Heroes of the Iroquois Fire

7 Aug

The deadliest single-building fire in US history took place at the Iroquois Theater on Randolph Street in Chicago, December 30, 1903.  The  “absolutely fireproof” theater, as it was billed, caught fire just six weeks after opening.

At least 605 people died, although the actual number has never been confirmed.

Two heroes that day, credited with saving numerous lives, were former Chicago ballplayers.

Charlie Dexter, who played with Boston in 1902 and 03 after being released by the Orphans in July 1902, and John Franklin Houseman who had played for Chicago and St. Louis is the 1890s, were seated together in a box with their families when the fire broke out.

Charlie Dexter

The fire, ignited by a malfunctioning stage light, spread quickly and the estimated 2000 people in the audience panicked.

Contemporary newspaper accounts highlighted the heroics of three individuals in particular: Actor Eddie Foy, who stayed on the stage trying to calm the panicked crowd until finally escaping through a sewer, and the two ballplayers.

Several people had already jumped from the balconies as the fire spread, and Dexter and Houseman were credited with having forced open two doors on the north side of the theater and clearing away bodies to create a path to the exit.  When they were finally forced by the flames to leave their stations at the doors, where both stayed to usher people out, Houseman caught a woman jumping from a window in the theater’s gallery to the alley below.  According to reports, she was uninjured.

John Franklin Houseman

Both Dexter and Houseman downplayed their roles in the aftermath of the fire and credited Foy with “Saving hundreds of lives,” but their heroism likely saved as many lives and has, for the most part, been forgotten.

Houseman, born January 10, 1870, was the first Dutch-born major league ballplayer, he died November 4, 1922 in Chicago.

More on Charlie Dexter next week.

3 Responses to “Heroes of the Iroquois Fire”


  1. Spring Training, 1900 | Baseball History Daily - June 16, 2014

    […] few days later The Tribune said it appeared Griffith and utility man Charlie Dexter had […]

  2. “Go Back to Old Kentucky” | Baseball History Daily - September 26, 2014

    […] was Clarke and (Charlie) Dexter […]

  3. Jan. 10: John Houseman born – Chicago Baseball History Today - January 17, 2020

    […] Iroquois Theater fire of 1903, and credited with forcing open doors and saving numerous lives. Read more from Baseball History […]

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