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The Great Chicago Fire 137 Years Later

By Marcus Gilmer in News on Oct 8, 2008 7:45PM

John R. Chapin's famous sketch originally printed in Harper's Weekly

Here's one for you history buffs: today marks the 137th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire. The fire burned from Sunday October 8 to early Tuesday October 10, 1871, killing 300 and destroying over 17,000 buildings. Of course, the city rose from the ashes and has since become the gleaming beacon of the Midwest (sorry, St. Louis).

The Encyclopædia Britannica ran a fantastic post today recapping the events of the fire that shed some light on the cause. By now we know that the Legend of Mrs. O'Leary's cow is simply a myth created by Chicago Republican reporter Michael Ahern. But The Britannica delves even further into another possible cause of the fire.

Eleven years ago, a Chicago insurance investigator named Richard Bales did a wonderful job of historical forensics, sifting through maps, plats, legal titles, and a thousand-page report that the Chicago Fire Department issued in the aftermath of the inferno. He acquits Mrs. O’Leary and her poor cow. Instead, Bales’s research points to a commonplace of fires: a smoker who carelessly discarded a match.

The smoker in question, by Bales’s account, was a fellow named Daniel Sullivan, called “Peg Leg” by one and all for being one too few in the leg department...Sullivan, a neighbor of Mrs. O’Leary’s, seems to have been smoking a pipe in her barn—why hers and not his, history does not say—and set it on fire.

This weekend, the Weather Channel's When Weather Changed History will explore how the weather, including an unusually hot dry spell and brisk winds, affected the fire as it spread throughout the city. The episode airs this Sunday night at 8 p.m.

Of course, we can't mention the fire without also pointing you to the Chicago Historical Society's outstanding online exhibition commemorating the fire, presented in conjunction with Northwestern University.