October 8, 1871 – Did Daisy Do It Or Was It Fake News‽ Conflagration Frustrations

Herb’s Blog, Herbdate 22890 – 989

Here’s the haps:

I wrote about this 3 years ago and this is, in general, a reformatted and rewritten version of that post.

One dark night,
When we were all in bed
Mrs. O’Leary lit a lantern in the shed
And when the cow kicked it over
She winked her eye and said
“There’ll be a hot time in the old town, tonight!”
Fire!

That’s from a children’s song I learned as a yup, you guessed it, child. (People that know me don’t take it for granted that I only learned children’s songs when I was a child, however.) I think it was in kindergarten that I learned it but I don’t remember.

There was a terrible drought in the Midwest in the year 1871. No one had seen such a dry hot summer in a very long time. This is important because, no matter what the explanations, things probably would not have been as bad as they turned out.

151 years ago, today, marks the day Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over the lantern. Or so it was widely reported by the media of the time. 40 years later, the newspaper reporter who wrote that story, Michael Ahern, admitted that he made up the part about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow to give it some color. The O’Leary family lived in the back part of the house and Mrs. O’Leary testified that she was in her bed sleeping when the fire started. The McLaughlins, who had the front part of the house, were having a party and one of the revelers may have gone out to get some milk. It is possible some boys were sneaking a smoke or gambling and started it. No one really knows. So the part of the story that really hurt someone’s reputation just turned out to be fake news. One of her descendants (according to Wikipedia) said that she lived the rest of her life out in the spotlight and died in 1895 of “sadness and pneumonia.” Another descendant said she died of a broken heart.

The National Weather Service says there was a large cold front and a strong low pressure system that moved in across the great plains generating high winds of 35 – 45 mph and upwards. These high winds would have been present throughout Wisconsin and northern Illinois.

On the exact same day as the Great Chicago Fire, about two hundred miles to the north, the wind fanned the flames of a fire that was made to clear some brush. Here again, the facts are really unclear. The purpose of the fire(s) could have been clearing brush for the railroad or making room for more agricultural fields, no one knows. But we do know that the lumber and wood manufacturing town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin started on fire so quickly that escape was almost impossible. The deadliest fire in history raged out of control, burning up most of the Door Peninsula and jumping across Green Bay to burn up part of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and reaching inland as far as Shawano county.

Chicago, ILPeshtigo, WI
3.3 square miles, 100,000 buildings1,875 sq miles or 1.2 million acres (twice the size of Rhode Island)
300 dead1,500 to 2,500 dead

The Peshtigo Fire was much worse than the Great Chicago Fire but didn’t have the hook the other one did. There also were many more major newspapers in existence at the time and at least four of them were in Chicago. In addition, even though the Know-Nothing party was not very active anymore by this time, the Anti-Immigration, Anti-Irish, and Anti-Catholic sentiments they raised were still high, so to vilify a poor Catholic Irishwoman as the cause of all of their trouble was easy enough.

Besides, the song about Mrs. O’Leary is a really catchy tune. In fact, I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say it’s an early example of a parody song. There was a hit song called A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight performed by a couple of different groups. The best one I heard was the Guy Lombardo version but the song itself existed since the 1890s.

Now, there is another theory about both of these fires and a serious fire in Michigan on the same day. I ran across it several times when I was looking up the stuff for this post. It’s always bothered me that people always referred to the Great Chicago Fire but never mentioned the Peshtigo Fire, which burned up 17 towns and was much worse. That was before I heard of the fires in Michigan that happened on the same day as well. Saying that they weren’t as bad is not to say that they weren’t awful, just not as high of numbers.

The theory that seems quite plausible to me but for which actual evidence is sorely lacking is that there was a comet that broke up and the “pieces” entered the atmosphere in each of these spots. The comet Biela was discovered in 1772 and verified as periodic in 1826. It broke into two comets with two separate nuclei as it passed Jupiter and one of the halves may have entered Earth’s atmosphere. The Earth passed through the tail of the comet, (which is made up of frozen gases such as methane and acetylene), and chunks of such ice meeting the oxygen could have accounted for the explosive natures of these fires, all happening at the same time and then were fueled by the high winds. Considering that five major fires, three in Michigan which took 500 lives, the Great Chicago Fire which took 300 lives, and the Peshtigo Fire which took 1,500 to 2,500 lives along with some mariners reporting some islands in Lake Michigan as being on fire, all happening at roughly the same time and, cosmically speaking (to a comet) in the same place, it seems plausible to think that a comet was the cause. The evidence is sketchy at best, however.

We in Colorado have seen the effects of what conditions of severe drought combined with high winds and human stupidity and/or negligence can do with just a match and a piece of paper.

There are many things we will never know but one thing we do know is that on October 5th, 1997, the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Police and Fire exonerated Mrs. Catherine (Cate) O’Leary and her cow, Daisy, from any wrongdoing including accidental involvement.

22 Comments

  1. I remember a great deal of my childhood. I remember songs. I sing some at work, completing a kind of cycle.

    Interesting cow anecdote, there. It’s also amazing how little history partisans choose to remember when they try to get us to remember history “correctly.”

  2. I mean with global warming and everything, there are more fires due to the dry and hot condition in summer. I mean even Edison had a forest fire that burned 52 acres last summer and I don’t even know Edison has a forest. … I only heard of the fire of San Francisco in 1851 and the fire in Tokyo 1923. Thank you for sharing. I guess fire hazard was not uncommon back then.

    I agree that cooking and smoking and even cows’ kicking can become plausible causes for fire. However gambling is not a cause for fire–at least in my opinion. Probably people don’t like gamblers very much and tend to pin some misdeeds on them. Well, probably a smoking gambler caused the fire, but it was the smoker side of him (or her) that caused the fire.

  3. This was fascinating. I certainly hadn’t heard about the other huge fires, and didn’t know much about the Great Chicago Fire either. The death tolls are really staggering. Of course, I hadn’t heard a word about the Halifax Explosion until I was middle-aged, and that levelled buildings for miles around. If you haven’t heard about it, you should check it out because it’s amazing.

  4. I was unfamiliar with those fires in Wisconsin and Michigan and only marginally familiar with the one in Chicago.

    One bit of fire history I do know is that the steam locomotives of that era were responsible for many fires. Find a good video of one running in the dark and you will see the multiple of glowing embers that are blown from the stack. Keeping the trains running during drought conditions likely caused more fires than most people think.

  5. The comet theory is a is a much more fascinating story than the cow theory. It contains a dash of horror more fitting to the catastrophe than the sort of humorous cow tale that distracts from how awful the fire really was. It definitely would have made for a darker song, anyway. Thanks for sharing!

I like comments and try to respond to them all if I can:

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.