Congratulations, Chicago. The city is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, although “celebrate” is not the best verb to use.
“Commemorate” is better. After all, the fire killed about 300 people, destroyed more than 3.3 square miles of the city and left more than 100,000 residents homeless.
The city rebuilt and recovered. Still, after all these years, a lingering question remains: Who — or what — caused it?
One thing is certain: Mrs. O’Leary and her cow got a bum rap.
You know the story. As I was taught in grade school, O’Leary was in her barn around 9 p.m., milking her cow, when the cow kicked over a lantern and sparked the inferno.
O’Leary consistently denied this account, saying that she never milked after dark.
But, as a poor Irish immigrant, historians say, she made a convenient scapegoat. Reporters writing the first draft of history, as we do, seized on a supposed irony that the big blaze began in Mrs. O’s barn and decimated Chicago’s downtown, yet somehow spared the O’Learys’ little cottage.
Fortunately in 1997, the City Council let her off the hook. After hearing testimony of historians and Nancy Knight Connolly, the great-great-granddaughter of Mrs. O’Leary, the council officially declared that O’Leary and her cow, Daisy, had been unfairly maligned.
Instead, council members decided, fingers of guilt point to Daniel “Peg Leg” Sullivan, who had implicated Mrs. O’Leary. Long ago, another man, since deceased, said that he, Mrs. O’Leary’s son, and several other boys were shooting dice in the hayloft when one of the boys accidentally overturned the infamous lantern, setting the barn afire.
Catherine O’Leary and Daisy were exonerated, but the mark against the family remains, illustrating how easily a lie can go around the world and into public folklore — as Mark Twain reportedly said — before the truth can pull its boots on.
Yet the great question remained uneasily answered: If Daisy the cow didn’t start the blaze, who did?
Influenced perhaps by the age of NASA and “Star Wars,” I am drawn to a celestial notion: Maybe the fire came from outer space.
For one thing, Chicago’s fire was not alone. Fires erupted across the Midwest in that very hot and dry autumn.
To the north, for example, more than 1,000 people were killed at Peshtigo, Wis., making it the most deadly fire in this country’s history.
To the east, multiple forest fires, often called the Great Michigan Fire, erupted in Alpena, Holland, Manistee and Port Huron, along with some towns in the Upper Peninsula.
These clues led the late Mel Waskin, of Skokie, Ill., a former head writer and producer for Chicago area-based Coronet Educational Films, to write “Mrs. O’Leary’s Comet!: Cosmic Causes of the Great Chicago Fire Paperback” in 1985.
“My goal,” he told the Tribune at the time, “is to have the comet dislodge Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and take its rightful place in our folklore.”
Waskin’s research zeroed in on a comet named for Wilhelm von Biela, an Austrian army officer and amateur astronomer.
Maybe. But there’s a hitch with Biela’s comet: It appeared in 1872, a year after the Chicago fire. A researcher directed me to another shooting star, Comet Encke, named for German astronomer Johann Franz Encke. It zoomed past earth in the year of the Chicago fire, throwing off meteoroids as comets do.
But other experts also cast doubt on the whole idea of such fire starter comets. Meteors, they note, also are called “dirty ice” and tend to cool too much in their fall through earth’s atmosphere to set much ablaze.
Still, I appreciate Waskin’s faith. “I’m convinced of the possibility,” he told a Tribune reporter. “There are enough strange, documented events and coincidences that happened that night to make it a very convincing possibility.”
Or, as Shakespeare wrote, “There more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Indeed, I can’t quite dismiss the possibility that all of those fires cut across the Midwest by pure coincidence, even if it does help me to sleep better at night.