By Emily Greenberg
It starts around 9 pm in or near the O’Leary barn, although no one knows for sure. Ada Rumsey watches the sky glow red in the southwest, from the library windows on Cass Street. In the house her father built by hand, they hose the garden and the roof. Mary Kehoe, 16, is leaving Vespers when it starts. The huge black planks burn 200 feet above the ground, and her eyes are swollen red.
The air is full of cinders, blazing shingles, tarred felt. Anna Higginson takes one last look at her home, the vines on the walls and the flowers hanging from the windows, shining in the moonlight. Inside, her mother’s bible and the toys of her dead children are burning.
Bessie Bradwell, 13, is awoken by her pet parrot, who gasps for breath between the slats of his metal cage. She puts on her best clothes and follows her mother down the seven flights of stairs to Washington Street. Myra Bradwell wears a raincoat and her husband’s Masonic hat. At the law office opposite the Chicago court house, Judge Bradwell takes his time picking through the books, running his fingers down their spines while Bessie grabs a law journal and disappears into the crowded streets. Across the burning State Street bridge, a man is yelling that this is the end of Chicago. Bessie’s coat catches fire three times. Strangers smother the flames with their hands, then dip them in the lake red and shiny.
On Randolph Street, they haul iron safes onto the sidewalk and crack them open with sledge hammers, steel wedges. The air rushes in, the bills crumble to ash. A father of two, his face black with soot, sifts bills through his open palm.
* * * * *
Louis M. Cohn the world traveller crossed the Pacific 42 times, the Atlantic 29 times, and visited every country in the world at least once. Or so they say. In a press release after his death that bequeaths $35, 000 to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism establishing perpetual scholarships in his name.
Louis M. Cohn the importer became intimately acquainted with Chinese royalty and was an expert on Chinese customs, political history and art. Or so they say.
Louis M. Cohn the childless widower finally succumbed to kidney cancer just weeks before his 89th birthday. He left behind $2, 618.30 in cash, $4, 753.91 in personal property, several thousand shares of speculative gold mine stock, equity in a seven-unite Hyde Park apartment building, and a guilty conscience. Or so they say.
Louis M. Cohn the gambler was playing craps with James O’Leary and several neighborhood boys the evening of October 8, 1871 before Mrs. O’Leary chased them from her barn at approximately 9 pm. Louis was 18, James 9. When Louis tipped over the lantern, he was winning. He scooped up the money on his way out. Or so they say.
* * * * *
The fire is driven by a strong southwest wind which the firefighters, worn out from a fire the previous evening, cannot stop. The superheated draft carries flaming brands over the South Branch of the Chicago River, where it divides again over Conley’s Patch.
The bell tower chimes in strokes one second apart until it burns down in silence. The relics will later be sold as souvenirs. In a rush to leave his burning home, Julian Rumsey forgets his gold watch under a pillow. He will find it much later, the hands melted into the face forever at 1:15 am, when it became too hot to tick. The courthouse burns in twenty minutes, the long block of houses on Lasalle Street in seven.
The church on Chicago Avenue burns, its steeple so hot that a pillar of fire shoots up the top. Even the government buildings with iron shutters are not spared.
Water turns to steam before reaching the flames. A snowstorm with red flakes. Sparks rain like meteors over Lincoln Park as Becker pours water from his hat on the family’s trunks. Everyone dips their faces in the lake. Clarence Burley, a North Division notary public, positions a kerosene lamp perfectly center on a pillow. Sand cuts like glass against his face.
John and Carol Magie can’t bear to leave. His grandfather built this house with his bare hands, cut the wood into even planks and painted the walls a rosy cream. This is where their son threw up, this is where John spilled wine, this is where Carol cut her hand and bled. This is the table where they had Thanksgiving dinner, the couch where they rocked after the baby died. But it is becoming too hot. John peels off his shirt, sweat pooling at the back of his neck and his face flushed a deep rosy hue. Carol wears only a loose dress. Her hair wet as if she’d taken a shower. The air is dry, weighted. Wallpaper falls off in strips. From the window, they watch neighbors carrying mattresses and trunks.
“Fire! Fire!” Mrs. Milner raps loudly on their door, then runs to the window. “Aren’t you leaving? The fire, it’s coming this way.”
John shrugs, Carol shakes her head no.
Mrs. Milner is frantic. “But you must leave, you must leave right now! You will die in this house!”
They stare at her softly, neither speaking a word. Finally she leaves, cursing their proud stupidity as she runs. John grabs Carol’s hands, her palms soft and sweaty. They wait until everyone else is long gone, then make love on the floor of their living room. Like teenagers. They lie naked on the carpet, watching the room fill with smoke above their heads until it is too much to bear. They stand up, see the glowing red wall through the window, and run for the fence, already lit up with flames. They are too late. Carol grabs John’s right hand, and they lie down in the grass together, beneath the oak, preparing to die. He is swearing, she is crying. Then they see a spot open up in the fence and break through screaming the whole way.
* * * * *
Daniel Sullivan the friendly neighbor visited the O’Leary’s around 8 pm, only to find that Mrs. O’Leary was asleep. He headed home, pausing in front of William White’s home to smoke a pipe and listen to the music from the McLaughlin party. Or so they say.
Daniel Sullivan the good Samaritan saw the fire burning and hobbled 193 feet on his wooden leg in an attempt to extinguish the fire, before escaping uninjured from the burning barn. Dennis Regan the good Samaritan heard Sullivan yelling from a block away and jumped out of bed to help. Sullivan and Regan the good Samaritans tried to save the animals and property before alerting the O’Leary’s. Or so they say.
Daniel Sullivan the lying scumbag could not possibly have seen the fire from in front of White’s home. Daniel Sullivan the cripple could not possibly have run 193 feet on his peg leg and escaped the burning barn uninjured. Dennis Regan the accomplice could not have heard Sullivan’s cries for help before the O’Leary’s. Or so they say.
Daniel Sullivan the culprit went to feed the cow he kept in the O’Leary barn or to listen to the music from the McLaughlin party. Daniel Sullivan the culprit dropped a match or a pipe or a lantern in some hay or wood shavings. Daniel Sullivan the culprit slipped on his peg leg or tripped across the feet of his friend, Dennis Regan, there to enjoy the McLaughlin music. Or so they say.
* * * * *
The endless march down Lincoln and Fullerton, trying to escape the wall of smoke. There is a strip of fire now two and three miles long and a mile wide. Horses and cows run loose through the streets. Nuns lead children from an orphan asylum past a severed cow’s head lying in the sewer.
Wearing his copper-toed boots, John J. Healy, 8, does not recognize his father’s blackened face. There is a bare burned spot where his house once stood, and he reaches for toys dropped in the street. Later, when his arms grow tired, he will lay the toys in the gutter and fall asleep in the saloon on Clyburn Avenue.
A South Division railway man carries brandy not opened since Mamie Bickford was sick. It is gone before morning. Wheeler packs six dresses for his wife but no change of clothes for himself. Fannie Belle Becker, 10, takes the China doll she received for Christmas last year, Jennie. Also a fur box, an account book, and a parasol. Her mother stuffs a diamond necklace and crumpled bills into a sewing machine. The Rumseys pack a carriage with silver, linen, family portraits. They give a man $25 to carry a painting. Mrs. Ryerson saves a wrapper and a man’s hat tied with a handkerchief, Mrs. Windston a pink silk dress trimmed with lace. One lady has a carriage full of party dresses. A man wearing a horse blanket as a coat runs from the fire with two huge turnips. A banker brandishes a revolver. A tailor balances a crate of live chickens on his head. Others carry broken furniture, bonnets. Mr. Bross leaves everything behind but a portrait painting, which he carries on horseback. Men run with flatirons and oldboards. One woman carries her whole bed on her back all the way to the prairie. Two young men help their neighbor save her carpet, tossing her books to burn in the basement. Three children curl asleep inside a carriage. A tea kettle hangs from one spring, a coal-hod from the other. Old Mrs. McCagg runs the length of Chicago Avenue, where she collapses exhausted and is placed into a wagon. There is pushing and shouting and swearing.
A stranger grabs the hand of a little boy whose parents were burnt in the hotel. Old Man Gallagher on his horse sees children sitting by a pile of furniture and begs them to come with him, but they say no, they are waiting for their mother. Gallagher leaves to pick up a few things from the house while the night grows colder and darker. When he returns that morning, there is still no mother. The youngest child, no more than three years old, is pulling at the feet of his two dead siblings.
* * * * *
It was Biela’s comet, whose violent split sent highly combustible fragments all the way to Earth. They explode over Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan on the night of October 8, 1871. Chicago, Peshtigo, Holland, Port Huron, and Manistee burned to the ground.
It was colorful copy spun by Michael Ahern for the Tribune. Or colorful copy ghost written by one of Ahern’s colleagues.
It was an unnamed terrorist with ties to the 1871 Paris Communard who published his confession in a local newspaper, prompting the New York Evening Post to ask:
Did out of [Paris’s] ashes arise
This bird with a flaming crest,
That over the ocean unhindered flies,
With a scourge for the Queen of the West?
It was spontaneous combustion, caused by damp hay undergoing bacterial fermentation. It was methane gas from a meteor shower or the tinder-dry summer combined with high velocity winds. It was a neighborhood boy sneaking a smoke. It was one of the McLaughlin guests, who excused himself from the party for a glass of milk.
* * * * *
Forty children are born on the prairie. A woman cradling her newborn to her chest runs bleeding to the lake’s shore and dies. Mary Howe sits up in bed, grabs her newborn baby, and walks a mile to the pier. Everyone is lying in the sand all down the lake park, where the air is so thick with dust and sand they can no longer see the fire. Charred bodies are laid out in the road, near the river. Some run into the water, others take small boats. Thousands sleep in Lincoln Park beneath heavy rain.
No cows on the prairie, just mothers holding screaming children and fathers lugging trunks in their Sunday best against a wall of smoke. No water on the West Side, no gas on the South Side, no North Side at all. No street cars. Washington Park is full of barracks.
A millionaire draws blankets for himself. Wealthy women take their food from the church and duck their heads for hours into the cool lake. On the prairie, they pile furniture into square formations and lay carpet on top to make shanties. Little chinks in the walls are filled in with beds, clothes. One has a huge pile of hams outside, another a stack of hides. Candles are placed in bottles with water and cardboard to catch the wax.
A Gold Coast woman wearing diamond earrings and her finest silk dress drops to her knees in a rundown church pew, begging for a cup of coffee that keeps her awake late into the night. Asleep at last, she is woken by a South Side woman wandering up and down the aisles shouting her husband’s name, John, John. They try to calm her. They tell her to sit down, to be quiet, and miraculously, she does. She never speaks a word to anyone again and dies at 93 in an insane asylum.
Mrs. Alfred Hebard was traveling with her family from New London, Ct. to Iowa when they stopped in Chicago for the night. There was a fire the night before, she hears them saying at the hotel. Outside, the air is still dry and windy. She rides the elevator to the top of the hotel, where she sees another fire in the distance. Surely it will not cross the river. She goes to sleep. Early in the morning, a rapping on the door. The porter is saying “Fire, sir.” Matter of factly, calmly. The window is lit up. Mrs. Alfred Hebard and family drag their trunks down the stairs; the porters have all left. Few words are spoken. Outside, Irishwomen run with beds on their shoulders, weeping. Women with babies and bundles, men with kegs of beer. There is crying, swearing, scolding, cursing. A shower of coal hits their faces. Mr. Alfred Hebard pays two boys $10 to carry their trunks a mile and a half to a cousin’s house on La Salle Street. At the cousin’s house, they sit with candles and tear carpets to cover the roof. Cisterns are drained to keep the carpets wet. But then the wooden blocks flash into flames, and they have to run for it, crossing the west side of the river to the depot, where they just miss the Burlington & Quincy train leaving Chicago. Another will arrive at 3 pm. Until then, they sit on doorsteps and curbs, drinking beer on street corners and falling asleep.
* * * * *
It was Catherine O’Leary, who with her husband laid coal, wood shavings, and hay in the barn where they kept five cows, a calf, a horse, and a wagon.
It was Catherine O’Leary, whose cow – Daisy or Gwendolyn or Madeline – knocked over a lamp.
It was Catherine O’Leary the industrious 40 year old or the old drunk or the welfare cheat who vowed revenge or the blighted champion of Chicago.
It was Catherine O’Leary the Irishwoman, the Catholic, the immigrant poor.
It was Catherine O’Leary, whose home survived the great fire.
It was Catherine O’Leary, who died July 4, 1894.
* * * * *
Wicker and Wheeler were to see the Thomas Orchestral Troupe at Corsby’s Opera House on Tuesday. No longer. Thomas ran for his life and abandoned his instruments.
Chapman saves two bantam chickens and a family of kittens. Fannie Belle Becker, 10, arrives in Fruitport, Michigan barefoot, nearly blind from the falling dirt and cinders.
The previous summer, Sam Collyer built himself a cottage on Orchard Street. He and Rebecca Moore, of Odell, Illinois, were to marry October tenth, in a house that burned along with the bride’s wedding gown. They married on the West Side instead, he in a high collar and she in a calico dress.
Essie Stockton marries the Thursday after the fire in a white petticoat, her trousseau tied up in a pillow, while the Mr. and Mrs. Goodwin leave for their honeymoon with passes furnished by the relief society.
Dunlop’s beautiful house burns down. His paintings, his 13 trunks from Europe, all gone. He has only the pictures of his dead wife.
Albert Munger loses $400,000, Mary Scudder all her wedding presents. Mahlon Ogden’s house, untouched by the fire, is watched by police.
A laborer sets fire to a merchant’s store. Later, they will drag him through the streets with a rope around his neck, the knees of his trousers bloody. A thief. They will hang him in the ashes of Hyde Park. Seven more thieves are shot on the spot by Catholic priests, who catch them setting fire beneath the south transept. A farmer selling his calf for an exorbitant $50 is run out of town. No one is allowed to light a match or smoke a cigar at night, but soldiers march down Lincoln anyway. Just in case.
Months go by, and the streets are still lit from coal stored in basements. A year later, men still light their cigars on the smoldering coal piles of Unity Church, still gaze at the four charred wooden boards above William D. Kerfoot’s store and take courage in the black hand-painted message: “All gone but WIFE CHILDREN and ENERGY.”
Emily Greenberg is a writer and artist based in Brooklyn. Her artwork has been exhibited across the U.S. and in Rome, Italy, and her fiction been published in Rainy Day Literary Journal, Kitsch Magazine, and Ink Magazine.