Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Great Chicago Fire, Part 1

Mimi Cowan

Yesterday I told my eighty-eight-year-old grandmother I was writing a blog post about the Great Chicago Fire. She replied, "the one the cow started?"

Yup. The one the cow started. Well, actually, no. Everyone and their grandmother have blamed Chicago's biggest disaster on Mrs. O'Leary and her incendiary bovine for the past 142 years, but here's the thing:

The cow didn't do it.

But that got me thinking. Why, almost a century and a half later, is her name often the one thing people know about the fire? I've got some theories so grab a mug of milk, pull up a stool, and keep an eye on that lantern.

First, a little background: Late on Sunday October 8, 1871, a fire broke out on the west side of Chicago. Legend tells us that Catherine O'Leary placed a lantern behind the hoof of the cow she was milking. The cow kicked and the lantern broke, catching the surrounding hay on fire. Within moments, the entire barn was engulfed in flames.

Whether or not Mrs. O'Leary and her cow were at fault, there was most certainly a fire in or near the O'Leary barn that night. Thanks to an unusually dry summer, a city made of lumber, and a stiff wind, the flames spread too quickly for firefighters to control. By 1:30am the fire had engulfed the city courthouse, almost a mile from the O'Leary home, (and in the process destroying most of the city's records, to the horror of twenty-first century historians. Ahem.). Two hours later, when the city's pumping station burned down, firefighters all but gave up.

The fire raged all day Monday, consuming the downtown and north side. Fortunately, rain arrived early on Tuesday October 10, mostly extinguishing the flames. But also extinguished were the lives of at least 300 people. Additionally, about 100,000 were left homeless (about a third of the city's population), and property worth nearly $200 million dollars (somewhere between $2 and $4 trillion dollars in today's currency) was destroyed.

All this at the hands (okay, hooves) of a cow. Except, um, not. Most historians agree that it probably wasn't Mrs. O'Leary and her cow's fault. In fact, the official inquiry into the fire, way back in 1871, found Mrs. O'Leary not guilty. But somehow the myth took off anyway.126 years later, the Chicago City Council again exonerated Mrs. O'Leary and her cow (see Chicago Tribune October 6, 1997). But even today, if people know anything about the Great Conflagration of 1871 in Chicago, they know about Mrs. O'Leary and her cow.

So I started wondering: how did Mrs. O'Leary become the scapegoat and, more importantly, why?

The "how" was pretty easy to find out: on October 18, 1871 an article in the Chicago Times claimed that Mrs. O'Leary was a seventy-something-year-old Irish woman (she was actually in her late thirties or early forties) and that she had lived off handouts from the county poor relief board for most of her life (also false; she helped support her family of seven with a small milk business). When she was denied aid one day, the article explained, Kate O'Leary swore revenge on the city and later enacted this revenge with the careful placement of a lantern.

Despite the fact that just about the only thing that was correct in this article was Mrs. O'Leary's name, it was the root of what turned out to be a lifetime of shame and ostracizing for Kate O'Leary.

I still wanted to know why this myth stuck if it wasn't the truth. Turns out that the answers tell us more about late 19th-century Chicago than they tell us about Kate O'Leary. Tomorrow I'll tell you what French socialists, women with Molotov cocktails, Mrs. O'Leary, and the creation of modern Chicago all have to do with one another.

But here's a spoiler: if I were Kate, I'd take credit for it after all.

As a young kid Ms. Cowan loved history, except Chicago history. And immigration history. And labor history. After spending her twenties working at some of the nation's top opera companies, she changed careers, enrolled in grad school, and discovered her passion for all things historical; especially Chicago, immigration, and labor history. She has been a resident of the City of Big Shoulders for the last four years while researching and writing her (Boston College) doctoral dissertation on Irish and German immigrants in 19th-century Chicago.

1 comment:

hcr said...

This is really interesting! Cannot wait to hear how you explain all this!