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Haunted Iroquois Theatre

Dec 31, 2022

APPARITION ALERT! Today marks the 119th anniversary of the Iroquois Theatre fire, the deadliest single-building fire in American history and the deadliest theatre fire in the world. On December 30, 1903, an overbooked audience of up to 2300 crammed into the theatre to watch vaudeville star Eddie Foy perform in the matinee of the children’s show “Mr. Blue Beard.” An additional 400 people made up the cast and crew backstage. Built to be “fireproof,” the theatre had only been open for 6 weeks and the safety inspection was haphazardly rushed in an effort to open early and lock in holiday revenue while children were out of school.

The horrific scene started during the second act when the spotlight caught the curtain on fire and the blaze then spread to several oil-painted backdrops. Eddie Foy took the stage to try to calm the audience but things took a turn when cast and crew opened the outside doors, causing a backdraft that sent a literal ball of fire across the auditorium. By this time the people in the upper balcony had turned into a “horde of maniacs” (Foy’s words) all scrambling to escape.

The “fireproof” theatre had 30 exit doors – more than any theatre in the world at the time – and yet none were properly lit or marked because it would “distract from the show.” Many of the doors were also barred from the other side in order to keep out those without tickets. The doors that weren’t locked only opened inward, making it difficult to escape amongst a panicked stampede. Making matters worse, there were no fire alarms connected within the building. Many rushed to the not-quite-finished fire escapes but at least 120 of those people fell to their deaths in the alley below, now known as “Death Alley.”

When firefighters finally arrived to the deathly silent theatre, they had trouble opening the doors because the bodies were stacked 7 feet tall up against the doors. The death toll landed at 602 with an additional 250 injured. As it was a children’s show, the vast majority of casualties were comprised of women and children. In comparison, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 only yielded 300 deaths. As a result of this tragedy, all public buildings must now have clearly marked exit doors, fire alarms and sprinklers. Though the original structure was demolished in 1925, a new theatre was built on the site and is today known as the Nederlander Theatre, one of the most popular theatre venues in the city.

As for ghosts, many actors have reported seeing moving shadow figures in the balcony during rehearsals. Strangers in period garb have been seen in the back stairway and the smell of smoke is an ongoing phenomenon. A stage manager has also heard a toilet flush and giggling girls in the women’s room long after everyone had left for the night. When he checked on it – surprise – no one was there. According to @author_rick_hale from the Paranormal Study website, actress Nellie Reed, who died of injuries from the fire, is said to be seen in the balcony area and looks as real as a living person. People have approached her thinking she’s an employee but she disappears before their eyes.

Death Alley, which also served as a temporary morgue, is known to be particularly chilling (both literally and figuratively), with many visitors catching unexplained phenomenon on film. Some report feeling hands on their shoulders or hearing disembodied voices whispering their names. Women sometimes feel tugging on their skirts as if a child were trying to get their attention. According to @americanghostwalks, residual hauntings have even been seen of people falling to their deaths and fire has been seen “bursting” outside the back of the theatre.

The wildest story that @americanghostwalks reports is that of a stage manager on a smoke break. He heard a voice say, “smoke will kill you.” When he raised his head he saw an apparition of a woman in a hoop skirt and large hat but she then vanished before his eyes.

The paranormal reach of the Iroquois extends farther than the confines of the land itself. When the fire happened, the nearby Marshall Field’s store opened its 8th floor as morgue and makeshift hospital for the victims. Corpses were wrapped in linens from the bedding department and burns were treated with dish towels. Now a Macy’s, the store still has strange happenings on the 8th floor. Workers who spend too much time working on that floor have said that they experience a “heavy depression” and some have seen sightings of coffin apparitions.