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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Major American Fires: Iroquois Theater Fire

This is a guide to resources at the Illinois Fire Service Institute Library and online that discuss major American fires.

General Resources

Iroquois Theater Fire: Introduction

Ruined stage of the Iroquois Theater after the fire, looking down from the balcony. Taken by a Chicago Daily News Photographer January 4, 1904. DN-0001586, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum

The Iroquois Theater Fire occurred in Chicago on December 30, 1903. At least 602 people were killed; many were children. The theater, which had only been open one month, was considered to be architectually excellent, and advertisements had declared it fireproof. The fire occurred during a sold-out performance of the musical Mr. Bluebeard. The fire began when one of the lights over the stage shorted out and ignited a muslin curtain. The fire quickly spread through the flies to the hanging scenery, and a fireball travelled from the stage to the back of the balconies. The high death toll was the result of a combination of faults in the design, construction, and operation of the theater. Lack of extinguishers and alarms, a malfunctioning asbestos curtain, sealed vents, a confusing layout, locked doors, and locked metal gates that blocked the balcony stairways all contributed to the fire's high death toll.  

Books at the IFSI Library

These links take you to the IFSI catalog. To request an item, click "Add to Request Bin." This takes you to a page where you can fill out the online request form and submit to the IFSI library. To request items, you must be an Illinois resident with a library card from an Illinois library.

Online Resources


In a video available on, Nat Brandt leads a discussion at the Chicago Public Library about his book, Chicago Death Trap: Book Discussion on Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903

IFSI Library Information

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IFSI Library Website


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Libguide created by Elizabeth York