Rick’s Cafe: The Chicago Fire

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The aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire. (Chicago Tribune)

This month marks the 142 anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire. In recognition, Rick opens the show with an essay about how connected to destructive fires Chicago actually is and how poor Mrs. O’Leary spent the rest of her life after being incorrectly identified as the origin of the dangerous blaze.

Click below to listen to Rick read the piece or keep scrolling to see the essay’s text.

Rick’s Cafe: The Chicago Fire

She didn’t start the fire…But I’ll get to that in a minute.

Tuesday is the 142nd anniversary of the Chicago Fire.

More so than any other city I can think of, Chicago is defined by fires. They punctuate our history with frightening regularity.

August 16, 1812, Potawatomi Indians set fire to Ft. Dearborn and yell their war cries as flames rise on the bank of the Chicago River.

December 30, 1903, as hundreds watch the curtain rise for the second act of a comedy called “Mr. Bluebird,” an arc light shorts and ignites a muslin curtain and the Iroquois Theatre — touted as the most beautiful in Chicago and absolutely fireproof — begins to burn. Six hundred and two people die in the deadliest theater fire and the deadliest single-building fire in U.S. history.

December 1, 1958, shortly before classes are to be dismissed, fire breaks out at the foot of a stairway in Our Lady of the Angels School. The firefighters arrive in four minutes but there is only so much they can do. Ninety-two and three nuns are dead and every parent of school-aged children is terrified.

And then, and then…October 8, 1871, a hot Sunday night and in a barn on the near southwest side a fire starts. It spreads quickly, north and toward downtown, quickly because most of the buildings in the city were made of wood, quickly due to a drought of prior weeks, quickly because of strong winds from the southwest, quickly because firefighters are exhausted from fighting a blaze the day before. People ran to the lake for shelter. The city became a vast ocean of flame.

It burned until Tuesday, destroying 18,000 buildings, leveling much of the city and killing as many as 300 people.

The blame, thanks to a reporter named Michael Ahern, fell on a woman named Catherine O’Leary. Ahern’s imagination, fueled no doubt by anti-Irish, anti-working class, anti-woman invective so common at the time, concocted the story of Mrs. O’Leary going to the barn behind her house on De Koven Street to get some milk from her cow. The cow kicked over a lantern, which set fire to nearby hay and…You know.

Fifty years later Ahern admitted he made up the story. He thought it would make colorful copy. Colorful…and durable.

Cate and Patrick O’Leary had two kids, James and Anna.

James O’Leary was only two when the fire took place and with his parents he moved south, While his parents became virtual hermits, shamed by their connection to the fire, he became one of the city’s first big time crime figures. He built a palatial gambling mecca at 4183 South Halsted, in the heart of the Stockyards.

Steel plates covered the  outer walls, and the inner walls were made of heavy oak covered with zinc. The place was, O’Leary proclaimed, “fire-proof, bomb-proof and police-proof.”

Big Jim died in 1925 but his gambling house continued to operate. It was destroyed on May 27th, 1934…by fire. The second-biggest fire in Chicago history blazed that day, taking out nearly 90 percent of the stockyards, killing twenty-one firemen…125 cows.

One man watching the blaze said, “Them cows, they had it comin”

But did they?

In 1997, thanks in part to the work of Richard F. Bales, a lawyer by trade and historian by passion, the cow and Mrs. O’Leary beat their bad rap. Bales’ digging compelled Alderman Ed Burke to declare at a meeting of the City Council’s Committee of Fire and Police, “Mrs. Kate O’Leary and her cow are innocent.”

Who, then, was the real culprit?

We will never know. But Mrs. O’Leary did not start the fire and neither did her cow…whose name, reports vary, was either Daisy or Madeline or Gwendolyn.

So, here’s to you Mrs. O’Leary: Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

And here’s to you Daisy, Madeline, Gwendolyn or whatever your name was.


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