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

Sources:

PBS Chicago Stories, The Great Chicago Fire: A Chicago Stories Special. https://www.pbs.org/video/the-great-chicago-fire-i17jer/

https://www.britannica.com/event/Chicago-fire-of-1871

https://www.history.com/topics/19th-century/great-chicago-fire

https://www.glessnerhouse.org/story-of-a-house/tag/Mrs.+O%27Leary

https://www.architecture.org/learn/resources/architecture-dictionary/entry/the-great-chicago-fire-of-1871/

https://greatchicagofire.org/oleary-legend/

https://www.chicagotribune.com/history/great-chicago-fire/ct-great-chicago-fire-oleary-family-20211001-iwzwhphowvaijo5rtqqb6selee-story.html

https://interactive.wttw.com/chicago-stories/chicago-fire/the-water-tower-survived-we-will-survive-the-buildings-and-objects-that-outlasted-the-chicago-fire

https://greatchicagofire.org/oleary-legend-library/%E2%80%9Ckate-barn-afire%E2%80%9D/

https://greatchicagofire.org/conflagration-library/tribune-reports-chicago-its-own-destruction/

From Britannica

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American History · biography · history

The Astor Family and the Titanic Tragedy

This month recognizes the 110th anniversary of the Titanic disaster. It was a terrible tragedy, but the legacy provided better maritime safety measures that still assist us today. It is interesting to read stories from the survivors (most of the accounts were stories from women) and how their lives were impacted due to this disaster. Last month, I wrote about Mrs. Caroline Astor who was the pillar of Gilded Age society in New York City. I recently found out that her son was actually aboard the Titanic and, sadly, did perish during the sinking.

Her son was Colonel John Jacob Astor IV and he was the wealthiest passenger aboard the Titanic. Though his mother’s reign was now over, the Astors were still very popular with the press and the scandal sheets. Colonel Astor and his new wife, the eighteen year old Madeleine Force, were traveling home from their honeymoon in Egypt and Paris. They boarded with Mr. Astor’s valet, Victor Robbins, Mrs. Astor’s maid, Rosalie Bidois, Mrs. Astor’s nurse, Caroline Endres, and their pet dog named Kitty. Kitty was bonded to John Astor and they had been through a lot together, including his difficult divorce.

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American History · biography · history

The “Shining” Women and the Battle for Workers Health Rights: Part 2

Part 1: https://historynavigator.org/2022/01/28/the-shining-women-and-the-battle-for-workers-health-rights-part-1/

Ottawa, Illinois is a small town in the rural Midwest that is about 85 miles southwest from Chicago. In 1922, to the excitement of many of the residents, a small ad ran in the local paper which stated that young women were needed for fine brushwork. It advertised “ideal location and surroundings. Unusually clean and attractive work”. The ad was placed by a new company that had just set up their new factory in Ottawa, Radium Dial. The president was a man by the name of Joseph A Kelly. They already had loyal employees such as Lottie Murray and Mr. and Mrs. Reed who became household names in the area. Many young women began to apply in great numbers (just as we saw in NJ), as the pay was just too good to pass up.

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American History · biography · history

The “Shining” Women and the Battle for Workers Health Rights: Part 1

In 1917, a new factory opened in New Jersey. It advertised that it was hiring young women of the local community. For a working-class woman, this was a great opportunity. The pay was above average and it was a skilled job where a young woman could gain experience. The advertised job was a dial painter. They would paint the faces of luminous watches (the numbers and hands of the clock). The paint that was used caused the watch face to glow in the dark. This was extremely useful for those in military service at this time. It was a very technical job as the watch faces were small and a fine pointed brush would have to be used. Women’s hands were smaller, so they were coveted for this detailed job. The girls were a paid commission per dial completed. Some of the top performers were able to make three times what their own fathers made. It seemed like a dream come true to many women which attributed to the high demand for employment at the company. Girls would quickly start to recommend family and friends to join them at the factory.

One of the most exciting things about this new job was that one worked closely with Radium. At this time, radium was the wonder drug and one of the most valuable substances on Earth. The media hailed this as the “miracle pill”. It was effective in cancer treatments and was sold in pharmacies in a pill form to cure just about anything. It was even included in toothpastes and cosmetics. The girls would become known as “ghost girls”. The dust from the radium would coat their clothes, hair, skin, etc. and give them an ethereal glow. The women would purposely wear their nice clothing to work at the factory so they would glow as they went out dancing later that night. Everyone was jealous of the girls who worked at the radium factory.

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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 · english history · history

When Christmas was Banned…

The holidays this year have been a struggle. Many did not even expect the holidays would have been affected when the pandemic started in March . Gatherings will be smaller or over video chats and the holidays will not feel like the big event that they have usually been. Yet, it also gives us sometime time to focus on the things we are grateful for. Christmas could never truly be cancelled, right?

Well, actually, Christmas has been banned in previous centuries. It was banned in both the United Kingdom and early America. In 1647, Parliament decreed that Christmas was no longer considered a feast day or a holiday. This was under the rule of Parliament/Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, who was placed in power as a result of the English Civil War and the beheading of Charles I. This regicide brought the Puritans (some of the most extreme Protestants) to the forefront of politics. Puritans believed that the whole celebration and overindulgence of the season was wrong. To them, there was nothing in the bible that stated there should be a celebration like this on December 25. In fact, the date December 25 originates from a pagan festival (the date of the winter solstice) which was just adapted to the Christian rhetoric during the early medieval era. The bible was the word for the Puritans and they had a strict adherence to it. Christmas should be like any ordinary day. There would be no large feastings, merry making, rowdy behavior, drinking to excess, decorations (idols), or any other “sinful” activities. They also disliked these traditions as they felt that the Catholic influence was still too strong on the Church of England.

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American History · art history · history

Fashion Statement: The Bloomer and its Impact on the Women’s Movement

While doing research for my series on the suffragist movement in the United States, I came across a very interesting trend that was briefly popular during the mid-19th century. Elizabeth Smith Miller debuted the “Bloomer” costume in 1851 . Miller was working in her garden and became irritated when her long and heavy skirts got in the way of her work. As she was now thoroughly fed up, she decided to take a pair of scissors and cut the skirt to a shorter version. Underneath the skirt, she would wear a wide pair of trousers which allowed her more comfort and freedom to complete her tasks. This outfit soon became a hit among the early feminists in the budding suffragist/women’s right movement. This new fashion trend pushed the boundaries of the feminine norms of society (despite being short lived) and it is easy to see why it became popular with suffragists. The Bloomer walked so future fashion trends of the 20th century could run. I really have never looked deeply into fashion history before, but it is fascinating how through this mode of art/expression women were able to convey what they wanted and resisted against societal norms.

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American History · biography · history

Timeline of Women’s Suffrage : 1848-1920. Part 1

Last week, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in America. It is an amazing milestone to hit and to honor, but, on the other hand, it is shocking to think that the female citizens of this country have only had the right to vote for one hundred years. There are so many stories, people, and events that went into the long fight for the 19th Amendment, but in these next two posts I have compiled the events and stories that I feel were most important and encapsulated the movement.

Seneca Falls Convention, July 1848

 The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 sparked the women’s suffrage movement in America. The event was organized by five women: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Mary M’Clintock, Martha Coffin Wright, and Jane Hunt. It took place in the small town of Seneca Falls, New York. This convention was an early introductions, worldwide, of the concept of women’s suffrage. But how did this convention suddenly come about?

The abolition of slavery was one of the first political movements that women participated in and were able to exercise political agency. Beginning in the 1830s, American women were speaking out against slavery in public lectures. A woman’s role, during this period, was to be stowed away in the “private sphere”. They were to be dutiful wives and take care of the children.  Being regulated to the household, women never had a chance to reach out further and participate in the public sphere. They were barred from taking an active role in politics. To society, their opinions were unimportant. After a woman married (which was expected of them) they would lose any few freedoms they had and were dependent on their husbands. Married women had virtually no property or financial rights and the option of divorce was near impossible. The ideal “True Womanhood” of the period was a wife/mother who was pious and submissive. By the eyes of the law, women were dependents rather than a true citizen.   

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American History · biography · history

Arrested for Voting: Susan B. Anthony’s Fight for Suffrage

August 2020 marks 100 years since the 19th Amendment was passed. This amendment provided women with the right to vote in the United States. It is hard to believe that it was not until 1920 that the female citizens of America received a right that should have been automatic as a citizen of the country. This right is often taken for granted today and it can be difficult to imagine a time when a woman would actually be arrested for voting in an election! It is important to remember this anniversary and to remember how hard the women who came before us fought. They fought so we could participate in government and in the decision making of this country. It is critical that we exercise this right every opportunity we have. During August (and likely the months beyond), I would like to highlight some of the tactics the suffragettes used to have their voice heard, famous standouts, and highlight how much hard work was put into the movement.

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American History · biography · history

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera: Activists

This month I wanted to write an article about two figures who made such an impact, yet have been forgotten through time. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were icons of the LGBT and transgender movement during the 1960s and 1970s.

Forsaken transgender pioneers recognized 50 years after Stonewall

In the mid-20th century, it was still difficult for homosexuals to be open in the world. It was even more difficult for transgender individuals. Those in the LGBT community were ostracized from society. Society still did not want to acknowledge their existence. Most employers excluded and denied opportunities for those of the community. Some were sent to mental institutions to go through shock therapy to “cure” any “unnatural” thoughts. Many had no where to go and were unable to obtain employment. They ended up on the streets after running away or being abandoned by their own families.

This is the world that Marsha P. Johnson entered after graduating high school with $15 dollars to her name. She immediately left her home in New Jersey to move to New York City in 1963. In her hometown, Johnson was not accepted as a transgender female. She experienced harassment by males and in a 1992 interview she stated that she was a victim of sexual assault. She moved to Greenwich Village in 1966 and found a community of people who accepted her. She became a part of the transgender community and participated in drag.

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