I’ll Never Do That Again!
On This Day: October 8, 1871 — The Great Chicago Fire
From approximately 9:00 a.m. – Sunday, October 8th, until Tuesday, October 10th the fire burned approximately 3-4 square miles of Chicago, killing approximately 300 people.
The beginning of the fire is believed to have been a barn on the O’Leary farm. Historically, it was believed to be caused by a cow knocking over a kerosene lantern.*
The Facts & History:
The predominant building material at that time was wood.
2/3 of the structures were made of entirely wood.
The roofs of the building of that day were primarily tar and/or shingle, which was at that time highly flammable.
There were many sidewalks which were also made of wood.
The city employed (only) 200 firemen
The city owned (only) 17 steam-powered fire engines.
A 20-30 mile wind was blowing towards Lake Michigan.
“Months without rain had parched the city, and a major fire the previous night had exhausted firefighters and damaged equipment.”
“Misdirected fire equipment arrived too late, and a steady wind from the southwest carried the flames and blazing debris from block to block.”
“The slums became kindling for the downtown conflagration, where even the supposedly fireproof stone and brick buildings exploded in flames as the destruction swept northward.”
The destruction of the city’s water works
The Chicago River was believed to be a limiting factor in the spread of the fire. However, ambers and fiery debris were blown across the river.
Over time, the fire had jumped the river at a second location.
73 miles of roads (many of Chicago’s streets were made of wood — pine blocks)
120 miles of sidewalk burned (out of the 561 miles of wooden sidewalk)
17,500 buildings damaged or destroyed
A 1000,000 of the 300,000 were homeless
Approximately 120 actual bodies were recovered, and a top number of 300 were believed dead (The fire had incinerated the remains of yet many others.)
“In a peculiar twist of fate, and one that would not go unnoticed by the city’s press, the fire spared the O’Leary family’s home.”
Assigning Blame: Most historians no longer point to the Patrick and Catherine O’Leary’s barn as the cause and start of the fire. It is generally held that they were blamed because of a prejudice against Catholic Irish immigrants.*
In 1997, they were exonerated from any blame for the Great Chicago fire.
What If: “What if” — What if the Great Chicago fire of 1871 had never taken place? Kevin Borgia attempted to answer that question in an article titled, “What if the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 had never taken place (http://interactive.wbez.org/curiouscity/chicagofire/)
“Kevin’s provocative question sparked a fascinating debate on how one event can shape a metropolis.
It rained on October 9, 1871 — which helped stop the devastation!
Today, The Chicago Fire Academy stands on the O’Leary farm site.
Key Illustrative Thoughts:
• Arrived too late
• The tongue is a fire
• What if
• Exonerated 126 years late
• One event changes a city
• “Wood” — which saved lives
• A hoped-for “fire-stop” which didn’t
• Reasonable hope, but a false hope
• It started out as a normal day
• Say not, today or tomorrow we will go, buy, and sell
• A Fire Of Historical Note – but not the greatest yet
• Too few fire-fighters
• Too little equipment
• For some, the only hope is rain
Dwight Moody & The Great Chicago Fire:
Dwight L. Moody, by his own admission, made a mistake on the eighth of October 1871–a mistake he determined never to repeat.
He had been preaching in the city of Chicago. That particular night drew his largest audience yet. His message was “What will you do then with Jesus who is called the Christ?”
By the end of the service, he was tired. He concluded his message with a presentation of the gospel and a concluding statement: “Now I give you a week to think that over. And when we come together again, you will have opportunity to respond.”
A soloist began to sing. But before the final note, the music was drowned out by clanging bells and wailing sirens screaming through the streets. The great Chicago Fire was blazing.
In the ashen aftermath, hundreds were dead, and over a hundred thousand were homeless. Without a doubt, some who heard Moody’s message had died in the fire.
He reflected remorsefully that he would have given his right arm before he would ever give an audience another week to think over the message of the gospel.
Other Information & Links:
“Although that fire destroyed the official county documents, some land tract records were saved. Using this and other primary source information, Richard F. Bales created a scale drawing that reconstructed the OLeary neighborhood. Next he turned to the transcripts–more than 1,100 handwritten pages–from an investigation conducted by the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners, which interviewed more than 50 people over the course of 12 days. The board’s final report, published in the Chicago newspapers on December 12, 1871, indicates that commissioners were unable to determine the cause of the fire. And yet, by analyzing the 50 witnesses testimonies, the author concludes that the commissioners could have determined the cause of the fire had they desired to do so. Being more concerned with saving their own reputation from post-fire reports of incompetence, drunkenness and bribery, the commissioners failed to press forward for an answer.” — Richar Bales (and insurance adjuster by trade) — “The Great Chicago Fire And The Myth Of Mrs. O’leary’s Cow.”
Bales says the cause was a pipe smoker, who carelessly discarded a match in the O’Leary barn– named Daniel Sullivan, nicknamed “Peg Leg.”
Here is a link to an article on the fire by Fred Fedler. “The author is professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Central Florida, Orlando. A paper presented to the History, Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Msat’Communication at its convention in Memphis, Tenn., August 1985.”
Late one night, when we were all in bed,
Mrs. O’Leary lit a lantern in the shed.
Her cow kicked it over, then winked her eye and said,
“There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!”
— Chicago folksong
*An extensive but valuable citation as to the O’Leary Inquiry
During an inquiry held by the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners to determine the cause of the blaze, Catherine testified that she went to bed sometime between eight o’clock and eight-thirty, and was sleeping when her husband roused her with the words, “Cate, the barn is afire!” She ran outside to see it for herself, and watched as dozens of neighbors worked to save adjacent homes, fixing two washtubs to fire hydrants and running back and forth with buckets of water. One of them had thrown a party that night—Catherine recalled hearing fiddle music as she prepared for bed—and a woman named Mrs. White told her that someone had wandered away from the gathering and slipped into her barn. “She mentioned a man was in my barn milking my cows,” Catherine said. “I could not tell, for I didn’t see it.”
The board also questioned a suspect named Daniel Sullivan, who lived directly across from the O’Leary’s on DeKoven Street, and who had first alerted Patrick O’Leary to the fire. Sullivan, known as “Peg Leg” for his wooden limb, said he had attended the party and left about half past nine. As he stepped out into the night, he said, he saw a fire in the O’Learys’ barn. He ran across the street hollering, “Fire, fire, fire!” and headed straight to the source of the flames, reasoning that he might be able to save the cows. “I knew a horse could not be got out of a fire unless he be blinded,” Sullivan testified, “but I didn’t know but cows could. I turned to the left-hand side. I knew there was four cows tied to that end. I made at the cows and loosened them as quick as I could. I got two of them loose, but the place was too hot. I had to run when I saw the cows were not getting out.”
After nine days of questioning 50 people—testimony that made up more than 1,100 handwritten pages—the board members issued an inconclusive report about the fire’s cause. “Whether it originated from a spark blown from a chimney on that windy night,” it read, “or was set on fire by human agency, we are unable to determine.” Nevertheless Catherine O’Leary remained culpable in the public’s eye. None of her contemporaries bothered to ask the obvious questions that indicate her innocence: Why would she leave the barn after setting the fire—even accidentally—and go back into her home? Why would she not scream for help? Why would she risk losing her cows, her barn, and possibly her home without trying to save them?
One of Catherine’s sons, James, was two years old at the time of the fire, and would grow up to become “Big Jim” O’Leary, notorious saloon proprietor and gambling kingpin. Over the years he granted numerous newspaper interviews, complaining that, “That musty old fake about the cow kicking over the lamp gets me hot under the collar.” He insisted that the fire was caused by the spontaneous combustion of “green” (or newly harvested) hay, large quantities of which had been delivered to the barn on the eve of the fire. But the summer of 1871 had been one long and merciless heat wave in Chicago, with scorching temperatures extending into the fall, making it likely that the hay was thoroughly dry before being stored in the barn.
Patrick and Catherine O’Leary sold their cottage on DeKoven Street in 1879 and moved many times, eventually settling in on South Halstead Street on what was then the far South Side. In 1894, the year before Catherine died, her physician did what she’d always refused to do and gave a comment to the press:
“It would be impossible for me to describe to you the grief and indignation with which Mrs. O’Leary views the place that has been assigned her in history. That she is regarded as the cause, even accidentally, of the Great Chicago Fire is the grief of her life. She is shocked at the levity with which the subject is treated and at the satirical use of her name in connection with it…. She admits no reporters to her presence, and she is determined that whatever ridicule history may heap on her it will have to do it without the aid of her likeness. Many are the devices that have been tried to procure a picture of her, but she has been too sharp for any of them. No cartoon will ever make any sport of her features. She has not a likeness in the world and will never have one.”
Patrick and Catherine O’Leary are buried in Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery in Chicago, next to their son James and his wife. In 1997, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution exonerating Catherine—and her cow—from all blame.