble and shoot at each other. On a rather unrelated note, lip-prints left on the wall by a vaudeville dancing troupe in the 1930s were recently discovered in the organ room. 
As for the alley, we’ve recently had a spate of odd photographs there (odd shadow pictures have gotten particularly common). Camera batteries often go from fully-charged to drained in the few minutes that we’re out there on tours. 
One interesting side note: in an article I read just this morning, one of the survivors was listed as living at address instantly recognizable as that of the H.H. Holmes “Murder Castle.”

In the Alley of Death and Mutilation

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:

There was no strap on the camera, and, as it doesn’t seem to be adhering to the wall, I don’t think it’s a shadow of anything. As usual, I never hold up anything as “evidence” of ghosts, but I like to post odd shots from the tours here. Shadowy forms are often scene in the theatre currently on the spot (on TV they would call them “shadow people,” but we prefer the less-cartoonish “soft shapes” around here).
Here’s a zoomed-in version of the shadow with the brightness turned up a bit:
The alley was a grim scene at the time of the fire in 1903. They had built fire EXITS, but the fire ESCAPES weren’t yet complete. Even those that were built were quickly so overcrowded that people went flying over the rails and to their deaths. Some 150-odd people fell to their deaths, while hundreds more died either from burns or from being trampled by the crowd. People in the next building used ladders (and later planks) to provide a means of escape, but it didn’t work so well. Here’s an illustration from the Tribune:


Temporary Morgues

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.

A wonderful vaudeville relic

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!