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Little Known Facts about the Chicago Fire

Published on September 13th, 2018 by The Illinois Hammer Injury Law Firm


With the Chicago Fire anniversary just around the corner, here are some of the lesser known facts and history about the fire that led to the construction of the Second City.

The fire started October 8, 1871, at night from a barn owned by Patrick O’Leary and his wife Catherine, located at Chicago’s southwest side at W. DeKoven Street. While the age-old tale suggests the fire was caused by a cow kicking over a lantern on their farm, there are disputes that the cause of the fire may have originated by another cause, but due to prejudices against recent immigrants, the fire was blamed on the O’Leary’s. The fire grew rapidly and moved to east and north of Chicago, forming a wall speeding at almost 100 miles an hour which turned the Chicago beach sands into glass! It also crossed the Green Bay waters, damaging several cities in the area.

The fire finally came to rest two days later, when luckily rain showers helped the firefighters put it out. The results were devastating: an estimate of 300 deaths, and 100,000 rendered homeless with a trail of fire damage to thousands of buildings and properties totaling up to a whopping $200 million in damage, which is equal to over $4 Billion today!

Perhaps, what was even worse than the fire itself, was the lawlessness that followed it. Between October 8 and October 10, while the fire was still roaring, the city witnessed mass looting which compelled the government to enforce martial law on October 1 that wasn’t lifted until many weeks later. Coincidentally the same day the Chicago Fire began, a fire also broke out in Peshtigo, Wisconsin taking lives of 1,000 people.


The Second City

Chicago is famously known as the Second City because a large part of it had to be built all over again. A month after the fire, Joseph Medill was elected mayor who promised stricter building and fire codes. Much of Chicago’s infrastructure which included the stockyards and lumberyards on the South and West sides and the transportation system remained intact. By 1880, Chicago’s population reached a half million because of how quickly the city was rebuilt.

A group of talented architects like Louis Sullivan, Daniel H. Burnham, William Le Baron Jenney, and many more, designed new skyscrapers downtown, making Chicago the first city to feature such a structure. Generous monetary donations, food, clothing, and other goods flowed into Chicago from around the country and abroad. The Chicago Relief and Aid Society was placed in charge of the city’s relief efforts. City officials operated from the First Congregational Church, taking steps to preserve order in Chicago by reducing bread prices and pricing of other necessities, opening public buildings as a place of refuge for the homeless and closing saloons at 9pm to keep things peaceful and productive. In 1956, the Chicago Fire Academy was built at the location of the fire for training firefighters and a sculpture of flames called the Pillar of Fire by sculptor Egon Weiner was erected on the exact point of origin of the fire in 1961.


Debunking the O’Leary Myth

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!”

Patrick and Catherine O’Leary were two Irish immigrants. Patrick was a laborer and Catherine had five cows from which she sold milk. The journalists of some newspapers were quick to implicate Mrs. O’Leary, reporting that the fire began “on the corner of DeKoven and Twelfth Streets, being caused by a cow kicking over a lamp in a stable in which a woman was milking” and that Catherine was “an old Irish woman bent almost double with the weight of many years of toil, trouble, and privation,” concluding that she deliberately set fire to her barn out of bitterness. Such journalism instilled and supported ethnic stereotypes and fears about the growing number of immigrants in the city.

During the inquiry, Catherine testified that she was in bed when the fire broke out, and even though the investigation till date remains inconclusive, she remained culpable in the public’s eye. Perhaps it was because she belonged to a marginalized ethnic group which made her an easy scapegoat while the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, anti-female and anti-Irish sentiments were still strong. Reporters and the public continued to appear on Mrs. O’Leary’s doorstep, accusing her of destroying the city and hurling abuses at her which eventually led the couple to sell their cottage and settle on South Halstead Street.

The remains of the O’Leary property were torn down and that is where the Chicago Fire Academy stands since 1956. In 1893, Michael Ahern, who was the Chicago Tribune reporter, admitted that he made up the whole story about Catherine and her cow because the story was more interesting and would sell better. Finally, in 1997, following a campaign by lawyer Richard Bales coupled with testimonies from historians and the great-great-granddaughter of Mrs. O’Leary, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance exonerating Catherine O’Leary and her cow of any blame for the Great Chicago Fire.

While the O’Leary story is the most famous legend, several other myths surround the Chicago Fire. Some say their neighbor who first reported the fire was the one who started it, some say it could have been some crap players, while others believe a milk thief may have knocked over the lantern. More wild theories include a belief that a comet (which just so happened to be passing the Northern Hemisphere at that time) dropped methane over areas of Chicago and Wisconsin which caused the fires in both Chicago and Peshtigo. We may never know the cause of the legend that is the Chicago Fire, but stories about it will live on eternally.


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