Chicago Theater Disaster, 1903, Verdict of Coroner's Jury
[The Iroquois Theatre fire occurred on December 30, 1903, in Chicago, Illinois. It is the deadliest theater fire and the deadliest single-building fire in United States history.]
From the testimony presented to us we, the jury, find the following were the causes of said fire:
Grand drapery coming in contact with electric flood or arc light, situated on iron platform on the right hand of stage, facing the auditorium.
City laws were not complied with relating to building ordinances regulating fire-alarm boxes, fire apparatus, damper or flues on and over the stage and fly galleries.
We also find a distinct violation of ordinance governing fireproofing of scenery and all woodwork on or about the stage.
Asbestos curtain totally destroyed; wholly inadequate, considering the highly inflammable nature of all stage fittings, and owing to the fact that the same was hung on wooden bottoms.
Building ordinances violated inclosing aisles on each side of lower boxes and not having any fire apparatus, dampers or signs designating exits on balcony.
- Lack of Fire Apparatus.
Building ordinances violated regulating fire apparatus and signs designating exits on dress circle.
Building ordinances violated regulating fire apparatus and signs designating exits on balcony.
Generally the building is constructed of the best material and well planned, with the exception of the top balcony, which was built too steep and therefore difficult for people to get out of especially in case of an emergency.
We also note a serious defect in the wide stairs in extreme top east entrance leading to ladies' lavatory and gallery promenade, same being misleading, as many people mistook this for a regular exit, and, going as far as they could, were confronted with a locked door which led to a private stairway, preventing many from escape and causing the loss of fifty to sixty lives.
- Holding of Davis and Harrison.
We hold Will J. Davis, as president and general manager, principally responsible for the foregoing violations in the failure to see that the Iroquois theater was properly equipped as required by city ordinances, and that his employes were not sufficiently instructed and drilled for any and all emergencies; and we, the jury, recommend that the said Will J. Davis be held to the grand jury until discharged by due course of law.
We hold Carter H. Harrison, mayor of the city of Chicago, responsible, as he has shown a lamentable lack of force in his efforts to shirk responsibility, evidenced by testimony of Building Commissioner George Williams and Fire Marshal William H. Musham as heads of departments under the said Carter H. Harrison; following this weak course has given Chicago inefficient service, which makes such calamities as the Iroquois theater horror a menace until the public service is purged of incompetents; and we, the jury, recommend that the said Carter H. Harrison be held to the grand jury until discharged by due course of law.
- Responsibility of Williams.
We hold the said George Williams, as building commissioner, responsible for gross neglect of his duty in allowing the Iroquois Theater to open its doors to the public when the said theater was incomplete, and did not comply with the requirements of the building ordinances of the city of Chicago; and we, the jury, recommend that the said George Williams be held to the grand jury until discharged by due process of law.
We hold Edward Loughlin, as building inspector, responsible for gross neglect of duty and glaring incompetency in reporting the Iroquois theater "O. K." on a most superficial inspection; and we, the jury, recommend that the said Edward Loughlin be held to the grand jury until discharged by due course of law.
We hold William H. Musham, fire marshal, responsible for gross neglect of duty in not enforcing the city ordinances as they relate to his department, and failure to have his subordinate, William Sailers, fireman at the Iroquois Theater, report the lack of fire apparatus and appliances as required by law; and we, the jury, recommend that the said William H. Musham be held to the grand jury until discharged by due course of law.
- Neglect of Duty by Sallers.
We hold the said William Sailers, as fireman of Iroquois Theater, for gross neglect of duty in not reporting the lack of proper fire apparatus and appliances; and we, the jury, recommend that the said William Sailers be held to the grand jury until discharged by due course of law.
We hold William McMullen, electric-light operator, for gross neglect and carelessness in performance of duty; and we, the jury, recommend that the said William McMullen be held to the grand jury until discharged by due process of law.
We hold James E. Cummings, as stage carpenter and general superintendent of stage, responsible for gross carelessness and neglect of duty in not equipping the stage with proper fire apparatus and appliances; and we, the jury, recommend that the said James E. Cummings be held to the grand jury until discharged by due course of law.
From testimony presented to this jury, same shows a laxity and carelessness in city officials and their routine in transacting business, which calls for revision by the mayor and city council; and we, the jury demand immediate action on the following:
- Building Department.
Should have classified printed lists, to be filled out by an inspector, then signed by head of department, before any public building can secure amusement license, and record kept thereof in duplicate carbon book.
All fire escapes should have separate passageways to the ground, without passing any openings in the walls.
All scenery and paraphernalia of any kind kept on the stage should be absolutely fireproof.
Asbestos curtains should be reinforced by steel curtains and held by steel cables.
There should be two electric mains entering all places of amusement, one from the front, with switchboard in box office, controlling entire auditorium and exits, and one on stage, to be used for theatrical purposes.
All city officials and employes should familiarize themselves with city ordinances as they relate to their respective departments, and pass a rigid and signed examination on same before they are given positions. This same rule should be made to apply to those holding office.
- Fire Department.
All theaters and public placcs should be supplied with at least two city firemen, who shall be under the direction of the fire department and paid by the proprietors of said places.
We recommend that the office and detail work of the fire department, as imposed on the fire marshal, be made a separate and distinct work from fire fighting, as it is hardly to be expected of any fire marshal to give good and efficient service in both of these branches.
Also a police officer in full uniform detailed in and about said place at each and every performance.
In testimony wherof, the said coroner and jury of this inquest have hereunto set their hands the day and year aforesaid.
L. H. Meyer, Foreman,
J. A. Cummings,
Walter D. Clingman,
John E. Finn,
George W. Atkin.
John E. Traeger, Coroner.
1. "Verdict of Coroner's Jury", The Great Chicago Theater Disaster, The Complete Story told by the Survivors, by Mashall Everett, Publishers Union of America, 1904, pages A-D.
See AlsoGreat Chicago Theater Disaster 1904 - List of VictimsIroquois Theatre fire
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