The Iroquois Theater fire revisited: New information surfaces about LaPorte County victims

The stage area of the theater after the fire. (www.gutenberg.org photo)

An exterior shot of the Iroquois Theater on Randolph Street in Chicago.

By Fern Eddy Schultz, La Porte County Historian

On Monday, 27 November 1903, the brand new Iroquois Theater, an “absolutely fireproof” theater, opened in Chicago at 24-28 Randolph (between State and Dearborn streets). Back in 2011, I wrote about the Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago, 30 December 1903, and those who were involved from La Porte County. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Fern’s original 2011 column is included here below this one.)

La Porte County Historian Fern Eddy Schultz

At least 602 people died in the fire. Recently I received an email from an individual involved in that theater’s website. He/she had just come across my article and wanted to thank me for the information it contained. It had aided this individual in providing information about the Wile family and Joseph Norris of La Porte. Also, it helped to figure out that the Loomis and Beahm sisters were related, and found John Dickhut, who survived the fire.  

You may also be interested in the Iroquois Theater website (http://www.iroquoistheater.com). There is more information there about attendees that day from La Porte County—information about some that I did not have in my original article. One of these was Norton W. Barker from Michigan City. It is reported that he was in attendance with unknown others. He escaped from the auditorium with a young girl, an unknown stranger, who sat next to him. They climbed the seating alcove on the north side of the first floor and from there fled out a fire escape exit. Norton was married to Marjory Clark and they had two children, Wallace and Marjory. Norton was a nephew of John H. Barker of the Barker Car Company in Michigan City. The site reports that in 1878, at the age of 3, Norton’s father, Wallace Barker, had drowned in a boating accident on Lake Michigan. He was with a group of his fellow Hyde Park Qui Vive yacht club members. His hardware company, W.C. Barker, had failed two years earlier. Norton grew up in Chicago where his mother, Jessie Norton Barker, chose to remain after her husband’s death. Norton attended Phillips Andover Academy prep school near Boston. At his mother’s passing in 1899, he moved to Michigan City, where he met his wife.

In the years after the fire, Norton and Marjory’s marriage ended in divorce and in 1925, he married Florence E. Wilbur. By 1918, age 40, he described himself as retired. For twenty months (1921-1923), newspapers carried dozens of stories of his daughter’s failed effort to force Bryn Mawr to reinstate her after expulsion. It is reported that he received a “gift” from his uncle’s estate (a portion of 10 million dollars), adding to his 1896 inheritance of $50,000 from his grandmother, Cordelia Collamer Barker.

There is considerable family information on the Iroquois site about other La Porte County residents who were noted in my article and were in attendance. Anyone interested in these families will find the family information on the site of value to their research about the family. There are over 400 stories about audience victims.  Included is information about La Porte County residents Susie Lefmann, Nettie Mae Dickhut, Ella Wachs, Christ Flentyre, William Bray, Joseph D. Norris Jr., Susie Beahm, Angie Doolittle Loomis, Myra Knight Holmes, and others.   

In my article, I mention that “Mrs. Wachs and Mrs. Lefmann had several hundred dollars’ worth of jewelry on their person and this was missing.” The information about Christ Flentyre discusses the jewelry situation. His discussions with the police and others are a very interesting portion of the segment on the site about Flentyre.

If you have a problem accessing any of this information, please feel free to contact me for assistance at netster@csinet.net.

FERN EDDY SCHULTZ is LaPorte County’s official, state-appointed Historian.  

Fern’s original 2011 column on the Iroquis fire:

In the early 1900s, the Iroquois Theater, located at 24-28 Randolph St. in Chicago, was regularly attended by people from La Porte County. It was Dec. 30, 1903, when the theater was featuring “Mr. Blue Beard Jr.” that a disastrous fire struck. Varying numbers were reported as being in the audience that day as well as the number dead. One account reported 1,900 in attendance with as many as 600 deaths. About 100 more tickets than seating capacity were reported sold. As of Jan. 5, 1904, 586 were identified.

Carelessness in handling lights, lack of fire drills for employees, and desertion of their posts by employees during the panic were among the charges made. La Porteans first learned of the catastrophe through receipt of a telegram by Alderman Charles F. Lefmann from Henry Held to the effect that he had been unable to find any of the La Porte people and asking Lefmann to come to Chicago at once. Mrs. Lefmann, who was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. David Jones, was believed to have died because of inhalation of flames that shot through the theater.

Mae Dickhut was one of the La Porte party who perished. She was not a La Porte resident at the time of the fire but had worked in the millinery department of the Lefmann store seven years before. Ella K. (Flentye) Wachs was also among those who perished. She was born in La Porte and lived there all of her life. For many years she was employed in the store of Julius Barnes & Co. Annie Wile and two young cousins, Ruth and Harold Wile, also attended the party. Annie was one of the first to notice the fire on stage and was able to get to the street and safety. Her insistence on leaving was probably all that saved the three from losing their lives. Joseph Norris, who had a seat on the main floor, also escaped without injury.

An address of La Porte was given as the residence of 20-year-old Dora Mitchell, but it could not be verified that she was a resident. It was believed that a mistake in the town was given and the same was believed to have occurred in the case of Walter D. Austrian. His name appeared in the Chicago papers as one of the dead and as a La Porte resident, but no one by that name was known to be a resident.

Several Michigan City people were either in attendance but luckily were able to escape unhurt, or plans changed and they did not attend. W.A. Bray and daughter, Harriet, occupied seats in the first balcony, fifth row. They made their way through a window to a fire escape and safety. Ex-Mayor Gerritt S. VanDusen had lunch with a party of gentlemen at the Palmer House and was strongly urged to be a guest of one at the show. He refused as he had promised to take part in a Masonic meeting that evening. Mr. and Mrs. John H. Lutz and daughter, Gertrude, went to Chicago with intentions of attending the matinee but for some reason did not get there. Dr. and Mrs. E.G. Blinks were prospective members of a party to attend but it occurred to Mrs. Blinks she was to be in the cast of a local play, so they canceled the order for seats and the trip was postponed. Frank Brittingham was in Chicago with a friend and tried to get seats but the house was sold out, so they went to another playhouse.

Susie Beahm, 15, of Westville, escaped but suffered great injury. She was visiting her aunt, Mrs. John Holmes, who died the following day from injuries. They had occupied seats in the first balcony, third row. They became separated in the awful maelstrom of flame, smoke and frantic humanity. Susie reached the ground safely in the alley and was taken by hack to the home of her uncle and aunt, where she received services of an eminent specialist. Before going to Chicago, her mother and father made the decision the father would accompany her to the home of the relatives. Had the mother gone, she would, no doubt, have attended the matinee.

Miss Oenone Ransburg of La Porte was in Chicago and intended to go to the theater but changed her mind and went to the Studebaker Theater instead. Mrs. Angie Loomis of La Porte and an aunt and niece of Chicago were in the theater. The aunt was killed and the niece injured. Dr. Geo. Wasser and Dr. Geo. W. Taylor had gone from La Porte to Chicago on business and decided to see Mr. Blue Beard. They purchased tickets but were detained from attending. Miss Elizabeth Service was visiting friends and they endeavored to induce her to accompany them to the matinee. She, however, chose to return to La Porte and did not go to the theater.

Both Mrs. Wachs and Mrs. Lefmann had several hundred dollars’ worth of jewelry on their persons and this was missing. Whether the valuables were taken by the police and held by them to be claimed could not be determined at the time. There was supposition that the bodies may have been robbed of their valuables, several cases coming under the notice of the police immediately after the fire. Then baskets of money and jewelry were picked up from the main floor when the fire was extinguished.

An employee of the ill-fated Iroquis was interviewed in Erie, Pennsylvania, where the asbestos curtain for the theater was manufactured. He stated the builders of the theater “wanted a cheap job and that is what they got; that the curtain was of poor quality for the purpose intended, but the manufacturers were not to blame, inasmuch as they carried out their orders.”

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