Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Great Chicago Fire, Part 2

Mimi Cowan

In yesterday’s post I gave you the basics of Chicago’s 1871 Great Conflagration, as they called it, and how Mrs. O’Leary became everyone’s favorite scapegoat. I also promised you a story about what French socialists, women with Molotov cocktails, Mrs. O’Leary, and the creation of modern Chicago all have in common.

So here’s where the story starts: as I flipped through a series of old images of Mrs. O’Leary, I realized that she looked different in every picture.
That’s because Mrs. O’Leary hid from the press; she didn’t want anyone to sketch her likeness in the papers. As a result, illustrators were free to depict her in anyway they chose. But if these aren’t accurate representations of Mrs. O’Leary, what were the models for these images?

Turns out that these depictions of Mrs. O’Leary bear a striking resemblance to images of the pétroleuses of the 1871 French Commune.

In March 1871, the citizens' militia and city council of Paris ran the French national government and army out of the city, and then declared a socialist-style government, referred to as the Commune. After taking back several Paris neighborhoods throughout April and May, the French army began their final attack on the remaining Commune-controlled areas. There were vicious street battles, and fires broke out and burned much of the city.

According to the French press, female radicals, dubbed pétroleuses, had supposedly started many of these fires, using petroleum-filled vessels, sort of like Molotov cocktails. While historians have not found any evidence that pétroleuses actually existed, the contemporary press nonetheless depicted these women as the source of the fires that ravaged the city.

Less than two weeks before the fire in Chicago, the Chicago Tribune ran an article detailing the Parisian trial of five supposed pétroleuses. The article claimed that the women were “repulsive in the extreme, being that of the lowest, most depraved class of women . . . their clothes were sordid, their hair undressed, their features coarse, bestial, and sullen” (Chicago Tribune, September 26, 1871).

This description of the pétroleuses could be applied to the images of Mrs. O’Leary. Images of the pétroleuses and of Mrs. O’Leary share the same wrinkled, masculine features; sharp, long noses; and wild, stringy, unkempt hair.

Perhaps the people who drew Mrs. O’Leary depicted her with characteristics of a pétroleuse simply because both were accused of burning their cities down. But I think it’s more than that.

In the early 1870s Chicago’s business elite had begun to worry that their large immigrant working-class population would turn against them and overthrow the city government to establish a Commune, just as they had in Paris only weeks before the Chicago fire.

So when Mrs. O’Leary was presented as a scapegoat for the fire, illustrators were able to use her to express the deepest fears of the businessmen of Chicago: that the large immigrant working-class population might embrace the ideas of dangerous European radicals and destroy the city. The myth of Mrs. O’Leary, then, was not necessarily a condemnation of the real, live Kate O’Leary. It was a warning to Chicagoans about the threat posed by radical working-class immigrants. Beware, these images said, because they’re already among us, destroying our city, just like they did in Paris.

The irony of all this is that the 1871 fire provided a clean slate of sorts and allowed Chicago to develop into a modern industrial powerhouse in the last quarter of the 19th century. Without the opportunity for rebirth provided by the fire, this may not have occurred. In addition to the fire, however, there was one other necessary ingredient for Chicago’s industrial transformation: the presence of a large working-class immigrant population.

Perhaps Mrs. O’Leary, then, did represent what working-class immigrants would do to the city, but the illustrators got it backwards: instead of destroying it, the fire, Mrs. O’Leary, and hundreds of thousands of hard-working immigrants just like her were, in fact, the future of the city.

So, next time someone blames the 1871 Chicago fire on Kate O’Leary and her fidgety cow, you can let them know that she didn’t do it, but she’ll be happy to take the credit.

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