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The Chicago Theater Fire, 1875
"Burned Alive!" a headline on the frontpage of the Chicago Times declared on February 13, 1875. The story that followed described a horrific scene of destruction and mass death in an unnamed Chicago theater that was engulfed in flames when a gas burner fell over. People were said to have been roasted alive as they rushed en masse towards the exit. Firemen had to carry out 157 charred bodies from the remains.

The story was identified as fictitious both at its beginning and end, but you had to read closely to catch the disclaimers. For instance, the clue at the beginning of the article was a headline that read: "Description of a Suppositious Holocaust Likely to Occur Any Night." It was placed eleven rows beneath the main headline. And quite a few readers probably had no idea what was meant by a "suppositious holocaust".

Similarly, those who made it through to the end of the article found a brief discussion there of how such a tragedy could easily occur (but hadn't yet) because most of the theaters in Chicago were fire hazards. Most people didn't read through to the end.

Readers who had been misled by the article were furious. A flood of letters poured in berating the Times for its poor judgement. The rival Chicago Tribune reported that one woman had collapsed and gone insane after seeing her husband's name listed among the victims. But further down the same page the Tribune admitted that this report was, in turn, a hoax.

The theater fire hoax became emblematic of the no-holds-barred style of journalistic sensationalism that emerged towards the end of the century.

Links and References
  • "Burned Alive!" Chicago Times (February 13, 1875): 1.
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All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.