American History · history

Myth and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871

It was evening on the night of October 8, 1871 at 137 Devon Street in Chicago’s southwest side. Catherine O’Leary was trying to fall asleep after a long day of working at her profitable dairy business. Catherine and her husband, Patrick, were Irish immigrants who had escaped Ireland after the famine and were searching for a better life. They had bought a $500 double cottage and barn. Catherine’s business had grown so much that by 1871 she owned six cows and a horse/wagon for transportation. On this night, her husband and her five children were also asleep. Catherine struggled to fall asleep as her tenants, the Laughlin’s, (who rented the second half of the cottage from the O’Leary’s) were having a party with fiddle music. Around 9pm, there was a loud knock upon their front door. To the O’Leary family’s horror, their neighbor brought to their attention that their barn was aflame. They tried to quickly save the animals and other supplies (only a calf would end up surviving), but it was unsuccessful. Little did the O’Leary’s know, but their life (and all of Chicago’s history) was about to change.

At this time, Chicago was a fast growing city and had become the “Gateway to the West”. The city had a prime location upon the shores of Lake Michigan. All railroads would pass through Chicago as they traveled from the East to the West. It brought in many different people from all different types of backgrounds. Entrepreneurs were attracted to this city that oozed opportunity. The railroad, livestock/meatpacking, lumber, and steel industries were booming. Supplies would come in from various parts of the country through the railroad and then would be made into products ready to be shipped out. As the city expanded (by 1850 the population was about 300,000 and still growing), beautiful buildings began to be built. The Palmer Hotel and the Court House (claimed to be “fireproof” at the time) were some of the finest. Chicago wanted to stand up with some of the great cities of the East (New York, Boston, Philadelphia). Unfortunately, with the expansion and the hustle culture of the city, buildings were made quick and cheap. Most buildings of pre-fire Chicago were made almost entirely of wood. This included the streets and the bridges. The areas where Catherine O’Leary and the rest of the immigrant poor lived were small one story buildings that were close together.

Fire Engine during this era

As the city grew, so did the divide between the east coast Protestant aristocrats (who populated the North side) and the poor immigrants who lived in the slums. The immigrants were the factory workers and those who truly shaped Chicago into a successful city. One of the biggest groups of immigrants were the Irish Catholics who built communities and parishes in Chicago. Yet, they were also one of the most hated. The elite of Chicago (and in many other places in America) spread and published hateful words about the Irish immigrants. There was a big anti-Catholic sentiment at this time and they were eyed with suspicion. They would spread lies that the women were loose and the men were drunks. Yet, most just wanted to make a better life for themselves.

Newly freed African Americans also began to move to Chicago to find work and opportunity. They began to create communities in the South side as well. They began to feel prejudice as well.

The fall of 1871 had been extremely hot and dry. As of October 8th, the city had gone months without any rain. There had been over 20 fires within the first week, so conditions were ideal for a spark to erupt. Even the Chicago Tribune newspaper warned that any little spark could likely cause great destruction if let go unchecked. For a city of 300,000 citizens, there were only a bit less than 200 firemen. At this time, fires were put out by the horse drawn fire trucks. The firemen had been very busy already this month and were worn down, injured, and had damaged equipment.

When the watchmen first caught sight of the blaze from the O’Leary’s barn, they had misdirected the fire workers which caused them to arrive over 45 minutes late. The blaze had latched onto the dry, wooden buildings and was quickly consuming all in its path. People in nearby neighborhoods would watch the fire as a source of entertainment. That is until it started to burn further north as it was picked up by the heavy winds.

Many describe the view of this blaze as the apocalypse. It looked like the end of days as the fire kept raging higher and higher. The roar became very loud and one could feel the heat everywhere. It spread into the business district where it became a panic as the watchers realized that it was not stopping. The blaze was coming for them. It was described at some point as a 100 foot wall of flames that charged through the city. The “fireproof” court house eventually burned and collapsed. The great bell that had been ringing in alarm smashed to the ground in a loud clang. There were prisoners who were trapped in the prison inside the court house. Lucky for them, the mayor signed an order that they were to be released due to the events transpiring. Many escaped into the panic of the crowds.

The fire actually was able to cross the Chicago river twice during the 48 hours it raged. It was like it was a living creature. The fire workers could not keep up with the blaze. Eventually, it damaged the Chicago water works (actually one of the few buildings that survive to this day) and the fire workers had no access to the water supply to fight the fire. Everyone was now on their own. The wooden bridges were clogged with people desperate to flee the city. Families were separated in the panic. One could see many carrying as many precious belongings as they could. Some carried their mattresses upon their backs. Others, mostly in the richer neighborhoods, wore all the jewels they owned. It is hard to say what one would decide to take with them given only about two minutes to decide. Some people buried important items in hopes that they would be able to find it later. The owner of the Palmer Hotel actually was able to bury the blueprints which helped in the rebuilding effort later. Many people rushed to the lake where they stood in the lake for hours watching their livelihoods burn in the blaze.

Joseph Hudlin was a former slave who had also moved to Chicago with his family for a better life. He had a respectable position at the Board of Trade. During the fire, Hudlin bravely ran towards the Board of Trade offices (which were about to be burned in the fire) and saved critical documents before the building collapsed. His brave action made sure that Chicago would be able to rebuild quickly due to the documents and records that were saved. Later, the Hudlins would offer their surviving home to help families left homeless and in need in the aftermath of the flames. They would help any in need including both white and black neighbors. Hudlin would be recognized as a hero and his portrait would be hung in the new Board of Trade offices.

Joseph Hudlin and his wife, Anna Elizabeth

Finally, by some miracle, it began to rain on the night of October 9th after months of a drought. This ultimately extinguished the fire by October 10th 1871. The fire had left an estimated 300 people dead, one third of the population homeless (about 100,000), and 17,450 buildings destroyed. For those that survived, the city looked like a warzone. The fire had left a path of destruction four miles wide and one mile long. It was an open vista from the South side to the North. Much of the citizen’s belongings were now melted or turned to ash. One can imagine the panic as people began to search for missing loved ones. They would put ads in the papers and wait at any landmark they could find until they, hopefully, found who they were looking for. Many were never found.

All that progress over the past 40 years seemed to have been over in an instant, but many underestimated the energy the people of Chicago had. They began rebuilding as soon as possible. Businesses re-opened the day after the fire. They would build small wooden shacks to continue to hustle. The newspapers continued to run, including the Chicago Tribune which published the famous line “Chicago Shall Rise Again”. Many of the stockyards were untouched so the industries could continue, the railroads were still intact and many of the bank vaults still survived. This was national news, so donations from all over the country began pouring in. People in New York City and the East were encouraged to come to Chicago still as it was a city of opportunity. Now, they had a chance to rebuild even stronger. Even Queen Victoria in England, sent over a large number of books which started the first Chicago Public Library.

Unfortunately, many people wanted a scapegoat to point the finger at after this disaster. That fell hard upon the poor, especially the Irish Catholic immigrants. Despite being cleared in the official inquiry, Catherine O’Leary was destroyed in the public opinion. The newspapers and, later, books about the event came up with the myth that her cow had knocked over the lantern while she was milking it. This was completely untrue. Catherine had many things going against her, she was a successful business woman and she was Irish. She was portrayed looking like a witch who did this out of revenge. Despite speaking clearly and intelligently at the inquiry in the events (convincing law enforcement of her innocence), she was portrayed as an old senile woman (she was only 40 at the time). Ironically, her home survived. This was due to her husband and some of the neighbors filling wash tubs early in the night and keeping the home continuously damp. But, she did lose her barn, her livestock, and her business that she worked so hard for. Now she had to hide from photographers looking to take her pictures and vilify her to the city and nation. The official cause for the fire was not any specific person, but overall bad construction of the buildings and unsafe conditions. This was the opportunity for the white, Protestant, elite of Chicago to try and push out the Irish and other immigrants that they found to be undesirable.

During the initial rebuild, the city went under martial law (the first to be occupied since the Civil War). The official Relief and Aid Society was set up and run by the elite of Chicago. If one qualified, the society would help rebuild your business and your homes. Many would be able to obtain a relief kit which would give the materials to build your own temporary relief cottage for your family. They would help you find jobs as well as workers were need to help clear the rubble and rebuild the city to its former glory. As one can imagine, they were quicker to help certain people more than others. To many with immigrant backgrounds, they were strongly encouraged to take a free railroad pass and leave the city. About 30,000 left the city in the aftermath of the Chicago Fire. The majority were Irish Catholics.

A portrayal of Catherine O’Leary in the media

Catherine O’Leary and her family stayed in the Chicago area. Yet, every anniversary she had to be faced with the hate and the blame towards her. She was branded a welfare queen with fire as her revenge, yet she had never taken welfare in her life. Every anniversary, people would attempt to interview her and take her picture. Oftentimes they would publish fake interviews/photographs. In the anniversary parades, they re-enacted her as a caricature with her cow. In 1879, the O’Leary’s sold the cottage and left their community that they helped to build. They moved to the outskirts where Catherine lived as a recluse. Even after death, she could not be free of the publicity. People would desecrate her grave. They put her name in songs about the fire (such as the popular song, “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight”) to keep the myth alive. She would go down in history as the villain when in reality she had been a hard working woman just trying to make the American dream a reality. It is still unknown the true start of the fire. It could have possible been her tenants during their party, it could have been a group of kids playing in the barn, or someone who snuck in to smoke a pipe. But, the conditions of Chicago and the bad craftsmanship of the buildings would make a disaster like this inevitable. If it was not Mrs. O’Leary’s barn, it could have been anywhere.

By 1893, Chicago showed off its beauty and rebuilding efforts by becoming the site of the Worlds Fair. This was extremely important to the city and a lot of that pride must have come from the quick turn around from the destruction of the fire just about 20 years before. Chicago became a changed city, and likely for the better. They rebuilt buildings stronger and with more safety precautions in place. Young architects flowed in from all parts of the country and contributed their new ideas to the city. This was a challenge that they could undertake and a blank slate that they could put their name to. Skyscrapers begin to emerge within the decade which creates the skyline that we are familiar with today. One of the few remaining buildings, the water works, became a symbol of of civic pride. Chicago could have floundered during the years after the Great Fire, but the great entrepreneur spirit, the energy, and the creativity of the people helped to become the glory it was at the Worlds Fair and today.

Chicago Water Works


PBS Chicago Stories, The Great Chicago Fire: A Chicago Stories Special.

From Britannica

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American History · biography · history

Mrs. Astor, Queen of the Gilded Age

The Gilded Age, specifically in New York City, took place from about 1870-1900. This time period is so fascinating because of the absurd amount of wealth that was being thrown around by the upper class. The rules of society (specifically for women) were so strange and so confining. This is a time that the average modern American would not be able to connect to (maybe today’s technology billionaires could) and they must have seemed like other worldly beings to their contemporaries. They created luxurious houses, draped so many jewels around themselves, and stuck to a rigid code of etiquette all to cultivate an image. The members of the upper class during this era wanted to create something that America did not have. They wanted to be the aristocracy (like in Europe with their dukes, earls, etc.), yet, as this was America, there were no titles. They even had a queen, the formidable Mrs. Caroline Astor, who ruled and called the shots for what was considered “proper society”.

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American History · english history · european history · history

The Great Hunger 1845-1852

I have been doing research lately on the Irish potato famine (1845- 1852). The famine was a terrible disaster. Countless lives due to a blight affecting the potato crop which was the primary food source for a large part of the population. It is likely that many lives could have been saved if certain aspects were handled differently. This is easy to say in hindsight, but at the time the future was less clear. During this time there was a lot of fear, uncertainty, change in the workplace, and misinformation (sort of like what we have just lived through these past two years). There was a lot of information to sift through, but in this post I hope to provide the best summary of events.

In 1841, the population of Ireland was calculated at about 8 million people. By 1851, there was only 6.5 million remaining. 1.5 million are recorded deaths (likely to be much more than this) and 2 million as a result of mass emigration. This single event changed the shape of Ireland permanently. Pre-famine Ireland had quite a large population boom at the end of the 18th century. Despite the recent Anglo-Irish Union, Great Britain was growing wealthier and Ireland more poor. Once the war against Napoleon was complete, Irish exports were no longer in demand. Industrialization in Ireland slowed down and was unable to keep up with the the industrial revolution in England (which was now given priority). With the collapse of industrialization and manufacturing in Ireland, many people were pushed back to the land.

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American History · biography · history

The Riders of the Orphan Train ( 1854-1929)

I took a bit of a hiatus from the blog as it has been difficult to find the motivation to research and write. It has been a bit of a struggle to find topics I am passionate with especially with the worries of the past year. I recently took a trip to New York City and I found a bit of that passion once again. I visited Ellis Island and it was a great museum where I learned quite a bit. One small information blurb at the museum really caught my attention. From 1854-1929 the Orphan Trains delivered about 200,000 children to different homes in the American West. I thought this was incredible and I quickly wanted to learn more.

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American History · biography · european history · history

Humboldt and the Natural World

“As our planet faces irreversible global heating, politicians and scientists are throwing statistics and numbers at us, but few dare to talk about our awe for nature, or the vulnerable beauty of our planet…”

-Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature, quote from “Alexander von Humboldt, an Intrepid Scientist who Re-imagined the Natural World” HistoryExtra magazine Sept 2019 edition

Climate change is an extremely important topic in our present-day world. Greta Thurnberg’s speech at the Climate Action Summit this year has inspired as she became a social media sensation. It has inspired people who may not have been as well informed, including myself.  Yet, did you know the dangers of human induced climate change were recognized by one of the worlds most famous scientists as far back as 1800? Continue reading “Humboldt and the Natural World”

biography · english history · european history · history

Book Spotlight: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

In this post I wanted to highlight a new book by author and historian, Hallie Rubenhold. The Five is a history that involves the now infamous story of Jack the Ripper. Jack the Ripper was a serial killer that terrorized Victorian London. In the modern area, it seems his killing spree has almost been glorified through the media and tourist attractions. It is all about Jack the Ripper, his mysterious identity, and his modus operendi. His victims are only remembered as “prostitutes”, but can any of us even recite their names?

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American History · biography · history

Victoria Woodhull: First Female Presidential Candidate and Activist

Victoria Claflin was born on September 23, 1838 in Homer, Ohio. She was the seventh of ten children and was closest to her youngest sister, Tennessee. She grew up in a very rural area and her parents were considered “undesirable” in society. Her father was a con man and her mother a religious fanatic. Victoria would learn the valuable trade of fortune telling and how to be a medium through her mother. Victoria had to drop out of school after only three years of elementary school in order to earn income for her poor family. She earned this through fortune telling. The family was exiled from Homer after her father burned down their gristmill to try and cash in on the insurance policy. From this moment on Victoria spent much of her time traveling with her family attempting to earn money. Through her difficult childhood, Victoria learned to be independent and find strength within herself.

Image result for victoria woodhull

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biography · english history · european history · history

Lady Ada Lovelace: “Enchantress of Numbers”

While watching an episode of Victoria on Masterpiece PBS, we were introduced to a fascinating woman of science, Lady Ada Lovelace. Her character intrigued me so much because of how unique she was for the time that I went on to research her even more! I wanted to focus a blog post on her and it has been challenging. Much of the math/computer science that Ada works with is complicated and does go over my head. I got some helped and ended up learning more about computers than I had known before. I persevered with this blog post because I think she is one of the forgotten people of history who left an important legacy. Those interested in computer history may know her name, but I had never heard of her until that episode of Victoria.

Image result for ada lovelace

Lady Ada Lovelace is known for writing the first modern computer program in the 1840s. I was shocked when I first heard this statement because I ignorantly thought that there was no technology like a computer in the Victorian Era! When I think of that technology, I think of what we know in the modern day. In the Victorian era, there was not a computer in the modern sense, but there was the Difference Engine. The Difference Engine was created by Charles Babbage (who will play a large role in Ada’s story).  The Difference Engine was a remarkable new technology for the era and was essentially a calculator, but it was only able to compute one operation of mathematics. The Difference Engine was a very large machine that, instead of using circuits to solve the problems, it used actual physical pieces. Ada herself was fascinated by this machine. Continue reading “Lady Ada Lovelace: “Enchantress of Numbers””

American History · art history · history

Documenting History: The Story of the Civil War’s Forgotten Sketch Artists

When you think of Civil War art the first thing that comes to mind is the photography, right? It was groundbreaking as it was a fairly new invention and was able to capture an exact representation of a moment in time. The photograph is so common today that it may actually surprise you that most contemporaries during the Civil War never saw any of these battlefield photographs as the technology did not exist to print and publish them on a wide scale. What the majority of contemporaries did see were beautiful sketches that documented the battles and happenings of the war in illustrated newspapers, such as: Harper’s Weekly, Frank Lesile’s Illustrated News, and the Illustrated London News. They were hired men who were known as the “Specials”; they were on-site pictorial war correspondents who traveled and actually lived amongst the troops (on both sides!). They faced all the same hardships as the traveling troops and were there in the heat of battle in order to do their work. Using pencils and paper they documented the war and the soldier’s life through their sketches in order for the people at home to have a chance to see what was going on. These sketches are some of the most valuable items from the Civil War. Photography was limited as it could not capture movement or the drama of the war, but the sketches could. As the artists sketched what they saw these could be some of the most accurate depictions (with maybe just a hint of embellishing at parts) and created scenes of human interest for the audience back home.

The image of war changed dramatically during the Civil War as the traditional “Heroic” imagery used in the past was changed to depict a more realistic (and more violent) image along with a stronger concentration on the common soldier rather than the commanders. Continue reading “Documenting History: The Story of the Civil War’s Forgotten Sketch Artists”