Monday, February 28, 2011

I wonder

Susie Isabel Clay- 1888

Was it a whim? Was it a long-planned for and much-anticipated outing with friends? Did she board public transit, walk through the cold Chicago streets, or get a ride with friends? How did she start her day? Did she read the paper, eat toast and coffee, indulge in a breakfast out? It was school vacation, was there a stack of papers to grade calling to her? Did she leave that stack behind to treat herself to an afternoon of fun in Chicago's newest and fanciest theater?

I don't know the answer to any of these questions. What I do know is that on December 30, 1903 Susie Clay, native of New York State found herself in the audience of the Iroquois Theater in Chicago. She was about to become a part of American history. The day, that may have started with such promise for so many was about to become the last of their lives, Susie included. They died when the Iroquois Theater, billed as "fireproof" went up in flames, killing 650 in the audience, mostly women and children on a school holiday outing to see a matinee in the City.

Susie is a mystery to me for a number of reasons and she haunts me more than any other ancestor I have uncovered. Susie is the aunt of my husband's great-grandmother. They shared a name, and I believe an affinity for each other because of it.

By the time Susie was 17 she had lost both of her parents, who had been Potato Famine survivors. I can't imagine facing life at 17 in the late 1800s as a young woman alone. She must have been feisty, a trait I admire and am drawn to. Instead of settling down and marrying a nice boy from the area, Susie became a teacher. She taught in her home area, I've seen her mentioned in teacher union information published at the time. She must have been innovative and dedicated, because she is particularly singled out for her teaching strategies.

Why she decided to move to Chicago is beyond me. Yet, in 1891 she appears in the Chicago City Directory as living alone in a boarding house. She is in her early 20s, far from home, hearth, family and friends and making her way in a new city. Susie spends the next 12 years teaching in Chicago and moving from boarding house to rental apartment. Each year her name appears in the City Directory as she determinedly continued with her independent and solitary life. No husband, no children ever appear in her life. What independence! Independence I believe it to be, I've seen pictures of her and she was lovely.

So now I find myself at the Christmas Break of 1903 (before we thought to call it Winter Break or wish Happy Holidays). For reasons known only to her she did not make the trek home to be with family. I don't know how long it had been since she had been home at all. When was the last time she saw her siblings, put flowers on her parent's graves, checked in with former students and colleagues? Did she feel lonely and at loose ends? How did she spend Christmas Eve and Christmas morning? Was the trip to the theater a mid-Winter "pick-me-up" for a homesick woman?

I can imagine the theater sounds and smells. It was so new I bet it still smelled of paint and fresh varnish. All those women and children were gathered to enjoy a matinee in Chicago's newest theater. I can hear the excited voices, mothers trying to still squirming children. The rustle of coats, the click of heels, the playbills crackling, and the frisson of anticipation in the air must have been wonderful to be a part of. I can imagine the lights going down, the last flurry of movement as everyone settled in to be amused. It was a comedy play, with a well know male lead. The laughter must have been wonderful. I can see doting mothers grinning at the delight of their children. Susie was there, I can see her as part of the crowd, with her smart clothes, and straight back.

I assume she was in the balcony, inexpensive seats, and the most dangerous. As the play moved on, none knew what was in store for them. At some point in the play, a piece of scenery came to rest against a stage light, it began to smoke, it began to flame. The audience saw what had happened and a small nervous energy ran through the crowd. The leading actor broke character and encouraged everyone to sit down and remain calm. The crowd responded and the stage hands began to lower the ASBESTOS curtain to contain the fire to the stage. The wooden bar that weighted the bottom of the curtain caught, allowing only half the curtain to fall. Someone opened a back stage door, giving the fire a blast of cold Chicago air. The fire blasted free of the stage, billowed out over the balcony, killing hundreds as they sat. Now panic would not be stopped, and everyone ran for exits. Children were trampled, doors and gates were illegally locked and bodies stacked up at them, fire escapes hadn't been built and people rushed out doors stories in the air with no ladders or stairs. The carnage is beyond imagining.

The chaos in Chicago should be easy to envision. Injured, dying and dead were transported to hospitals and morgues all over. Some by hearse, some by ambulance, some by public transit. Nobody knew where anyone was, and many were unidentifiable. There are tales of fathers losing wives and all children, entire families wiped out. One poor soul searched the city and when his daughter was found, he gathered her poor broken body and brought her home by public transit. For days the paper carried names of the injured and dead and where they could be found.

Susie had no family to worry, no husband to notice her absence. There was no person to wander the morgues and hospitals seeking her. Ultimately she was identified by a woman who identified herself as a friend. Was she a fellow teacher, a former student? What made her able to say that Susie was missing and go looking for her? How was Susie identified? By sight, by clothing, by jewelry?

Susie was sent home to New York State to be buried beside her parents. She was 34 when she died. Her life leaves so many questions for me. Was it a whim? A whim that took her to Chicago to begin with? Was she trying to start over, start at all? Why did she leave her home and her siblings to teach in Chicago and why did she find herself at the theater that day?

Susie haunts me. I feel like it is important that our family remembers this solitary, independent woman. I keep her picture nearby and look at it often, wondering about her. Someday, I hope to find a newspaper article from her hometown that might answer some of my questions. Until then, she makes me think about how seemingly innocent choices can lead to very unexpected moments in time. Imagine, she started the day a Chicago teacher out for an afternoon's amusement, and ended up a victim of America's worst theater fire EVER.

I remember you Susie, and I want to know your story. I wonder.....



    This link has a particularly vivid description of the events of the day as well as a list of the dead.

  2. I have now found that Susie taught at Gillestel School in Chicago. Only two individuals from that school died in the fire. Susie and a fellow teacher, Ella Fair (aged 45). Also, I have Susie's age wrong in this entry.

    She was born in 1855 and that makes her 48 at the time of her death. Her mother died when she was 10 or 11 and her father died when she was 17.

    She went to Albany Normal School to train as a teacher, graduating in 1888. In the past I have found references to her in the teacher's union writings and in school reports for her innovation of flash cards in teaching the children. Pretty innovative in an era when children were still being taught by memorization and recitation.

    In one book I have, "Tenants No More" she is listed as having died with students. I don't believe this to be true as no students from her school perished in the fire. I think she went to the theater that day with her fellow teacher, Ella and they both died.

    The fire was in the afternoon of December 30, 1903. By midnight of that night some 45 bodies were at Carroll's Funeral Home, which is where Susie was. She was listed in the Chicago Tribune of Jan 4, 1904 as among the dead and waiting at Carroll's for family. Her death certificate was issued Jan 25, 1904 and lists her cause of death and "asphyxiation, shock, and trauma." I think all the death certificates read the same, to spare families the details of their loved one's death. There is no physical description of the condition of her body. By the time her certificate is issued, she has already been sent to Albany for burial with her parents.

    I have contacted the cemetery to try to obtain copies of her burial transit permit, which would have been required for her remains to be shipped by train home. Unfortunately, there was a fire at the cemetery office and all records of this time period were lost.

    In another strange note, when I wrote to Illinois to get her death certificate my request was delayed. There was a fire in the archives room on the day I sent my request and while the records survived, it delayed the completion by a couple of months.

    Clearly, there is a connection between Susie and fire, and not a good one.

  3. I very much enjoyed your description of the Iroquois Theatre fire and Susie. If you learn more I would love it if you could add a note to this Facebook page about the Iroquois victims. I hope to some day know a bit about each and every victim, including those who survived.

    1. I keep looking and hoping for more information. So far all attempts to find newspaper articles from her hometown have been futile. Curiously, when I called the historical society for her hometown and described what I was looking for, the woman who worked there asked if Susie was one of the family who had died in the fire. Since none of her family was visiting I have no idea what she was talking about. Susie continues to hold her secrets.