The Iroquois Odor

The strange history of the Iroquois Theatre (on the site of the current Oriental Theatre) doesn’t end on December 30th, 1903, when the theatre burned in what remains the deadliest single-building fire in U.S. history. The building didn’t burn down; the exterior was still in good enough shape to stand for another 20+ years, first under the name The Hyde and Behman Music Hall, and then as the Colonial Theatre. Both of those, and the Oriental, have their fair share of strange stories.

In 1909, the Colonial and three other theatres had to be evacuated due to a mysterious odor, described by the papers as “a stench seemingly compounded of all known evil odors,” that left both the audience and the actors in a “state of quasi-asphyxiation.” In most theatres, the stench was just an annoyance, not something to get alarmed about, but n the Colonial, it “came early and stayed late.” According to the Tribune, some said it smelled like fresh paint. Others said it smelled like paint mixed with a bunch of rotten eggs. But “all agreed that it was a compound to remember.”

It’s tempting go ahead and blame the stench on ghosts – “olfactory apparitions” are among the most common type of ghost sightings, in fact. And they’re more reliable than most sightings, since smell is the sense you’re least likely to hallucinate. In fact, though, the stench came from “balls” (stink bombs) thrown by audience members – probably theatre bill-hangers, who were on strike at the time and may have been looking to shake things up.

The Colonial, looking almost exactly as it did when it was called the Iroquois, in 1924, when it closed down.


Ran a tour last weekend for Michelle Kwasniewski and her friends on the occasion of her birthday – it was a really, really fun tour, if I do say so myself! Michelle just sent in a whole set of spooky pictures that were taken on the tour (which was also the night we saw the changed sign at the congress hotel). Here’s one of the spookier ones:

That’s me, looking all ghostly. My guess is that this is just one of those camera whatzits that happen from time to time (though they do seem to be more common in Death Alley, the alley behind the site of the Iroquois Theatre, where this picture was taken – battery drainage is very common back there), but it sure is spooky-looking! Anyone else thinks the misty blur sort of looks like a face?

Here’s a bit from Michelle’s email that I just have to share:

“I also wanted to thank you again for giving us a fantastic tour experience, we could have not wished for a better guide and driver (Willie is awesome, though a man of few words still very funny.) We’re already discussing when we’d like to take the next tour with you. Most likely will book this summer sometime and do the pub crawl hehe(big suprise right) you were extremely accomidating and very patient with everyone’s questions and pulling your time in different directions. I honestly couldn’t have dreamed a better birthday( the party continued into the wee hours after we left you but I’m sure you guessed as much.) Feel free to post this as a customer review as I will also be going to the weird chicago site and do the same. You guys were the best!”

* – identification removed to keep us looking professional 🙂