In 2005, antique seller Judy Cooke of Elkhart, Ind. received a rare opportunity: the chance to help liquidate the estate of one Will J. Davis, the infamous owner of the Iroquois Theater during the fire of 1903. For a full year, she researched his souvenirs and tracked his correspondences, and her interest in the disaster grew.
The Iroquois Theater fire remains the deadliest single-building fire in U.S. history. At least 605 people died in the disaster on Dec. 30, including those who later succumbed to fire-related injuries. Finally, over 30 years after the Great Chicago Fire decimated the city, new building codes were enacted and enforced following this terrible incident.
Cooke began researching the fire in earnest in 2012, launching a Facebook group and website, iroquoistheater.com
, to collect her findings. The site houses all of her research from tracing the lives of the victims and their families to documenting historical truths and inaccuracies related to the fire. No topic remains too minuscule or trivial.
Today the research continues. Here’s more from Cooke on her research process and what she finds most fascinating about the Iroquois Theater fire:
Q: Your interest in the fire started with liquidating the estate of theater owner Will J. Davis. What relics did his estate have from the fire?
Judy Cooke: Some of the things that were part of his estate were sold at public auction, and we purchased them for ourselves not knowing that they were from the fire. There was hardwood from the front doors of the Iroquois and hinges from the backdoors. They were in a wooden box. What I suspect — and there’s no way of knowing — is he had them because they were used in [Davis’ criminal negligence trial following the fire]. I think that they may have been taken to the inquest. I can’t imagine why he would’ve had them.
Q: Like many disasters, myths and misconceptions surround the Iroquois Theater fire. What are some myths you’ve encountered?
Cooke: Someday I’m going to create a page for the website of common errors about the fire that continue to be made. They started in 1903 and have been carried forward ever since. The business of the doors opening inward — the doors did not open inward — is probably the most common one stated, but there are others. It has been interesting to see how errors are propagated over a period of years. Researchers today go looking for information about the fire, they find old newspapers, they read it in the newspaper and they’re inclined to think it’s true.
Q: You’ve traced so many families connected to the fire from victims to ushers to theater owners. Tell me about your research process.
Cooke: It differs with all of them. I have no professional training in this sort of work, and so I just sort of frail away at it until I find a loose string, and then I start pulling on it. And I just keep pulling until some sort of a picture starts to emerge. I rely on genealogy sites to help me fit the basic family together. One of my goals from the start was to give the victims something more than just being a name and a date and an age. Let’s give some sense of what their lives were like, what they did, who they loved, who they hated — whatever I could find out about them, and in some cases, that’s very limited.
Q: How often do you hear from the families of victims?
Cooke: Not as often as I wish. This last week, I received notice from two or three people, but that was more than usual. Sometimes weeks pass, many weeks, without a word from anyone. (If you have familial connections to anyone involved in the fire, contact Cooke at email@example.com)
Q: In your research, which stories have fascinated you the most?
Q: What’s next for you?
Cooke: I’m guessing it’ll take a couple more years for me to get done what I want to do. I’ve got 75 more people to research, and then I have to write a total story of the fire. I don’t expect it to say anything that everyone else’s stories haven’t told, but I want to make sure that I cover everything that can be covered.