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Conspiracy Theories from Chicago History, Part 1

We're outlining six stories from Chicago history below that have answers...but a lot more questions.

Conspiracy theories are so hot right now.

On the political right, the political left, and all political points up, down, and in-between, everything seems like a conspiracy these days and it seems like everyone's got a new one to talk about. We're sure there's a new one spreading on social media right this very moment as we type.

They're everywhere...man...

Sure, they can be eye-rolling nonsense but some can be fun to think about and often make for great conversation.

Chicago has plenty conspiracy theories in its history so we're outlining six stories from Chicago history below that have answers...but a lot more questions.

We promise, none of the following have anything to do with aliens.

Or do they...?



What happened to United Airlines Flight 553?


United Airlines Flight 553
A photo from the National Transportation Safety Board investigation shows the aftermath of the United Airlines Flight 553 crash into Chicago's West Lawn neighborhood in the early winter of 1972. | Photo: National Transportation Safety Board Archives

The Event

On the afternoon of December 8, 1972, United Airlines Flight 553 crashed into a residential neighborhood while on approach to Chicago's Midway Airport. Including the crew, 43 of the 55 people aboard the aircraft were killed. The crash destroyed five houses, damaged three more, and killed two additional people on the ground.

The "Official" Story

It was early December and the Chicago area was overcast enough that day that Flight 553 was on instruments. It was cleared by air traffic control at 14:24 CST for a nonprecision approach on a northwesterly heading to land on runway 31L at Midway Airport. A pilot landing on that runway immediately after the accident later reported that the airport was only visible below 500–600 feet.

Investigators believe there was a point of confusion in the cockpit near the Kedzie One-Mile Beacon. When Flight 553 reached the Kedzie OMB, the aircraft was still at an altitude of 2,200 feet, a full 700 feet above the minimum crossing altitude of 1,500 feet, and 1,160 feet above the height at which the decision on whether to land must be finalized. Realizing the aircraft was too high, the captain extended the spoilers and steepened the aircraft's descent rate to 1,550 feet per minute (in comparison with the 1,000 feet per minute approximate rate specified by United Airlines for the final segment of a nonprecision approach; typical precision approach descent rates are 600–700 feet per minute).

The aircraft continued to descend at a rate of 1,500 feet per minute, emerging from cloud cover 500 feet above the ground. The captain leveled the plane off and increased engine power, but did not advance the throttles fully. With the spoilers still extended, thrust was not enough to maintain level flight without losing speed. The stick shaker, a stall warning device attached to the pilots' control yoke, activated 6–7 seconds after the aircraft leveled off and continued to sound as the aircraft entered an aerodynamic stall.

At the same time as this was happening, air-traffic controllers were able to see the miscalculation and they attempted to tell the pilot to abort the landing and go around. That call from air-traffic control apparently came either just before or at the same time the stall warning device went off and the pilot was unable to correct in time before the aircraft went into the stall.

The aircraft struck trees and then roofs along W. 71st Street before crashing into a house at 3722 W. 70th Place, 1.89 miles southeast of the runway, in a residential area of the city's West Lawn community, one and a half blocks west of Marquette Park.

Ground impact occurred at 14:28 CST. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was notified of the accident at 14:40 CST and immediately dispatched an investigation team to the scene.

The Flight Data Recorder (FDR) on board the aircraft was not functioning at the time of the crash due to a mechanical failure, but that's not enough to cry conspiracy. Fortunately, the ARTS-III (Automated Terminal Radar Services) system at nearby O'Hare International Airport was in operation at the time of the accident, and saved recorded transponder data on magnetic tape. The Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) was also working normally and the tape in that "black box" was relatively undamaged, which enabled the NTSB to sequence it in time with the readings of ARTS-III.

The CVR showed cockpit discussion of the FDR fault and it was reported that the crew had become distracted by it.

Despite the collective experience of the crew, investigators found no evidence of sabotage or foul play and ultimately concluded that the probable cause of the accident was the captain’s "failure to exercise positive flight management." The official report even went so far to reiterate and emphasize the apparent lack of crew coordination and cockpit discipline during nonprecision approaches. At the time, there had been a recent FAA Bulletin raising issues about the training and culture of cockpits.

So, it seems pretty simple and straightforward, right? The cockpit got distracted, which lead to an error and, in a plane, no matter how sterling a career may be, one error can be fatal.

Where's the conspiracy?



The Conspiracy

The flight-deck crew of United Airlines Flight 553 consisted of Captain Wendell Lewis Whitehouse, age 44, First Officer Walter O. Coble, age 43, and Second Officer Barry J. Elder, age 31. Captain Whitehouse was a highly experienced pilot with approximately 18,000 flight hours to his credit, had been with United Airlines since 1956, and had logged more than 2,400 flight hours in the Boeing 737 cockpit. First Officer Coble had more than 10,600 flight hours (including nearly 1,700 hours in the Boeing 737). And Second Officer Elder had close to 2,700 hours, with nearly 1,200 of them in the Boeing 737.

Apparently, 50 agents of the FBI were on the scene about 45 minutes after the crash, and these agents were there for a significant period of time before any investigators from the NTSB. This level of FBI response was reported as "unusually fast," but the FBI's behavior that day was not just noted for their response time.

It was so unusual, in fact, that John Reed, chairman of the NTSB at the time wrote a letter to FBI Director William Ruckelshaus that, in part, said this:

"Our investigative team assigned to this accident discovered on the day following the accident that several FBI agents had taken a number of non-typical actions relating to this accident within the first few hours following the accident. Included were: for the first time in the memory of our staff, an FBI agent went to the control tower and listened to the tower tapes before our investigators had done so; and for the-first time to our knowledge, in connection with an aircraft accident, an FBI agent interviewed witnesses to the crash, including flight attendants on the aircraft prior to the NTSB interviews. These actions...have raised innumerable questions in the minds of those with legitimate interests in ascertaining the cause of this accident. Included among those who have asked questions, for example, is the Government Activities Subcommittee of the House Government Operations Committee.

Well then...

Just what could have prompted such interest from the FBI in getting to the tower tapes and witness interviews before the NTSB?

Among the passengers killed on United Airlines Flight 553 were Illinois congressman George W. Collins, CBS News correspondent Michele Clark, and Dorothy Hunt, the wife of Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt. Later, the NTSB would hear testimony in a June 13, 1974 hearing in Rosemont about the crash that 12 of the planes passengers had links to Watergate.

Oh.

Hunt was reportedly carrying $10,000 in cash when the plane crashed (over $65,000 today), and some alleged that this money was meant for people connected to Watergate. James McCord alleged that Hunt supplied the Watergate defendants with money for legal expenses.

Sherman Skolnick, a Chicago-based private investigator, said that Hunt actually carried $2 million in traveler's checks and money orders stolen from the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, $50,000 in currency, and documents that may have led to the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. He stated a hitman — that Nixon had placed aboard the aircraft to make sure that Hunt was killed — also died in the crash.

To that last paragraph and to be fair, the Chicago Tribune said that Skolnick knitted scores of facts and assumptions together "loosely" and "no documentation was produced to substantiate the charges."

Still, the claim of CIA responsibility was echoed by Nixon's own special counsel Chuck Colson in an interview with Time magazine in 1974. However, the same article speculated that Colson was accusing the CIA of the broad Watergate conspiracy in a desperate attempt to stave off Nixon's impeachment in the scandal, and that Colson may have "lost touch with reality" as he faced a prison sentence.

But maybe "The Watergate Crash" is not exciting enough for you?

Perhaps we could interest you in something that sounds as if out of a Dan Brown novel?



The Murder of Ioan Petru Culianu, Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago


Ioan Petru Culianu
Ioan Petru Culianu. Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. | Photo: University of Chicago Archives

The Event

At noon on a Tuesday, May 21, 1991, just minutes after concluding a conversation with his doctoral student, Alexander Argüelles, on a day when the building was teeming with visitors to a book sale, the Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago was murdered in the bathroom of Swift Hall, the University's divinity school.

The "Official" Story

Well...

He was shot once in the back of the head with a .25 caliber weapon. The identity of the killer and the motive are still unknown.

And that's about all that's "official" about that...

The Conspiracy

Ioan Petru Culianu or Couliano was a Romanian historian of religion, culture, and ideas, he was a philosopher and political essayist, and he was known as a short story writer. He served as Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago beginning in 1988 until his death in 1991.

An expert in Gnosticism and Renaissance Magic, Culianu published seminal work on the interrelation of the occult, Eros, magic, physics, and history. He had previously taught the history of Romanian culture at the University of Groningen.

Culianu was once a friend and encouraged by Mircea Eliade, the famous professor at the University of Chicago who, as one of the founders of the "Chicago School," "basically defined the study of religions for the second half of the 20th century." Eliade was so influential that his funeral on the University of Chicago campus was attended by 1,200 people. World famous Chicago author, Saul Bellow, even gave a lecture on one of his works at that funeral.

So close were the two professors that, even after their relationship soured due to political disagreements, Culianu became the literary executor of Mircea Eliade after Eliade's death in 1986.

Before Eliade's death, the Romanian Securitate had unsuccessfully tried to infiltrate Eliade's inner circle in Chicago in 1984 in order to influence Romanian public opinion and decision making. It was around this time that Culianu would begin to distance himself from Eliade's far-right politics and the relationship between the two friends soured.

Flash forward.

Before being killed, Culianu had published a number of articles and interviews that heavily criticized the Ion Iliescu post-Revolution regime, making Culianu one of the Romanian government's most vocal adversaries. According to Vladimir Tismăneanu, a Romanian-American political scientist, political analyst, sociologist, and Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, "Culianu gave the most devastating indictment of the new union of far left and far right in Romania." As part of his criticism of the Iron Guard, Culianu had come to expose Mircea Eliade's connections with the latter movement during the interwar years.

Several theories link his murder with the Romanian Intelligence Service, which was widely perceived as the successor of the Securitate. Culianu once lambasted the Romanian Securitate as a force "of epochal stupidity".

Some reports suggest that Culianu had been threatened by anonymous phone calls in the days leading up to his killing, though that is unconfirmed. Some factions of the Romanian political right openly celebrated his murder.

Oh, and by the way, several pages of Culianu's Securitate files are inexplicably missing.



The Assassination of Mayor Anton Cermak?


Guiseppe Zangara
Guiseppe Zangara, America's first "Death Row" inmate pictured in the Florida prison where he would be executed after he killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak during an attempt to assassinate President-Elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt. | Photo: Public Domain

The Event

While shaking hands with President-Elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt at Bayfront Park in Miami, Florida on February 15, 1933, Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak was shot in the lung and mortally wounded by Giuseppe Zangara, who was allegedly attempting to assassinate President Roosevelt.

The "Official" Story

Giuseppe "Joe" Zangara was an Italian immigrant and naturalized United States citizen who worked occasional odd jobs, including jobs in and around Bayfront Park in Miami. Zangara reportedly purchased the pistol he used in the shooting a couple of days before from a local pawn shop.

As he was only 5 feet tall, Zangara was unable to see over other people and had to stand on a wobbly metal folding chair to get a clear sight at his target, peering over the hat of local woman named Lillian Cross. At the critical moment, Lillian Cross saw the gun and hit Zangara's arm with her purse and spoiled his aim.

Zangara began shooting wildly. In addition to Cermak, Zangara hit four other people: Margaret Kruis, 21, of Newark, NJ, was shot through the hand; Mabel Gill of Miami, was shot in the abdomen; William Sinnott, a New York police detective, received a glancing blow to the forehead and scalp; and Russell Caldwell, 22, of Miami, was hit squarely in the forehead by a spent bullet casing which embedded itself under the skin. But all four of those injuries were considered minor. Cermak himself was hit in the right lung.

Zangara was apprehended and later confessed, telling the police that, though he did not hate Roosevelt personally, he hated rich and powerful people. Zangara reportedly also stated, "I have the gun in my hand. I kill kings and presidents first and next all capitalists."

Once at the hospital, Cermak reportedly uttered the line that is engraved on his tomb, saying to Roosevelt "I'm glad it was me, not you."

Cermak died three weeks later.

This one, too, seems pretty cut and dry right? A crazy communist tried to kill the ultra-wealthy President-Elect because he's crazy. Done.

Not so fast...

This involves a Chicago politician, after all...



The Conspiracy

First, as to the myth that Mayor Cermak said "I'm glad it was me, not you," to Roosevelt in the hospital. The Chicago Tribune reported the quote without attributing it to a witness, and a reporter who was there that day, Ed Gilbreth, later stated that the phrase was created by William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago Herald-American to make a good headline and sell papers. Mayor Cermak's general dislike of Roosevelt was well-known and the quote is believed to be apocryphal.

But back to the conspiracy. Let's see if you can grasp this absolutely wild sequence of events...

  • April 7, 1931, Anton Cermak is sworn into office as the Mayor of Chicago.

After the corruption that had infiltrated William “Big Bill” Thompson’s previous administrations (Thompson had effectively been bankrolled by Johnny Torrio/Al Capone and the Chicago Outfit), Cermak ran as a realist and broke the hold that the Irish had on Chicago politics at the time and brought many other ethnic groups to the polling places. Cermak didn't believe Prohibition would ever be able to be enforced, and he also didn't like that the Outfit had begun to expand into more extensive gambling, prostitution, and other vice operations.

Still, though Cermak publicly stated that he was going to crackdown on the gang violence and corruption that plagued Chicago's streets, Anton Cermak was not much different.

His "crackdown" allegedly had more to do with cleaning up the Italian-led Outfit who controlled the politicians in favor of, perhaps ironically, Irish mobsters who had offered Cermak a better deal.

  • On June 16, 1931, Al Capone pleaded guilty to tax evasion and prohibition charges after reportedly making a deal for a 2.5 year sentence.

Capone changed his plea to Not Guilty after the judge implied that he had no intention of abiding any deal Capone had with the state.

  • October, 1931, Capone is convicted.
  • November, 1931, Capone was sentenced to eleven years in federal prison.

Late in the summer of 1931, after several months of acting as Cermak's street supervisor since his election, Teddy Newberry, an Irish Mobster who had taken over the remnants of the Dean O'Banion/Bugsy Moran gang after the Valentine's Day Massacre, was rumored to have sat down with Cermak and worked out a deal. As Newberry and Cermak saw it, with Capone and most of his top men behind bars, or on the run from the law, what was left of the syndicate would easily fall apart. So they, allegedly, decided to take the spoils for themselves and find ways to eliminate Torrio/Capone's Chicago Outfit and redistribute their territories for Newberry.

To the press, Frank Nitti was the new public face of the Outfit, even though Paul Ricca was rumored to be the actual leader of the Outfit working behind the scenes.

  • On December 19, 1932, a team of Chicago police, headed by Detective Sergeants Harry Lang and Harry Miller, both well-known to be dirty cops, raided Frank Nitti's office in Room 554 of the LaSalle Building.

During the raid, Nitti was shot 3 times. Harry Lang claimed that Nitti had shot him in the arm first before he shot Nitti three times in the back and neck. Nitti lingered near death for a time, but eventually recovered.

  • On January 7, 1933, Teddy Newberry's body was found in a ditch near Bailey Town, Indiana, riddled by shotgun blasts.

Hmmm...things are getting a little more interesting...



  • On February 15, 1933, Cermak is shot by Giuseppe "Joe" Zangara, who was allegedly trying to shoot President-Elect Roosevelt.
  • March 6, 1933, Cermak dies in hospital and Giuseppe "Joe" Zangara's charges are upgraded to first-degree murder.

Zangara was sentenced to death by Florida judge, Uly Thompson. Zangara told the Judge, "You give me electric chair. I no afraid of that chair! You one of capitalists. You is crook man, too. Put me in electric chair. I no care!"

  • March 20, 1933, Zangara is executed in Old Sparky, the electric chair at Florida State Prison in Raiford. Zangara reportedly became enraged when he learned no newsreel cameras would be filming his final moments. His final statement was "Viva l'Italia! Goodbye to all poor peoples everywhere! Push the button! Go ahead, push the button!"

Again, a simple case of a crazy Italian communist who just had his Presidential assassination attempt spoiled by a lady's purse, right? Well, there's a little bit more to consider...

During Zangara's quick trial after the assassination, it was revealed that Zangara was reportedly an expert marksman in the Italian Army during WWI. However, his military experience was largely ignored in the trial because it was "with a rifle from a distance" as compared to shooting with a pistol from a wobbly chair.

  • In April 1933, Frank Nitti is put on trial for the shooting of Chicago Sergeant Harry Lang.

By the time Nitti goes on trial, Harry Lang had gained borderline hero status in the Chicago Police Department for shooting Nitti. He had even received a cash reward of $300 for meritorious service (about $6,500 today).

Police Officer Chris Callahan, a member of Mayor Cermak's "special squad" who participated in the LaSalle Street raid, was called to testify.

Callahan admitted on the witness stand that Nitti had been searched twice and that no gun had been found on him. When asked how Sergeant Lang was wounded, Callahan told a stunned courtroom that, "There was only one gun fired up there. Lang must have shot himself."

Lang was then called to the witness stand where he refused to answer questions, saying that his testimony might incriminate him. Sergeant Lang was then indicted on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon. His trial was set for later in the year.

Harry Miller, who was with Lang in the raid on Nitti, allegedly told investigators that Lang was offered $15,000 by Teddy Newberry to kill Nitti (over $250,000 today) two months before Cermak was shot. Also in the investigation leading up to Lang's trial, testimony was allegedly discovered that the murder attempt on Frank Nitti was given by Teddy Newberry in front of Mayor Anton Cermak and in Cermak's office.

  • In September 1933, Harry Lang goes on trial.

At Harry Lang's trial, Frank Nitti himself was called to the stand. He testified that while Callahan held him by the wrists, Lang shot him three times. Officer Callahan corroborated Nitti's story and Sergeant Lang was found guilty.

Lang immediately lost his job as a Chicago Police Officer but was granted a new trial and the charges disappeared. Why?

Nitti failed to show up in court. And, according to "The Outfit" by Gus Russo, Detective Sergeant Harry Lang allegedly warned, "I will blow the lid off Chicago politics and wreck the Democratic Party if I have to serve one day in jail."

FUN FACT: Another convict was already awaiting death in the Florida prison's "death cell" that was holding Guiseppe Zangara, so this prison needed to expand their waiting area. Zangara would be considered the first prisoner on what would become America's first "Death Row."



6. Did John Dillinger escape death at the Biograph?


John Dillinger Death Crowd
A photo from the night of July 22, 1934 shows the crowd outside the Biograph Theater after famous bank robber, John Dillinger, was shot and killed by Federal agents.

The Event

On July 22, 1934, at approximately 10:30 p.m., famous bank robber John Dillinger exited a late showing of Manhattan Melodrama at the Biograph Theater on Lincoln Avenue in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. Federal agents were waiting. Dillinger ran into an alley where he was shot 4 times and killed by agents.

The "Official" Story

There was already a large crowd at the Biograph Theater that summer Sunday night, but when word spread around the neighborhood that federal agents just shot John Dillinger, the crowd grew quickly.

As agents tried to get the scene under control, there were even reports of people dipping their handkerchiefs and skirts into the pool of blood that had formed as Dillinger lay in the alley, keepsakes to the history that played out in front of them on Chicago's streets.

We point this out to outline that, in addition to the approximately 15 federal agents and Chicago Police that were there to apprehend Dillinger that night, there were many, many civilian witnesses to this now infamous event.

So what could possibly lead to a conspiracy?

The Conspiracy

The inconsistencies with the reporting that night have been covered many times through the years, but first let's look at the body of John Dillinger:

  • Several witnesses claimed that the man who was shot had brown eyes, as did the coroner’s official report. But Dillinger’s eyes were distinctly blue/gray. So well known was his eye color that his wanted poster, issued by J. Edgar Hoover himself in March 1934, said his eyes were gray.
  • A witness claimed the corpse had a full set of front teeth, however, it was known through various documented photographs and dental records that Dillinger was missing his front right incisor.
  • Despite the coroner's report showing the body matching Dillinger's height and weight, that information was available on his driver's license. Many who knew him stated that the body in the morgue was shorter and heavier than Dillinger. A barber familiar with his hair claimed it was too thick.
  • The body had signs of rheumatic heart disease that Dillinger was never known to have had. Four years after his death, an Indiana Prison doctor claimed he knew about it but never recorded it, but also admitted he had "just had a conversation with Dillinger about it," rather than see to the diagnosis himself.
  • The body apparently also showed signs of a childhood illness that was not recorded in Dillinger’s early medical files nor was it acknowledged by his family. In contrast to other outlaws of the time, Dillinger spoke fondly of his family and by all accounts had a good relationship with his family, so this seems an unusual thing to hide.


More than that, a few months before his death, Dillinger and his gang settled in to the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin, where they hid out of sight of the authorities. The innkeepers found out who they were harboring but were promised that no harm would befall them.

But Dillinger didn’t trust them, and made sure that a member of his gang followed them into town, watched their every move, and listened in on all their phone calls and conversations. On one occasion, though, word was transmitted to the FBI that Dillinger was hiding out at the Little Bohemia Lodge, and FBI Agent Melvin Purvis assembled his team to storm the lodge and capture Dillinger.

The raid didn’t work out as planned, and on top of the entire Dillinger Gang escaping the Lodge unharmed, Melvin Purvis and his agents managed to kill several innocent bystanders and lost a member of their team in a gunfight exchange. The incident nearly lost Hoover his title of Director of the FBI and the incident embarrassed the entire Bureau and cast doubt on their ability to maintain order. A second embarrassment of that nature during another Dillinger capture might well have been grounds for dismissal of many of the top FBI officials, and perhaps even graver repercussions for the Bureau.

Many who knew Dillinger were aware he had been using the pseudonym Jimmy Lawrence around Chicago for quite some time because there was reportedly a petty criminal named Jimmy Lawrence in Chicago who looked like Dillinger, which is why he purportedly chose the name. Some say Dillinger, known for going to great lengths to disguise his appearance, including attempts to remove his fingerprints and even plastic surgery, found the real Jimmy Lawrence and paid him to be his double to help evade detection.

No one seems certain the person who was killed that night was even carrying a weapon. FBI agents claimed to have seen Dillinger reach for a weapon before he set off running into the side alleyway and the FBI even showcased in their headquarters the gun that was supposedly on Dillinger’s body the night he was killed. It turns out, however, that the small Colt semi-automatic pistol on display at the FBI was only manufactured after Dillinger’s death, making it impossible to have been the one he was allegedly carrying.

There were other dubious circumstances surrounding the events that followed Dillinger’s death. Anna Sage, the informant who notified Melvin Purvis where Dillinger would be that evening, was promised U.S. citizenship. She was deported shortly after.

After his body was returned to his family, Dillinger's father and sister both denied that the body in front of them was their son and brother, John. Dillinger's father even said, direct, "that's not my boy." Audrey, his sister, also needed additional convincing.

The fingerprints recovered from the body were poor in quality due to the fact that Dillinger had attempted to remove his fingerprints by burning them with acid, but they still showed consistent features with Dillinger’s known fingerprints. The change in eye color can also be explained through post-mortem pigment changes in the eye.

Dillinger's sister eventually positively identified his body after viewing a characteristic scar on his leg that was the result of an accident when they were kids.

As he was one of the most famous bank robbers in American history, in later years there were many imposters who would try to claim they were Dillinger and that they'd escaped death at Chicago's Biograph Theater. There was even rumored to be a machinist living in California as late as the early 1960s that so closely resembled Dillinger that it made even Melvin Purvis question if he had, in fact, escaped. Still, most experts believe Dillinger was killed by FBI agents in Chicago outside the Biograph Theater.



American Theatre's deadliest bribe?


Iroquois Theatre
A photo of the Iroquois Theatre on the day of the disaster. | Photo: DN-0001578, Chicago Daily News collection, Chicago History Museum

The Event

On a Wednesday, December 30, 1903, at approximately 3:15 p.m. during a matinee performance of the popular Drury Lane musical Mr. Blue Beard, sparks from an arc light ignited a muslin curtain and Chicago's Iroquois Theatre was engulfed in a fire that would kill 602 people. The disaster occurred during a packed house, afternoon matinee performance that was far oversold and attended by many, many women and children.

It remains the deadliest theatre fire in world history and the deadliest single building fire in United States history.

The "Official" Story

Poor planning and design.

Located at 24–28 West Randolph Street, between State Street and Dearborn Street (you may know the location today as the Nederlander Theatre), the Iroquois Theatre opened the week of Thanksgiving, November 23, 1903, after numerous delays.

Designed by 29-year-old architect Benjamin Marshall, labor unrest at the time was a noted reason for many of the delays but others would say additional factors contributed. Primarily that the young architect could not complete the designs on time.

Others would be more direct in criticizing Marshall's luxurious tastes. Marshall was too focused on becoming famous, they said, and was trying too hard to make a name for himself in architectural beauty and form instead of focusing on function.

One example cited was that Marshall removed many of the exit signs. Why? Because he thought exit signs were an ugly distraction when the lights went down on a performance. Seriously. But worse? There were several ornamental "doors" that looked like exits but were not. Two hundred people died in one passageway that looked like an exit but was not an exit.

Still, there should have been many people signing off on certain decisions, and blame can't be solely placed on the designer.

When Benjamin Marshall took too long with his designs and the labor disputes compounded, the syndicate financing the theatre became frustrated with the continued delays and rising costs and allegedly took many shortcuts and told contractors to cut significant corners. Further, the weather had been bad during the previous month and a half which, when combined with the labor unrest, meant the play had poor attendance since opening night and the facility needed to see some success. On the Wednesday afternoon of the disaster and going into the New Year holiday, tickets were sold for every seat in the house and the decision was made to allow hundreds more to attend the show in the standing room areas. The standing room areas were allegedly so crowded that, in addition to the standing room areas, some patrons were allowed to sit in the aisles. The Iroquois had an official seating capacity of 1,600 seats but estimates that day placed the disaster's crowd at approximately 2,100-2,200 people.

Everyone pointed fingers at each other and, despite the massive response and public outrage, most of the criminal charges, including those against Mayor Carter Harrison Jr., were dismissed three years later.

Some say they were dismissed because of nasty delay tactics used by the Iroquois Theatre financier's lawyers and their notable use of loopholes and citing inadequacies in the city's building and safety ordinances, others appeared to believe there were too many people to blame for the tragedy and no one could truly be held accountable for the loss of life.

So it was just a tragic accident?



The Conspiracy

Bribes. Lots and lots of bribes.

What did you expect? This is Chicago, after all...

The theatre was beautiful, no doubt about it. It's quality was said to have rivaled the best theatres in the country, at the time.

We've already outlined some of the design problems above but there were a number of other issues noted by inspectors:

  • The Iroquois Theatre had no fire alarm box or telephone. The Chicago Fire Department's Engine 13 was only alerted to the fire by a stagehand who had been ordered to run from the burning theater to the nearest firehouse. As a result, the citywide alert was not sent out until approximately 18 minutes after the fire ignited.
  • Skylights on the roof of the stage, which were intended to open automatically during a fire and allow smoke and heat to escape, were fastened closed.
  • The asbestos curtain, meant to protect the audience from fires on stage, was not tested regularly. As you probably could have guessed, it snagged during the event.
  • That same asbestos curtain was supposed to be made with asbestos and wire to create a strong and effective barrier against fire. The asbestos curtain at the Iroquois not only failed to lower but also proved to be both weak and flammable. Chemist Gustave J. Johnson of the Western Society of Engineers analyzed a piece of the material after the fire, saying: "[It] was largely wood pulp. By mixing pulp with asbestos fiber, the life of the curtain is prolonged, the cost is cheapened, and the wire foundation may be dispensed with... It results in a curtain that may get inside city ordinances, but is of no value in a fire."
  • Exit doors opened inward, into the auditorium. The crowd pressed against the doors, keeping them closed. When people were able to pull the doors open enough to get out, some people were then wedged in the door opening as people continued to push on the door.
  • Theatre staff had never had a fire drill.
  • There was no emergency lighting. The main auditorium lights were never switched on, so the theater remained dimly lit, as during a performance. When tons of burning scenery collapsed onto the stage, the electrical switchboard was destroyed and all electric lights went out.
  • During performances, the stairways were blocked with iron gates to prevent people with inexpensive tickets from taking seats in other parts of the theatre.
  • Even the fire escapes were neglected. They were not only narrow and not maintained properly, on December 30 in Chicago, they were covered with ice. People became trapped in the thick smoke billowing up and 125 people died trying to escape by fire escape on the north wall.

Yes, in case you weren't sure that what was just described would lead to literal hell on earth, you'd be right. Hell on earth is an appropriate description. Some first responders reported corpses stacked ten feet high around some of the blocked exits.

It was alleged that fire inspectors had been bribed with free tickets to overlook code violations, but that was not abnormal and free tickets isn't exactly a big bribe. Still, that would have been bad enough but, rumor has it, they went further.

William Clendenin, the editor of Fireproof magazine, inspected the Iroquois prior to its opening and wrote a scathing editorial about its fire dangers. Clendenin specifically pointed out that there was a great deal of wood trim yet no fire alarm and no sprinkler system over the stage.

Still, the theatre was deemed "absolutely fireproof" at its opening.

"I'm sorry, what...," you ask? Yes, you read correctly. Only about 30 years removed from the Great Chicago Fire, the promoters knew that event was still fresh in many Chicagoans memories and actively promoted the theatre as fireproof despite the knowledge that it was not.

It was said that George Williams, Chicago’s building commissioner of the day, and fire inspector Ed O'Laughlin looked over the theatre in November 1903 and declared that it was “fireproof, beyond all doubt.”

In the aftermath of the disaster, Williams was charged and convicted of misfeasance but never served time. Chicago’s Mayor Carter Harrison Jr. was also indicted, though the charges didn’t stick. The theatre owner was convicted of manslaughter due to the poor safety provisions but the conviction was later appealed and reversed.

In fact, the only person to serve any jail time in relation to this disaster was a nearby saloon owner who had robbed the dead bodies while his establishment served as a makeshift morgue following the fire.



The rest of the story...

Despite this being a city well known for public corruption, through all the trials and testimony and investigations, little proof was discovered about actual bribes and corruption other than the free show tickets. And, as many historians have pointed out in the years since, you can trust that, especially in a city like ours, there were absolutely people that were looking for it. Even 120 years ago there were many political partisans who would have loved nothing more than to have found the smoking gun and jumped upon certain public officials for this disaster.

George Williams, the city's building commissioner accused of saying the Iroquois Theatre was fireproof, reportedly actually told Mayor Harrison prior to the fire that, "there was not a single theatre in the city that was following the safety ordinances." Williams further relayed that, "if Mayor Harrison had shut down all the theatres [due to safety ordinances] they would have assassinated him." And Mayor Harrison's father, five-term Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison Sr. had been assassinated 10 years prior by a disgruntled former supporter.

And fire inspector Ed O'Laughlin? He apparently only told George Williams that the Iroquois Theatre was "Okay," not that it was absolutely fireproof. And he later clarified in testimony that he was simply referring to the structural integrity of the theatre rather than the fireproofing.

Still, the rumors of a coverup remain. And probably rightly should.

The Iroquois Theatre fire prompted widespread implementation in the United States of the panic bar, first invented in the United Kingdom following the Victoria Hall disaster. In New York City on New Year's Eve, the day after the fire, many theatres eliminated standing room. Theatres in Chicago were ordered shut for six weeks while building and fire codes were reformed. Theatres all around the country were immediately closed for retrofitting and even some cities in Europe did the same following the disaster. All theatre exits had to be clearly marked and the doors configured so that, even if they could not be pulled open from the outside, they could be pushed open from the inside.

The Iroquois Theatre was renamed and reopened as the Colonial Theatre in 1904. It remained active until the building was demolished in 1925. In 1926, the Oriental Theatre was built on the site. In 2019, the Oriental Theatre was renamed the Nederlander Theatre.

This last one will be a little more fun.



The Supper Club

The Event

As we said, this last one is a little more fun but it's not an individual event.

Did you ever wonder to yourself: How did Chicago become a truly world-class city for food, drinks, and dining? How did Chicago become a city that would take the culinary world by storm and be so dominant as compared to its historical size and influence that the James Beard Foundation Awards, the preeminent awards highlighting the industry's best, would eventually choose it to host their annual awards gala? How did Chicago steal the dining spotlight from the likes of Tokyo, Paris, and New York?

The "Official" Story

We've said many times, despite its many flaws (many, many, many flaws), Chicago is the Great American City.

Of course chefs and restaurateurs the world over would be charmed by our fine city. No doubt they would flock to our midwestern Paris on the Prairie to make their name and cement their reputations among the world's best. Without question this town would become, and deserve to become, as world-renowned for its sensational dining as it is for our sensational architecture and sensational politics.

It's just that good...

The Conspiracy

Once upon a time there was a particular fabulously wealthy Chicagoan who loved food. This fabulously wealthy Chicagoan loved everything about the dining experience, really. Everything from the taste of a new recipe they'd never tried before and the discovery of a new unknown chef, to a perfectly made drink or perfectly selected bottle of wine, and the conversational dance to be had around the table with friends, family, business partners, and political players alike.

But his insatiable appetite left him always wanting more. Fortunately, he was fabulously wealthy and he had fabulously wealthy friends.

He began inviting these friends to join him for regular dining experiences. As they got together more and more, his fabulously wealthy friends became almost as insatiable as the first in their search for "diamond in the rough" chefs and quality dining. And, as this group began to meet more and more, they joked they should form a club.

Familiar with the old midwestern supper clubs, particularly those that were popular in Wisconsin and liking the down-home feel of the colloquialism, they began to call their group The Chicago Supper Club. The Supper Club, for short.

With the financial means and connections to make things happen, the group decided to have more fun and friendly competition to outdo each other. From the aescetic to the opulent, no dining experience was out of their reach as long as it was extraordinary.

A buffet inside the Wrigley Field scoreboard and "the perfect tailgate" on an empty Soldier Field were some of the early locations. Keeping an unknown chef (but one of the city's future best) on call and waiting for a windless night to have a candlelit meal on a private LaSalle Street building with an infinity rooftop and purportedly one of the most jawdropping views of the city. An empty 'L' station where the servers came and went by train car. A yacht excursion that ended on one of the Lake Michigan water cribs where a world-famous chef reportedly provided one of the best meals the above mentioned fabulously wealthy founder of The Supper Club has ever had.

You get the idea.

Word got out among the industry's best that Chicago was the place to go. That if one could impress this particular group, your reputation (and your financial backing) was made.

Over the years, The Supper Club supposedly became truly exclusive and guests have included some of the city's most famous visitors and movers and shakers. It's been said that not only have many business deals been struck at meetings of The Supper Club, but many of the city's biggest decisions have been made and political horses have been chosen around The Supper Club table.

Whether all about The Supper Club is true or not is, of course, little more than rumor and conspiracy theory.

Or is it?



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