The Iroquois Theatre Fire

On December 30, 1903 in the afternoon 575 people – hundreds of young children and their mothers who had come to see Eddie Foy in a holiday matinee – died when flames, fumes, smoke and explosions rocketed from the stage of the Iroquois Theatre. Then a thin blue mist and great volumes of grey cloud engulfed the audience. Many died in their seats, others were trampled on their way to the exits.

The Mayor, the second Carter Harrison elected in 1897, was arrested and held to answer when it was discovered that the City Commissioner of Buildings had not inspected the building or enforced regulations regarding the fire escapes and extinguishers. The Commission had the authority to direct the Fire Department to tear down a dangerous and defective building.

The Mayor was held, released under habeas corpus, and eventually absolved from liability. In November of that year, a month before the fire, the Mayor had been told the violations were so numerous it was impossible for the City to enforce the ordinances.

The theatre owners, Harry J. Powers and Will J. Davis, were sued individually for 575 counts of manslaughter. Their defense attorney was Levy Mayer. The motion to quash the criminal indictments was argued by Levy Mayer before Judge Kersten, Chief Judge of the Criminal Court. Later other attorneys joined the defense.

Judge Kersten quashed the criminal indictments and also dismissed the common law counts. The case was moved out of Chicago. The civil case did eventually go to trial in Vermillion country in March of 1907, more than three years after the deaths. At one point more than 100 actions for damages at law were filed. None of these cases reached a jury. No one was held liable in civil or criminal action, and no fines were paid.

This continued Levy Mayer’s successful arguments against government regulations and began for him a lifelong relationship of successfully representing theatre owners in Chicago and nationally. [see also: The Triangle Factory Fire]

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