Iroquois Theater Fire & Magnus Swenson
On December 30, 1903, a spark from an arc light caught a curtain on fire in Chicago’s Iroquois Theater, which was packed with attendees at a holiday season performance. The theater was not equipped with sprinklers, there was no fire alarm, and all the exits but one were locked from the outside. The final death toll that evening was 587 – burned, overcome by smoke, or trampled to death. The disaster was so horrific that management urged the theater’s workers to flee Chicago to avoid arrest. Outrage over this fire led to fire codes being established for theaters across the nation.
A number of Madisonians were at the theater.
Miss Anna Woodward described what happened in the January 1, 1904 issue of the Wisconsin State Journal: “I plainly saw the fire and made up my mind to leave… I found the doorway of the first balcony closed and the man standing outside refused to open it… he had evidently decided no one should leave the theater and in so doing started a panic… I went to the glass partition and smashed it with my umbrella. I went out and down the stairs... I heard the roar of the crowd as it came after me... they outran me and knocked me down, and but for the chance that I was close to the door, I think my chance of life would have been nothing.”
Madison professor and businessman Magnus Swenson was burned while assisting several women to escape the fire. He and Anna were among the lucky ones, for a number of Madisonians died that night. Dr. Alfred J. Oakey and his daughters Lucile, age 13, and Marion, age 11, were overcome by smoke while sitting in their seats. Ruth Moulton Robbins, a Madison High School student and granddaughter of former mayor Hiram Moulton, died in the crush around the doors. A number of UW students from the Chicago area did not survive.
The Capital Times reported on Ruth’s father’s agonizing journey through Chicago’s morgues: “As Robbins and a friend searched for his daughter they ‘went from one morgue to another and ofttimes waded in blood up to their knees. Mr. Robbins said some of the sights were horrible to witness. Dead people were piled up with their foreheads partly crushed in by shoes. When he located his daughter, the hair on the back of her head had been burned off.’”