As many know, the Great Chicago Fire was a disaster of devastation, and most likely the worst disaster of the 19th century. The tragedy killed more than 300 people and left more than 100,000 people without homes. Not only did the conflagration take a human toll, but the fire caused 200 million dollars in property damage and decimated more than three square miles of the city of Chicago.
Despite speculation on the true cause of the fire, Emily Upton describes natural factors that allowed the fire to become a monstrous conflagration, “Despite not knowing the exact cause of the Chicago fire, it is easy to see ust how the fire spread once it started. Chicago in 1871 was not like the skyscrapers-and-concrete Chicago that we know today. Around two-thirds of the buildings in Chicago were made of wood at the time.
Most of the buildings had tar or shingle roofs, which would only serve to feed the flames. The roads and sidewalks were also made from wood products. The conditions were dry, with a drought plaguing the city not long before the fire started-that summer, they received only about a quarter of their average rainfall. ” While taking a look at the added conditions, it is easy to see how a fire could have been started y a vast array of causes.
Additional factors are described by James Janega, “(Daniel) Sullivan’s role in the fire aside, Bales’ research suggests several other factors that may have contributed to the spread of the blaze, namely that firefighters, who had fought more than a dozen fires in a week and one large fire the night before, were battling exhaustion as well as flames in the O’Leary barn the night the Chicago Fire began. ” With these facts aside, the true cause has not ever been discovered; therefore, many experts raise speculations about how the fire was started.
Although Mrs. O’Leary and her cow Daisy” have been popular to blame for the Great Chicago Fire, there are many other viable theories to consider. Although there are other theories, there still remains some merit to the infamous O’Leary cow story. The original story supports the well known fact that the fire started in the O’Leary barn behind the home of Patrick and Catherine O? Leary at 137 DeKoven Street.
However, the story continues to state that Mrs. O’Leary herself was in her barn milking her cow around 9 p. m. hen her cow supposedly kicked a lantern over and ignited the barn into flames, thus causing the Chicago Fire. Even though the ire started on the O’Leary residence, their cottage was spared in the fire which left some highly suspicious. Despite the morsel of credibility that the O’Leary cow myth has, the O’Leary’s made an easy scapegoat for the city due to their social status. Jennifer Latson describes this idea well in her article titled “We Still Don’t Know How the Great Chicago Fire Started” through, “as an Irish immigrant living in poverty, she made a convenient scapegoat.
As displayed through the evidence given, it can easily be seen how the O’Learys have most likely been falsely accused. With the O’Leary myth aside there are many other important theories o bring to light. Some believe that another possible explanation for the fire is that a neighbor of the O’Learys by the name of “Peg Leg Sullivan” (Daniel Sullivan) sparked the barn ablaze. As the accusation goes, Sullivan was taking a nightcap in the O’Leary barn when a spark from his pipe ignited hay inside the barn and thus caused the conflagration.
An article by James Janega from the Chicago Tribune tells of Sullivan’s motive for being in the barn, “He was in the barn, probably feeding his mother’s cow, and he knocked over a lantern, dropped his pipe or something to start the fire, said Bales, who has just finished riting a book on the subject, tentatively titled “Did the Cow Do It?. ” The motive was only a small sample in the long strand of evidence against Sullivan; however, due to the police wanting to wrap the subject up quickly, no other action was taken towards him.
In 1997, Mrs. O’Leary and her cow were officially exonerated by the Chicago City Council Committee due to enough conclusive proof pointing to Daniel Sullivan. Unfortunately, Mrs. O’Leary still lived with being heavily scrutinized her whole life, for the exoneration came much later after her death. An additional possible cause was once believed to be Biela’s comet. Allegedly the comet was in the process of disintegrating around the same time as the conflagration started. Supposedly the comet could have shedded a meteorite to Earth thus causing a spark when striking Earth and therefore causing the ignition of the fire.
Also, three other significant fires started the same day around Lake Michigan, therefore providing some people with enough evidence to call the meteor shower the cause of the fire. Despite this coincidence, many believe this reasoning to be false, and Emily Upton describes the reasoning very well, “Three other large fires started around Lake Michigan n the same day, which some people argue is too much of a coincidence not to have a common cause.
However, meteorites that actually make it to the ground are usually cool when they hit and thus generally don’t start fires. With this quote, the theory of the meteorite ceases to have merit and thus lacks feasible evidence to be called the true start of the fire. Another suspect by the name of Louis Cohn is the only person to ever admit to starting the fire. Mr. Cohn was an 18 year old businessman and avid gambler at the time of the fire. His testament to the fire was later found after he died in 1942 in an ndowment from Cohn’s estate. Anthony Debartolo quotes Cohn of his testimony in his article titled Who Caused the Great Chicago Fire?
A Possible Deathbed Confession, “He steadfastly maintained that the traditional story of the cause of the fire – Mrs. O’Leary’s cow that kicked over a lantern asserted that he and Mrs. O’Leary’s son, in the company of several other boys, were shooting dice in the hayloft… by the light of a lantern, when one of the boys accidentally overturned the lantern, thus setting the barn afire. Mr. Cohn never denied was untrue. He that when the other boys fled, he stopped long enough to scoop up the money.
With this information provided by Louis Cohn’s testimony, further conclusions can be made that Mrs. O’Leary and her cow were never the ones to blame. This proves to be another one of the most successful and believable suggested theories about the cause of the fire. Despite the popular myth that Mrs. O’Leary and her cow “Daisy” have been to blame for the Great Chicago Fire, many other viable theories need considering. Furthermore, all of the theories listed have been merely speculations over the last century. However, some have more merit than others, but I hope that many will further their understanding of the Great Chicago Fire with the knowledge I have brought forth.
Although the true cause of the Great Chicago Fire is still unknown, the fact that it devastated the city if not the whole country is beyond argument. Nevertheless, good was still able to materialize from this horrific tragedy. For example, new architectural styles came forth, new laws were set in place to prevent further incidents, and Terra-Cotta tiling sprung forth as a popular building choice. Even though the true cause of the fire is unknown, Chicago was still able to be reborn and become something greater than anyone could have imagined.