|from the funeral program of Leigh Nicea Hovland 3 January1904|
When my third great grandfather Erik Anderson Elton immigrated to America from Norway in 1854, he was accompanied by his 24 year-old sister Sigrid Elton.
Tragically, Erik died the following year at age 38 when he was hit by a falling tree. One might speculate that Erik's sister Sigrid would have offered support to Erik's widow Sarah Knutsdatter Holien and her two young daughters.
Sigrid Elton would marry another Norwegian immigrant, Anders Lien, in 1857 and go on to have a family of 8 children with him. The oldest daughter in the Lien family was Anna born in 1860.
|Anna Lien (1st cousin to my Dad's grandma Anna Elton)|
When Anna was 21, she married another man of Norwegian heritage, John P. Hovland.
|Anna Lien and John P. Hovland|
married 14 March 1881
Albert Lea, Minnesota
Anna and John had two daughters born in Albert Lea, Minnesota: Edna born in 1887 and Leigh in 1890.
|Leigh (left) and Edna (right) about 1893|
(Leigh and Edna were 2nd cousins to my grandfather John Bardahl')
Sometime before the 1900 U.S. census, the family moved from Albert Lea, Minnesota to Chicago, Illinois. John was a successful businessman with a chain of clothing shops and a partnership in a silk importing business in Chicago. He was well able to provide his family with many of the fine things that life in Chicago could provide at the turn of the last century.
One of those fine things was the wherewithal to attend live theater performances in the burgeoning theater district of Chicago. On 30 December 1903, with school out for Christmas vacation, the two Hovland daughters had tickets for the matinee performance of the popular musical comedy "Mr. Blue Beard" at the recently opened Iroquois Theater near the corner of Dearborn and Randolf Streets.
|Advertisement from the Kansas City Times, 31 December 1903, page 4|
The Iroquois was casting its net for audience members far and wide.
|Location of Iroquois Theater Dearborn and Randolf (later the home of the Nederlander)|
The elegant new theater was packed that afternoon with over 1700 people dressed in their holiday finery. No doubt the teenagers Edna and Leigh Hovland were dressed in their nicest dresses and had been anticipating this outing to the theater in downtown Chicago. They were accompanied that afternoon by their 21 year-old cousin Clyde Thompson, a student at Wisconsin University. Clyde had been a holiday houseguest at the Hovlands home at 33 Humboldt Boulevard. He is sometimes referred to as Leigh's "fiance" and it is possible that marriage was their long-term goal, notwithstanding their close kinship and her young age which make this sound unlikely to our modern ears.
According to a newspaper article from the following day, it seems there were 16 people attending from a two-block stretch of Humboldt Boulevard, including 13 year-old Josephine Pilat with her mother and younger sister of 34 Humboldt. It is not much of a stretch to assume the Hovland girls and their cousin were with neighborhood friends. The majority of the audience members for this midweek matinee were, not surprisingly, women and children. The first act went just fine, but a few minutes into the second act, a spark from a stage light caught on some of the stage material and soon engulfed the building in flames. An asbestos curtain that should have prevented the spread of the flames jammed uselessly.
Tragically, it seems that many corners had been cut in an all-out effort to have the theater completed in time to take advantage of the busy theater season. Bribes may have enabled bypassing crucial inspections and safety equipment. Far from being "absolutely fireproof" as advertised, the Iroquois Theater was actually a firetrap. Exit doors had been locked; those that worked opened inward such that the crush of people trying to escape made it impossible to get the doors open. Younger children were trampled. Fire escapes led nowhere. Some doors also led nowhere. No exit signs had been lit since it was thought they would distract the audience from the performance. Family members easily became separated from one another in the mayhem that ensued.
|The Chicago Tribune 31 December 1903|
602 people died that afternoon, including 13 year-olds Leigh Hovland, her cousin Clyde Thompson and her neighbor Josephine Pilat. Leigh's older sister had managed to escape, as had Josephine's mother and younger sister.
|The Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois) · 31 Dec 1903, Thu · Page 5|
It took some time for all the bodies to be identified and returned to their families for burial. Although classified as "missing" the day after the fire, Leigh's obituary was printed just 3 days later.
|Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) · 3 Jan 1904, Sun · Page 7|
An excellent series of photographs from the time showing the elegant new theater before the fire and then the terrible aftermath can be found on a video at this link.
Leigh Hovland was my second cousin twice removed. She didn't have the opportunity to grow up to have a family of her own so as to leave direct descendants to remember her. (Her sister Edna did marry and have a family and lived to the age of 82.)
The Iroquois Theater fire of 1903 has the sad distinction of appearing as the 5th most deadly fire/explosion in American history. Surprisingly, it is not nearly so famous as the less deadly Great Chicago Fire of 1871. In the aftermath, a series of investigations pointed to many faults and rampant wrongdoing, from the Mayor on down, but no one was ever held accountable.
The legacy of the terrible tragedy that took Leigh's life along with that of her cousin and 600 other people is that safety measures are now the expected norm. New standards were established in Chicago and most other jurisdictions with respect to aisles, exits, lit exit signs, fire alarms and other equipment. Exit doors must open outward (with "panic bars" or "push bars") so that they can open if there is a crush of folks trying to escape a burning building.
Although I live a long way from Chicago, I have twice had the opportunity to attend live performances at theaters there, most recently "Hamilton" in 2019. Located just blocks from where the Iroquois Theater fire had taken the life of Leigh Hovland, our enjoyment of the performance was not marred by concerns for our safety.
|The author and her husband attending "Hamilton" at the CIBC Theater 27 February 2019|
- Beatty, Jill, whose father was Leigh's first cousin, for sharing many of the family photographs and memorabilia shown above.
- Everett, Marshall; The Great Chicago Theater Disaster: The Complete Story Told by the Survivors; c. 1904 D.B. McCurdy, Publishers Union of America, 389 pp., available online at http://livinghistoryofillinois.com/pdf_files/Great%20Chicago%20Theater%20Disaster,%20The%20Complete%20Story%20Told%20by%20the%20Survivors,%20by%20Marshall%20Everett%201904.pdf
- Podcast: Stuff you Missed in History Class, "The Iroquois Theater Fire" episode of 8 December 2014 accessible here: https://podcasts.google.com/feed/aHR0cHM6Ly9mZWVkcy5tZWdhcGhvbmUuZm0vc3R1ZmZ5b3VtaXNzZWRpbmhpc3RvcnljbGFzcw/episode/aHR0cHM6Ly9wb2RjYXN0cy5ob3dzdHVmZndvcmtzLmNvbS9oc3cvcG9kY2FzdHMvc3ltaGMvMjAxNC0xMi0wOC1zeW1oYy1pcm9xdWlvcy10aGVhdGVyLWZpcmUubXAz?hl=en-CA&ved=2ahUKEwjRl7Ok99bxAhXUrJ4KHZZ6CNoQjrkEegQIAhAF&ep=6
- Uenuma, Francine; "The Iroquois Theater Disaster" article from the Smithsonian Magazine 12 June 2018 accessible here: https:www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-theater-blaze-killed-hundreds-forever-changed-way-we-approach-fire-safety-180969315/