[photo courtesy of familytreebyvirginia.wordpress.com]
A few days ago I was sitting outside on a small bench thoroughly enjoying a sunny, breezy Chicago Autumn afternoon. I felt something moving across the back of my hand. It was a ladybug; I watched her in pure delight as she hurried across my fingers, exploring her newly found territory, while I smiled at her curiosity. I suddenly recalled a song I had learned as a child:
“Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home;
Your house is on fire, your children are at home!”
I have absolutely no idea where this little refrain comes from; certainly it is not the happiest of children’s rhymes. But it got me thinking about the “Great Chicago Fire”. Upon further investigation, didn’t it turn out to be the very same day 143 years earlier; October 8th, 1871. The fire lasted for two days.
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871; clearly, it was a real “barn burner” at that! Now, I need to clear something up straight away. We’ll start with another little ditty of yesteryear:
“Late one night, when we were all in bed,
Old Mother Leary left a lantern in the shed,
And when the cow kicked it over, she winked her eye and said,
“There’ll be a HOT time on the old town tonight.
FIRE, FIRE, FIRE!”
[photo courtesy of mamalisa.com]
As the fiery legend goes, Catherine O’Leary’s barn caught on fire when a cow kicked over a lantern, thus igniting the beginning of a fire that obliterated over 17,000 buildings, killed approximately 300 people, and covered four square miles of destruction.
Let’s be the proverbial “fly on the wall” and take a peek at some of the monumental wreckage in the aftermath of the flames:
State and Madison Streets (which, by the way, I happen to walk around quite frequently; I cannot even imagine what it must have been like during the Great Fire);
(Courthouse and City Hall); and
(The Chicago Tribune Newspaper Building at the corner of Dearborn and Madison; another area I frequent quite often.)
[photos courtesy of chicagotribune.com]
Now, where was I? Oh yes, Mrs. O’Leary and her bovine scapegoat. Shortly after the Great Fire was a charred memory, Chicago Tribune reporter Michael Ahern wrote a story noting that the initial spark had begun when a cow kicked over a lantern whilst a woman was milking it. Despite not being named in the story, Mrs. O’Leary shouldered the blame for the Chicago inferno, as her barn was the origin of the blaze. Mrs. O’Leary declared that she was in bed when the barn fire started. A rather colorful character named, “Daniel ‘Pegleg’ Sullivan” stated that he witnessed flames arising from the O’Leary barn, which prompted him to try and free the animals.
Now, here’s where things become a bit on the sketchy side. There was speculation that ‘ol “Pegleg” himself had started the fire, clearly pointing a scorched, guilty finger in the direction of poor, innocent Mrs. O’Leary.
A rather spark-laden theory gives rise to Pegleg himself causing the fire by dropping a pipe or knocking over a lantern in the O’Leary barn. It was known that he often took hay from the barn to feed one of his own cows.
Ah, just when you thought Mrs. O’Leary was going down in a blaze of anything but glory, enter City of Chicago Alderman Edward Burke. In 1997, Alderman Burke officially exonerated Mrs. O’Leary and Daisy (the cow, who else?) of any wrongdoing in the largest fire Chicago has ever seen.
You are going to love this! Would you believe Mrs. O’Leary’s house was untouched by the runaway flames? It is true; due to the direction of the wind, the O’Leary home was untouched:
The O’Leary house may have remained intact after the Great Chicago Fire, but Mrs. O’Leary’s spirit did not. She was devastated by the accusations of responsibility for the fire; consequently, Mrs. O’Leary lived the rest of her life in despair and sadness.
The irony of life; take a look at the following photo, and I’ll be back to let you in on a smoldering secret:
[photo courtesy of wikipedia.org]
This is a flame sculpture in front of the Chicago Fire Academy where our extraordinarily brave firefighters commence their training. Would you care to take a wild guess as to what structure stood in this very spot prior to 1956?
Now the Chicago Fire Academy stands on the ground of your land, Mrs. O’Leary, reminding those who walk through its halls of the imperative, demanding nature of their work. Perhaps Mrs. O’Leary is smiling at the sentiment. Rest in peace, Mrs. O’Leary; the flames of the accusatory fire have long been extinguished.