Myths Around the Source of the Great Chicago Fire

FD_Chicago_SkylineA massive fire erupted in Chicago, Illinois on October 8, 1871. The devastation of that event included the deaths of 200+ people, the destruction of 70,000 buildings, 73 miles of roadway, and 90,000 homeless. It would be hard to find someone who hasn’t heard some rendition about this monstrous blaze that became known as the “Great Chicago Fire”. But what actually started the fire?

There are many myths surrounding this epic event that destroyed one of the largest cities in the U.S. at that time. Many have heard the version involving Mrs. O’Leary and her cow. After the fire, a Chicago Tribune reporter, Michael Ahern, published the story that the fire started when a cow kicked over a lantern while a woman was milking it. Though the woman was not named in the original report, Mrs. O’Leary was soon identified, since her barn had been the source. Multiple illustrations and caricatures soon circulated depicting Mrs. O’Leary with the cow. The story took the population’s imagination and is still widely spread. In 1893, Mr. Ahern admitted that he made up the story because he thought it would make colorful copy.

While the O’Leary story is the most popular urban legend about the blaze, there are several other myths explaining the start of the fire. Some say it was started by a group of craps players while others believe a milk thief is to blame. Still others attribute it to Biela’s Comet, which was passing over the Northern Hemisphere at the time.  Some believe the comet could have dropped methane, which ignited the flames.

What is for certain is this: A warm, southeastern wind blew across the Midwestern Plains on that fateful night. Devastating fires erupted in many cities including Chicago. No one can say for certain the true cause of the fire, however, in 1871 the city was made almost entirely of wood, including wooden sidewalks. As a result, the southwestern wind that blew into the city that night fueled a fiery tempest that demolished the city.


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