The Iroquois Theater in Chicago was completed in November of 1903. The opening night play starred Eddie Foy in a musical called Mr. Bluebeard. Attendance was poor at the play until an afternoon matinee on December 30th when the house was not only packed to its capacity of 1600, but was overflowing into the aisles with 2,000 patrons most of whom were women and children.
The brand new theater was advertised as being “absolutely fireproof,” despite a Chicago Fire Department captain who had previously noted on a tour of the building “that there were no extinguishers, sprinklers, alarms, telephones, or water connections.” The captain reported his findings to the fire warden, and his commanding officer, who both told him “that nothing could be done.”
During a dance number in the second act during the show a fire started above the stage during a matinee performance attended mostly by young children on a school trip. The fire quickly spread, turning the scene at the Iroquois Theater into one of the worst disasters the city had ever seen.
Most of the exit doors were locked, so people got crushed to death trying to get out, meanwhile, up on the balcony, they did find an exit that was unlocked, so people started pushing their way out of it, which was a problem because the fire escape hadn’t been built yet. In the end about150 people died falling into the alley.
That alley become known to Chicago paranormal enthusiasts as “Death Alley,” and isconsidered to be one of the city’s most haunted locations. Approximately, 602 people died as a result of the fire. Melvoin-Berg said the alley is one of the most popular spots on several of Weird Chicago’s tours because of the frequent paranormal activity reports.
According to recent accounts from people who live and work in this area, “Death Alley” is not as empty as it appears to be. The narrow passageway, which runs behind the Oriental Theater, is rarely used today, except for the occasional delivery truck or a lone pedestrian who is in a hurry to get somewhere else. It is largely deserted, but why? The stories say that those a few who do pass through the alley often find themselves very uncomfortable and unsettled here. They say that faint cries are sometimes heard in the shadows and that some have reported being touched by unseen hands and by eerie cold spots that seem to come from nowhere and vanish just as quickly. One particular figure that appears is said to be the shadow of a woman wearing a tutu. It is suspected that it’s the ghost of a woman named Nellie Reed, who was a tightrope walker from London, England. She was the only vaudeville cast member to actually die in the production.”
The Iroquois Theater Fire in Chicago, Illinois, claimed 602 lives on December 30, 1903.
The building that housed the Iroquois theater was repaired and reopened several times before being razed and re-opening as the Oriental Theater in 1926. Today, the theater is known as the Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theater.