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This week in history: Party like it's 1918 + documenting the Iroquois Theater fire

Welcome to the “This week in history” newsletter! Every Saturday we take a break from recapping the d
Chicago Sun-Times Afternoon Edition
Welcome to the “This week in history” newsletter! Every Saturday we take a break from recapping the day’s news to bring you a deep dive into Chicago’s celebratory, disastrous and rarely dull history. For more historic photos, follow us at @CSTphotovault on Facebook and Instagram.
— Alison Martin (@miss_alison_m, follow for extra history plus rants and dogs throughout the week)

This week in history: New Year’s celebrations bright amid flu pandemic
A Chicago barber wears a mask as he shaves a man’s beard in 1918. Chicago Daily News
A Chicago barber wears a mask as he shaves a man’s beard in 1918. Chicago Daily News
As reported in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:
Much like contemporary Chicagoans, the Chicagoans of 1918 were only too happy to see the end of the year. Not only had World War I finally ended, but the city faced a terrible flu pandemic that killed over 8,000 people that fall.
The Dec. 31, 1918 edition of the Chicago Daily News documented the pending thrill of the events to come that night.
“Hotels and clubs and other places where revelers congregate to greet the new year are overdoing themselves in the way of entertainment,” the paper reported. Celebrities from local theaters were booked to headline events, and some hotels and clubs even planned “stunts.”
Keep reading about how Chicagoans welcomed 1919 or check out the Influenza Archive for a detailed timeline of the flu pandemic in the city. “Ask Geoffrey” at WTTW also gave a thorough answer to what life was like in Chicago during the pandemic — read it here.
Past present
The stage of the Iroquois Theater on Jan. 4, 1904 after a deadly fire on Dec. 30, 1903. From the Sun-Times archive.
The stage of the Iroquois Theater on Jan. 4, 1904 after a deadly fire on Dec. 30, 1903. From the Sun-Times archive.
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 iroquoistheater@msn.com)
Q: In your research, which stories have fascinated you the most?
Cooke: The stories that I’ve enjoyed the most are the ones that are the least interesting for anyone else but me. I found so little about them, and I had to work very hard to put something together. Usually, what then results is a story that is assembled by all these little bits and pieces that far exceeds the scope of the fire, but it’s a fun puzzle. (Check out Spencer, a body thief who stole corpses from the theater, and Victoria Dray, a woman ahead of her time.)
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.
Holidays in Chicago
A happy couple standing in the Loop shares a midnight kiss to welcome in 1962. Photo by Bob Rubel/Chicago Sun-Times.
A happy couple standing in the Loop shares a midnight kiss to welcome in 1962. Photo by Bob Rubel/Chicago Sun-Times.
There wasn’t much of a party for New Year’s Eve in the Loop this year, but in 1961, 50,000 packed downtown to welcome in 1962.
“As midnight approached,” a Chicago Sun-Times report said, “thousands converged on State and Randolph, traditionally the focal point for merrymakers to toot their horns and toss their confetti.”
Chicago police closed vehicular traffic on Randolph Street but kept State Street moving, the report continues. One police captain estimated 7,000 people stood celebrating. Another 50,000 people spread throughout the Loop, he added.
“The pedestrians on the sidewalks cheered the motorist and the motorists honked back their answer,” the report said.
Chicago police restrain some of the New Year's Eve crowd celebrating at State and Randolph streets on Dec. 31, 1961. Photo by Bob Rubel/Chicago Sun-Times.
Chicago police restrain some of the New Year's Eve crowd celebrating at State and Randolph streets on Dec. 31, 1961. Photo by Bob Rubel/Chicago Sun-Times.
Thanks for reading! Want to share your thoughts? Your favorite moment in Chicago history? Your complaints? Send them to amartin@suntimes.com.
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