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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903 » User review

Heartbreaking account of the worst fire in U.S. history.

  • Dec 15, 2008
Since I work only about five minutes away from the site of The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I. where 100 people lost their lives in February 2003, I felt compelled to read "Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903".  Relying heavily on newspaper accounts of the disaster, author Nat Brandt does a masterful job of recreating the awful events of that frigid December afternoon in 1903 when 602 people, mostly women and children, lost their lives in the Iroquois Theatre fire in downtown Chicago.  This is a heartbreaking story to say the least.

The Iroquois Theater was a brand new venue that had only been opened for a bit more than a month.  The parallels between this fire and what happened a century later  here in Rhode Island appear to be numerous.  Brandt discusses all of the shortcomings at the theater that resulted in such a heavy death toll.  For example, many of the emergency exits were camouflaged in an attempt to improve the appearance of the theater. In addition, most of these exits were locked during the performance and there were no "EXIT" signs posted anywhere.  Skylights were installed that would have allowed the fumes and flames to escape above the stage but because the opening of the theater was rushed to take advantage of the holiday season work on the skylights was put off.  Unfortunately the skylights were stuck shut and inoperable.  Other deficiencies, too numerous too mention here, also contributed to making this theater a death trap. Brandt also discusses the potential culpabilty of the owners of the building, the architect, the construction company, municipal inspectors and of course, the politicians.  Finally, we learn about the ultimate result of years of litigation by family members of the victims. Hint: It is not a happy ending.  My conclusion from reading "Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903" is a simple one: "Laxity spells disaster."   We never seem to learn, do we?  This a well written book that deserves your time and attention.   Highly recommended!
Iroquois 1 Iroquios 2 Iroquis 4

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Paul Tognetti ()
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I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
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On the afternoon of December 30, 1903, during a sold-out matinee performance, a fire broke out in Chicago's Iroquois Theatre. In the short span of twenty minutes, more than six hundred people were asphyxiated, burned, or trampled to death in a panicked mob's failed attempt to escape. In "Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903," Nat Brandt provides a detailed chronicle of this horrific event to assess not only the titanic tragedy of the fire itself but also the municipal corruption and greed that kindled the flames beforehand and the political cover-ups hidden in the smoke and ash afterwards.

Advertised as "absolutely fireproof," the Iroquois was Chicago's most modern playhouse when it opened in the fall of 1903. With the approval of the city's building department, theater developers Harry J. Powers and William J. Davis opened the theater prematurely to take full advantage of the holiday crowds, ignoring flagrant safety violations in the process.

The aftermath of the fire proved to be a study in the miscarriage of justice. Despite overwhelming evidence that the building had not been completed, that fire safety laws were ignored, and that management had deliberately sealed off exits during the performance, no one was ever convicted or otherwise held accountable for the enormous loss of life.

Lavishly illustrated and featuring an introduction by Chicago historians Perry R. Duis and Cathlyn Schallhorn, "Chicago"" Death Trap: The Iroquois Theatre Fire of ...

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ISBN-10: 0809324903
ISBN-13: 978-0809324903
Author: Nat Brandt
Genre: History, Disasters
Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press
Date Published: February 14, 2003
Format: Hardcover
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