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Don’t Blame the Cow: Did the Great Chicago Fire Have an Extraterrestrial Origin?

1800s | July 6, 2018


Painting (by Julia Lemos) of people trying to escape burning buildings during the Great Chicago Fire, Chicago, Illinois, 1912. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

We are all familiar with the children’s ditty that blames Mrs. O’Leary’s cow for starting the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to condemn the poor bovine for knocking over a lantern left in the shed. Perhaps it is possible that the Great Chicago Fire, that raged for three days, killing 300 people and destroying more than 17,500 buildings, was actually ignited by a visitor from outer space. 

(Chicago Public Library)

Burned into History

Second only to the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is the most memorable disaster to wipe out a major U.S. city. On that windy day in October, fire quickly went from one bone-dry wooden structure to another, creating a fast moving inferno that the ill-equipped fire departments could not contain. Three days later, much of the Windy City lay in ashes and the residents began the grim task of burying the dead and rebuilding their city. Officials searched for a cause to the fire. One theory put forth was that an agitated cow upended a lit lantern in the small barn behind the O’Leary residence and the hay burst into flames…an accident that left the O’Leary family feeling somewhat responsible. But perhaps, history has been too quick to blame the cow. 

(National Weather Service)

The Deadliest Fire in American History…and the Most Unknown

While the Great Chicago Fire was devastating and the loss of life was staggering, it was not the deadliest fire on U.S. soil. That distinction belongs to the Peshtigo Fire…a disaster that remains largely unknown to the general public. This is partially due to its remoteness. Directly north of Chicago in Wisconsin, the Peshtigo Fire killed 1,500 people and totally destroyed three towns, Peshtigo, Williamsville, and Sugar Bush. A total of 4 million acres of woodlands and prairie grasslands burned. Most newspapers of the time did not print reports of the Peshtigo Fire. Why? Because it was overshadowed by the Great Chicago Fire. That’s right. Both fires occurred on the exact same day. 

Fire in the Thumb…a Coincidence?

As impossible as it is to believe, the Peshtigo Fire and the Chicago Fires weren’t the only major fires to rage out of control on that same day, October 9, 1871. The town of Holland, Michigan, located across Lake Michigan from Chicago, also went up in flames that night, as did Manistee, Michigan, a lumber town about one hundred miles north of Holland. On the other side of the state, the Port Huron Fire also started, burning uncontrolled through most of Michigan’s thumb region that juts into Lake Huron. 

(Michigan State University)

Fires in Illinois and Ontario

Michigan wasn’t the only state to join Chicago and Peshtigo. Fire swept through Urbana, Illinois, located 140 miles to the south of Chicago and another fire destroyed a large part of Windsor, Ontario, directly across the Canadian border from Detroit.

In addition to their locations in the Midwest and, of course, the date, all of these fires shared many similarities. They all started suddenly, burned very hot, and spread out of control within minutes. All of these fires were particularly hard to contain because they each seemed to have multiple fronts, suggesting that there were several points of ignition. How was that possible? Was this the work of a well-coordinated team of serial arsonists? Perhaps there is a more other-worldly explanation. 

Gutted buildings and smoldering rubble at State and Madison streets after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. (Chicago Tribune historical photo)

Meteorite Shower Theory

On the night of October 9, 1871, another unusual occurrence was observed. Some reports of the time seem to have indicated that a large meteoroid may have entered the Earth’s atmosphere, breaking apart, and sending super-heated fireballs hurling towards various points throughout the Midwest. Typically, meteor fragments that plummet to Earth burn up in the atmosphere and are no larger than a pebble when they reach the ground. However, we know that large impacts have happened in the past. Although it remains an unproven theory, the belief that a meteoroid was responsible for the Great Chicago Fire and all the other mysterious and deadly fires that happened on the same day seems plausible. Perhaps, even more plausible than a clumsy cow and a series of incredible coincidence. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.