Wednesday, January 19, 2011

CR3 #6: Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903 by Nat Brandt

It seems that life in America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was fraught with danger. At any moment truly horrible things could happen to you--you could drown in a flood, perish in a fire-tornado, be overcome by a torrent of molasses, freeze to death on the prairie*, or die of any number of diseases, including the flu*. God forbid you try and travel anywhere, by any method*--then again, you could also be blown to smithereens while in your own home. Life at that time was perilous at best, even for those who lived lives of relative quiet. It's amazing the country managed to grow and thrive when it seems at every turn there was a disaster like the Triangle Shirtwaist fire*, the horrible destruction of the General Slocum* fire and the sinking of the Eastland* (both of which killed hundreds of women and children), or winter storms that froze school children* to death on their buses. The Iroquois Theatre fire--though the worst lost of life on American soil due to accident until that time--almost becomes par for the course when added in to the context of so many disasters.

In 1903, the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago was a beautiful new building, completed at the end of November just in time for the holiday season. It was the height of modern design, ready to bring in the shoppers and tourists to the matinee. The shows that came through were touring companies, brought by syndicate on tours through the entire Midwest. Unfortunately, what no one realized was that the building was a death trap--a building designed to keep the large crowd in no matter what, fire codes barely complied with or ignored entirely, short cuts taken at every turn in order to open on time, and municipal corruption that caused the city to turn a blind eye to this time-bomb in its midst. The result--the death of more than six hundred people, mostly women and children--shook the city and the country to the foundations.

Nat Brandt leads the reader through all the circumstances that led to this tragedy, the disaster itself, and the reaction of the American people afterward. It's an excellent book, easy to understand, both well-researched and well-written. Although it's nothing particularly new to its genre, it's well worth reading.

*Refers to a book read but not blogged on.

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