While wandering Chicago’s theater district last summer, I decided to locate the tragically named “Alley of Death” I had read about online while looking for possible paranormal spots to check out on my next trip. Because isn’t that the kind of thing everybody looks for when they have a free day to spend in the city? (I kid.) The story behind this is really quite horrific, and the tragedy is one of the main reasons there are so many fire safety precautions implemented in modern theaters today.
It began with a matinee showing of the musical comedy “Mr. Bluebeard” on December 30, 1903. The Iroquois Theater was new, grand and packed full with an audience of nearly 2000 patrons- most of them women and children enjoying their winter break. A stage light caused a small spark to ignite some fabric on the stage. This was not uncommon back then- most small stage fires were quickly put out, so panic did not ensue right away. When lowering the asbestos curtain failed to quell the flames, stage hands tried to calm the crowd but the fire became uncontrollable and terrified patrons attempted to stampede their way to the exits. A combination of mob frenzy and lack of stairways and functioning exit doors created bottlenecks that allowed no escape. Suddenly, a back draft from a stage door created a fireball that swept through the theater killing almost everyone left in its path. Those in the balconies that made it close enough to the exits jumped to their death in the alley, cushioning the fall for others. The death toll was near 600 or so and bodies were stacked up 6ft high in that alley way. Next door businesses opened up their doors as a makeshift morgue until the bodies could be identified and moved elsewhere. The fire itself was over in just 30 minutes.
Today the James M. Nederlander Theatre (formerly the Oriental Theatre) now occupies the place where the Iroquois once stood. And unassuming foot traffic and actors alike use the alley daily to pass through- there is no formal marker there to pay tribute to the great tragedy, yet today all theaters are equipped with functional and life saving emergency protocol because of it. I would love to spend more time ghost hunting in the theater district- do you have any paranormal stories from Chicago? Let me know! Happy wandering!
Note: All historical photos and info were taken from either Wikipedia, Smithsonian or Chicago Tribune sites. All current photos taken by me.