The Great Chicago Fire is the most famous inferno in American history. But it wasn't even the worst fire that night. This is the story of America's most fiery night, and the crackpot theory about a lost comet that's meant to explain what really happened.
Citywide fires are now largely a relic of an earlier time, a product of slipshod urban firing and too many flammable building materials. A few of these fires have gained lasting infamy - there's the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE, in which Emperor Nero supposedly got in some fiddle practice, and the Great Fire of London in 1666, which everyone knows was started when the Doctor fought a rogue Terileptil . But the Great Chicago Fire probably has the greatest grip on the popular imagination, in part because it's one of the most recent and in part because of all the ridiculous (and flagrantly anti-Irish) myths that have popped up around it.
The legend — or perhaps more accurately, the lie, since Chicago Republican reporter Michael Ahern admitted in 1893 that he had made the whole thing up — was that a cow kicked over a lantern while a woman was milking it in a barn at 137 DeKoven Street. While the barn was indeed the first building consumed by the blaze, the whole thing about the cow was a fabrication, and soon the story got attached to the barn's owners, Irish immigrants Patrick and Catherine O'Leary. In particular, Mrs. O'Leary became a popular scapegoat as the real cause of the blaze, as it was alleged she had actually been with the cow when the first started, and probably drunk to boot. A popular song captured the general sentiment about Mrs. O'Leary's culpability:
Late one night, when we were all in bed,
Old Mother Leary left a lantern in the shed,
And when the cow kicked it over, she winked her eye and said,
"There'll be a HOT time on the old town tonight."
FIRE, FIRE, FIRE!
The first official report investigating the cause of the fire was more sober, concluding that it wasn't possibly to say whether the cause was human — or bovine, I suppose — agency or some natural cause, possibly a spark blown down from the chimney. Whatever the initial cause, the fire raged from October 8 to the morning of October 10, killing about 300 and destroying over three square miles worth of property, totaling 17,500 buildings and $400 million in damages.
While a great human tragedy, the fire (much like the one that consumed London in 1666) had some distinct benefits, as it directly led to a rebuilding effort that helped transform Chicago from a relative backwater to one of the country's great economic powers. It also remains the only thing I really remember about Illinois history from my days in the state's public school system. (Well, that and Casimir Pulaski, but that goes without saying.) And yet, for all its infamy and historical import, the Great Chicago Fire still wasn't the worst fire on the night of October 8. It wasn't even the worst in a 300-mile radius.
The Peshtigo Fire was the most deadly fire in American history, killing anywhere between 1,200 and 2,500 people. Unlike the Great Chicago Fire, which did its damage over a relatively small but densely packed area of a major city, the Peshtigo Fire burned throughout the wild forest of rural Wisconsin. October 8 was an unusually hot and dry day during an already unusually hot and dry spell in the Midwest.
The local lumber industry didn't always bother to safely burn away the brush they cleared. Sparks from passing trains ignited small fires, and the drought-ravaged wood meant wildfires had become just a part of life in the region. A sudden cold front with strong winds served to fan the flames and connect all these little wildfires into a single blaze, large enough to sustain its own wind system and even generate tornadoes. This was a firestorm.
The entire fire covered an area about twice the size of Rhode Island, and it claimed twelve rural communities before finally subsiding. The town that had the tragic fate of being at the center of this blaze was Peshtigo. Well over a thousand people in this one frontier town perished on October 8, victims of either the fire itself or from drowning or succumbing to hypothermia while taking refuge in the frigid water. The fire first approached the town around 8:30 PM that night - by 10:00, the air was no longer breathable. A local minister, the French-born Reverend Peter Pernin, wrote an eyewitness account a few years later that described the chaos. This is just one small selection:
The air was no longer fit to breathe, full as it was of sand, dust, ashes, cinders, sparks, smoke, and fire. It was almost impossible to keep one's eyes unclosed, to distinguish the road, or to recognize people, though the way was crowded with pedestrians, as well as vehicles crossing and crashing against each other in the general flight. Some were hastening toward the river, others from it, whilst all were struggling alike in the grasp of the hurricane. A thousand discordant deafening noises rose on the air together. The neighing of horses, falling of chimneys, crashing of uprooted trees, roaring and whistling of the wind, crackling of fire as it ran with lightning-like rapidity from house to house—all sounds were there save that of human voice. People seemed stricken dumb by terror. They jostled each other without exchanging look, word, or counsel. The silence of the tomb reigned among the living; nature alone lifted up its voice and spoke.
The events Reverend Pernin describes there happened sometime around 10:00 PM. By that time, the Great Chicago Fire was already an hour old, and already on its way to obscuring the tragedy in Peshtigo.
There were five major fires that burned in the Midwest on October 8, 1871: the Great Chicago Fire, the Great Peshtigo Fire, the Holland Fire, the Port Huron Fire, and the Manistee Fire. Those last three all refer to towns in Michigan, and they tend to be referred to collectively as the Great Michigan Fire. Like Peshtigo and the surrounding area of Wisconsin, Michigan had also experienced a lengthy drought that had left the dense forests dry and particularly susceptible to fire. Like Peshtigo, local loggers had left much of their debris around without properly disposing of it, providing a ready fuel for the coming inferno.
The strong winds that had ignited the Peshtigo firestorm and had worsened the blaze in Chicago now made their way further eastward to Michigan. The blazes spanned the entire state, affecting both the western towns of Manistee and Holland as well as Port Huron on the state's eastern region, popularly known as "The Thumb." These fires might seem less devastating than the maelstrom that had engulfed Peshtigo - they each killed "only" 50 to 100 people - but they still their own particular brand of hell on Earth. Here's an account of what happened in Holland that night according to resident G. Van Schelven:
At 2 o'clock in the afternoon the wind turned southwesterly and began gradually to increase. The fire alarm was rung, and from this time on the fighting of the fire all along the timbered tracts south and southwest of the city, was kept up uninterruptedly. As night advanced the wind increased in force, until at midnight it blew a hurricane, spreading the fire and the flames with an alarming velocity toward the doomed city. The huge bark piles at the Cappen & Bertch tannery in the western and the Third Reformed Church in the southern part of the city, were among the first points attacked; from thence on, the devastating fire fiend had a full and unmolested sway. The burning shingles and siding of this new and large church edifice and the flaming fragments of bark were blown towards the center of the town, sweeping everything in their northward course. At this fatal moment the wind turned more westerly and thus forced the fire toward the center and more eastern parts of the city—this sealed the fate of Holland. Within the short space of two hours, between one and three o'clock, of Monday morning, October 9, 1871, this entire devastation was accomplished. No one unless he has been an eyewitness of such a scene, can conceive its terror or its awfulness.
Because the fires engulfed huge swathes of Michigan wilderness, home to an unknown number of loggers and settlers, the true death toll is nearly impossible to determine. Collectively, the Great Michigan Fire may claimed anywhere from less than 500 to over 1000 lives.
At first glance, the idea that about five major, largely independent fires could have started on the exact same night - a more or less unique incident in history, at least as far as I can tell - may seem to ask too much of coincidence. Of course, it isn't really a coincidence. The Wisconsin and Michigan fires were all the result of the same gale force winds blowing through a drought-ravaged area and spreading existing wildfires until they were entirely out of control. The connection to the Great Chicago Fire was perhaps a little more indirect, but the same conditions were there - if that barn at 137 DeKoven Street hadn't ignited (for whatever reason), something else probably would have. The entire Midwest was one vast powder keg.
Still, the notion of multiple infernos all on the same night is bound to attract its fair share of fringe theories and crackpot explanations, and the events of October 8, 1871 soon attracted the attention of one of America's all-time great crackpots, Ignatius L. Donnelly. A former lawyer and politician, Donnelly soon eclipsed that passing fame by authoring a series of books on various pseudohistorical and pseudoscientific ideas, most involving Atlantis in some way. His writings, a kind of 19th century equivalent of Erich von Daniken's Chariot of the Gods nonsense, became immensely popular and influential among the next generation of crackpots.
While a full accounting of Donnelly's, uh, unique take on prehistory is best saved for another day, it should be pointed out that one of his other big theories was that an ancient cataclysm — one responsible for the flood described in the Noah's Ark story, the destruction of Atlantis, and, just for good measure, the death of the mammoths — had been caused by a comet almost colliding with Earth. He detailed this in 1882's Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel. A year later, he proposed a possible corollary idea to his theory: just as a comet had wrought massive havoc in ancient times, so too had a comet caused the fires of 1871.
This particular notion might not seem as ridiculous as the rest of Donnelly's idea, if nothing else because it doesn't involve Atlantis. Comets can cause meteor showers, or they can even fall to Earth themselves. That's probably why this idea has never gone away — there's a scientific paper from as late as 2004 that runs with this idea, although it wasn't ever accepted for publication. The reason for this is fairly basic science . Meteorites aren't hot when they reach the Earth's surface, and in fact there's no evidence ever of a meteorite starting a fire. And a comet is unlikely to actually reach the surface — more likely it would explode in midair, like in the 1908 Tunguska impact. Richard F. Bales and Thomas F. Schwartz have a great breakdown of the holes in this argument in their book The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O'Leary's Cow.
Still, part of what makes this theory interesting, even if it's pretty obviously garbage, is that there is a particular comet that would be the perfect culprit. Biela's Comet was only the third comet ever proven to be periodic, joining the famous Halley's Comet and the less well known but still important Comet Encke. Unlike the 76-year gap between Halley's Comet sightings, Comet Biela came around once every 6.6 years, and it was named for Baron Wilhelm von Biela, an officer in the Austrian army who determined in 1826 that a particular comet was the same one that had been observed in 1772 and 1805. He successfully predicted the comet's return in 1832, and so he earned his slice of astronomical immortality.
It wasn't to last. The comet was next spotted in 1845, but by now it had actually split in half. Comet A and Comet B were seen one last time in 1852, but then they both vanished, never to be seen again despite painstaking searches in 1859, 1865, and 1872. It's likely that the comet completely disintegrated far from Earth, and what's left is too dim for us to detect.
Biela's Comet became the prime suspect among fringe theorists as the true cause of the 1871 fires. The timing wasn't utterly impossible - October 1871 would have been a bit of an early return for Comet Biela, but not totally beyond the bounds of possibility. This theory was probably helped along by the comet's previous close approaches to Earth, which had triggered some panics about the comet actually hitting Earth - one 1877 newspaper illustration in Chile rather offhandedly captioned that there would be an "inevitable impact of the Earth with Comet Biela."
Ultimately, the cause of the fires were achingly mundane. Loggers had been too careless with brush, Chicago had been built without properly considering flammability, and the summer and autumn of 1871 had seen one of the worst droughts in the history of the Midwest. The tragedy was perhaps not inevitable, but it was an all too likely possibility. If nothing else, it's now worth looking back and remembering the full scope of one of the worst nights in American history, and why Great Chicago Fire wasn't even the half of it.
"The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account" by Reverend Peter Pernin
"The Great Peshtigo Fire" by Sarah Biondich
"This Day in History: Fire in the Midwest!"
"Was it a Cow or a Meteorite?" by Captain Mica Calfee
"The Fire Fiend" from the October 12, 1871 edition of The New York Times
Diorama of Great Chicago Fire from Chicago History Museum by Marcin Wichary on Flickr.
The City of Chicago, showing the burnt district, via Library of Congress
Bird's Eye View of Peshtigo from September 1871 via Library of Congress
Image of Ignatius Donnelly via Wikimedia.
Image of Biela's Comet after split by E. Weiß, "Bilderatlas der Sternenwelt."