On the afternoon of December 30, 1903, during a sold-out matinee
performance, a fire broke out in Chicago's Iroquois Theatre. In the
short span of twenty minutes, more than six hundred people were
asphyxiated, burned, or trampled to death in a panicked mob's
failed attempt to escape. In "Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois
Theatre Fire of 1903, " Nat Brandt provides a detailed chronicle of
this horrific event to assess not only the titanic tragedy of the
fire itself but also the municipal corruption and greed that
kindled the flames beforehand and the political cover-ups hidden in
the smoke and ash afterwards.
Advertised as "absolutely fireproof, " the Iroquois was Chicago's
most modern playhouse when it opened in the fall of 1903. With the
approval of the city's building department, theater developers
Harry J. Powers and William J. Davis opened the theater prematurely
to take full advantage of the holiday crowds, ignoring flagrant
safety violations in the process.
The aftermath of the fire proved to be a study in the miscarriage
of justice. Despite overwhelming evidence that the building had not
been completed, that fire safety laws were ignored, and that
management had deliberately sealed off exits during the
performance, no one was ever convicted or otherwise held
accountable for the enormous loss of life.
Lavishly illustrated and featuring an introduction by Chicago
historians Perry R. Duis and Cathlyn Schallhorn, "Chicago"" Death
Trap: The IroquoisTheatre Fire of 1903 "is rich with vivid details
about this horrific disaster, captivatingly presented in human
terms without losing sight of the broader historical context.
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