Couch Place “Death Alley”, “The Alley of Death and Mutilation”

Behind Nederlander Theatre (Iroquois Theatre, Colonial Theatre, Oriental Theatre)

24 West Randolph Street, Chicago, IL

Status: Public Alley


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By Unknown author - <a rel="nofollow" class="external autonumber" href="">[1]</a>, Public Domain, Link

Location where 602 souls lost their lives in the Iroquois Theatre fire on December 30th, 1903.

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


This theatre was originally opened on November 23, 1903. The location was picked by the owners specifically to bring in women – and their children – traveling into the city for day trips. It was thought they would prefer a location near the heavily police patrolled Loop area.

December 30, 1903 – just a little over a month after the supposed fire proof theatre opened -was just another day. The matinee performance of Mr. Blue Beard for that day was completely sold out – estimated between 2,100 – 2,200 people - mostly women and children.

At 3:15 pm, just as the second act was about to begin, a small fire sparked out of a light and onto a cotton curtain. Stagehands attempted to put on the fire with chemical fire extinguishers but couldn’t get the chemical to the height of the fire above the stage. The fire quickly spread the gallery above the stage gaining access to a number of highly flammable painted scenery canvas. The stage manager tried to lower an asbestos curtain to protect the seating areas from the fire but it became hopelessly snagged. This curtain was later tested and found so cheaply made – full of wood pulp – that it would have been useless as fire protection.

By this time – despite pleads from the stage – panic was setting in amid the audience. Their escape was stopped by many different factors. Even those who found working fire escape doors were baffled by the strange locks on the doors. Others were trapped in hallways that looked like they led to doors but didn’t. In the worst example of this 200 people were trapped in a dead end unable to escape until they asphyxiated.

Much like the Third-Class passengers onboard the ill-fated RMS Titanic people were trapped behind metal screens. This time it was a reflection of that disaster as it was the most expensive seats that were sealed behind the curtains to stop patrons from leaving the cheap seats to sneak down to the expensive ones – something that was completely unnecessary with the theatre being sold out. Despite these horrors – which resulted in many deaths – we still haven’t covered the worst part.

This fire was one of the major disasters that led to the laws we enjoy today – most importantly, that all doors that could/will be used as emergency exits have to open outwards. The doors to this theatre opened inwards making it impossible for people to get the doors open once the crowd behind them built in a desperate attempt to escape themselves.

At the back of the building the actors and theatre staff were making their own more successful attempts to escape the expanding fire. Many left via the large stage doors for moving the scenery in and out – this had the unfortunate effect of feeding the growing fire a new supply of oxygen making it grow ever bigger. The large doors on the north side of the building caused such an influx of fresh air that a fireball was created which swept through the orchestra pit and the lower level seats – this fireball incinerated everything in its path including many trapped customers.

More people attempted to leave the building on the fire escapes which were incomplete and a number of them were killed by falling off of the icy metal stairs. Students from Northwestern University in the building behind the alley even rigged up a ladder over the alley and saved a few that way.

Approximately 575 people died in the fire (212 of them children) – 30 more died in the days that followed succumbing to their injuries, and the alley behind the theatre was used as a temporary morgue with bodies stacked – in some cases 6 feet high.

By contrast the Great Chicago Fire that burned for three days and destroyed a large area of the city killed only 300 people. Fire laws were changed and those responsible for death trap theatre were arrested – but as is the norm as much now as then they were rich and eventually acquitted.

The theatre was gutted and a new one called the Colonial Theatre was opened – despite the extensive damage and loss of life the exterior of the theatre suffered little damage.

In 1925 the building was completely demolished and the Oriental Theatre was built on the site. The theatre was renamed the Nederlander in 2018 and shows Broadway plays.

Contrary to popular belief there is a memorial to this fire. It was first in a nearby hospital where many of the victims were taken but it was moved to City Hall when this hospital was torn down. The memorial has no markings identifying it as having anything to do with the Iroquois fire leading to some confusion.

Paranormal Activity

The theatre itself has not reported to have any paranormal activity; although that may be an attempt to distance itself from the fire now over 100 years ago. The alley behind the theatre is much accessible to the general public and has stories of paranormal and ghostly activity dating back more than 100 years.

The most common activity is cold gusts of wind that will suddenly tear down the alley; of course in a Chicago winter freezing blasts of wind would be the norm.

Hearing your name whispered in your ear is also a common occurrence in the alley.

Other Activity: apparitions of the former theatre goers including children; feelings of not being wanted; feelings of being watched; feelings of unease; touches, pushes and pulls by unseen entities; disembodied voices, cries and screams and light anomalies.