The Chicago Fire (3)
investigators of the Chicago fire and its devastating regional
counterparts rely on human testimony. But how should we view such
testimony when it suggests things that are not currently believed?
Good science will not ignore witnesses when, in unison, they suggest
new lines of investigation.
On the evening of October 8, 1871 devastating
fires erupted at virtually the same moment in three different states
in the region of the Great Lakes—Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan.
The outbursts included the notorious “Chicago fire”, but also an
even more devastating fire in Wisconsin, the worst in U.S. history,
covering some 400 square miles. At the same time, wildfires also
erupted across much of Michigan. In his book Ragnarok: The Age
of Fire and Gravel, published in 1883, Ignatius Donnelly
proposed that the simultaneous outbursts were no coincidence; they
were the effect of our Earth meeting up with a fragment, or
fragments, of comet Biela, a body that had
a few years earlier while on an Earth-threatening path.
As Donnelly reports it, in the Wisconsin fire
near Lake Michigan, a large area including the town of Peshtigo and
several neighboring cities was "swept bare by an absolute whirlwind
of flame”. His review of the event, based on eyewitness accounts,
was taken primarily from the book "History of the Great
Conflagration", by James W. Sheahan and George P. Upton (1871). It
includes the following report:
there was a lull in the wind and comparative stillness. For two
hours there were no signs of danger; but at a few minutes after nine
o'clock, and by a singular coincidence, precisely the time at which
the Chicago fire commenced, the people of the village heard a
terrible roar. It was that of a tornado, crushing through the
forests. Instantly the heavens were illuminated with a terrible
glare. The sky, which had been so dark a moment before, burst
into clouds of flame. A spectator of the terrible scene says
the fire did not come upon them gradually from burning trees and
other objects to the windward, but the first notice they had of it
was a whirlwind of flame in great clouds from above the tops
of the trees, which fell upon and entirely enveloped
everything”. [Emphasis ours]
For many of
the witnesses it seemed as if the biblical "last days" had come.
Though well accustomed to wildfires, they had seen nothing like this
before. "They could give no other interpretation to this ominous
roar, this bursting of the sky with flame, and this dropping down of
fire out of the very heavens, consuming instantly everything it
continues quoting from Sheahan and Upton: "No two give a like
description of the great tornado as it smote and devoured the
village. It seemed as if 'the fiery fiends of hell had been
loosened', says one. 'It came in great sheeted flames from
heaven', says another. 'There was a pitiless rain of
fire and SAND. The atmosphere was all afire'. Some speak of
'great balls of fire unrolling and shooting forth, in
streams’. The fire leaped over roofs and trees, and ignited
whole streets at once". [Emphasis ours]
notes that many of the victims were found in open spaces with "no
visible marks of fire nearby" and "not a trace of burning upon their
bodies or clothing". Many were found huddled together "in what were
evidently regarded at the moment as the safest places, far away from
buildings, trees, or other inflammable material,
and there to have died together".
perhaps, is the mention of electrical phenomena:
been said of the intense heat of the fires which destroyed Peshtigo,
Menekaune, Williamsonville, etc., but all that has been said can
give the stranger but a faint conception of the reality. The heat
has been compared to that engendered by a flame concentrated on an
object by a blow-pipe; but even that would not account for some of
the phenomena. For instance, we have in our possession a copper cent
taken from the pocket of a dead man in the Peshtigo Sugar Bush,
which will illustrate our point. This cent has been partially fused,
but still retains its round form, and the inscription upon it is
legible. Others, in the same pocket, were partially melted, and yet
the clothing and the body of the man were not even singed. We do not
know in what way to account for this, unless, as is asserted by
some, the tornado and fire were accompanied by electrical
It seems the idea
that Mrs. O'Leary's cow triggered the conflagration in Chicago did
not withstand investigation. Speaking of O'Leary's barn, the fire
marshal testified: "We got the fire under control, and it would not
have gone a foot farther; but the next thing I knew they came and
told me that St. Paul's church, about two squares north, was on
fire". They then checked the church-fire, but--"The next thing I
knew the fire was in Bateham's planing-mill".
A writer in
the New York "Evening Post" says he saw "buildings far beyond the
line of fire, and in no contact with it, burst into flames from the
references, Donnelly adds a quote from The Annual Record of Science
and Industry" for 1876, page 84:
"The flames that
consumed a great part of Chicago were of an unusual character and
produced extraordinary effects. They absolutely melted the hardest
building-stone, which had previously been considered fire-proof.
Iron, glass, granite, were fused and run together into grotesque
conglomerates, as if they had been put through a blast-furnace. No
kind of material could stand its breath for a moment."
Another quote from
Sheahan & Upton's Work:
"The huge stone and brick structures melted
before the fierceness of the flames as a snow-flake melts and
disappears in water, and almost as quickly. Six-story buildings
would take fire and disappear for ever from sight in five minutes by
the watch. . . . The fire also doubled on its track at the great
Union Depot and burned half a mile southward in the very teeth of
the gale--a gale which blew a perfect tornado, and in
which no vessel could have lived on the lake. . . . Strange,
fantastic fires of blue, red, and green played along the cornices of
Some additional detail and comments of interest
appear in Mel Waskin’s more recent book, Mrs. O’Leary’s Comet
(1985). Speaking of the Peshtigo outburst, he writes—
"Accompanying the firestorm and the wind was a
rain of red hot sand. It was not clear to those eyewitnesses who
survived their ordeal where this sand came from. It must have been
raised from the earth by the incredible winds, but from where? There
was sand on the beaches, but the beaches lay to the east, and the
wind was blowing from the west and the south. There was no sand on
the floor of the forest nor on the farmlands of Wisconsin".
Waskin also mentions incredible "balloons
of fire" reported by many people, including one family that
lived between Peshtigo and Green Bay. "The onslaught was so sudden
that the family could only run to the center of an immense clearing
on their farm where nothing combustible stood. They hoped to be
safe, several hundreds yards from structures or trees.
"When the fire came, rushing on all sides of
them, it did not in fact touch them. But eyewitnesses saw them die.
A great balloon of fire dropped on them – father, mother, and four
children. They were incinerated in an instant. Almost nothing was
left of them".
"Many survivors described these great balls of
fire falling from the sky. The whole sky was filled with them; round
smoky masses about the size of a large balloon, traveling at
unbelievable speed. They fell to the ground and burst". Waskin says
that a brilliant blaze of fire erupted from the balloons as they
landed, instantly consuming everything they touched.
Also noteworthy were the reports that the
flames erupted from the basements of the stores when there was "no
sign of fire in any other part of the building". And the basement
fires burned with a strange light, "as if whisky or alcohol were
As something of a footnote
to this article, we note a contemporary report claiming that “The
first (and most startling) piece of evidence is the recent discovery
of a 26.5-kilogram carbonaceous chondrite
the shores of Lake Huron – ‘ground zero’ of the astral bombardment.
This report, by Ken Riell, whose claims follow the work of Donnelly
and Waskin, suggests the meteor is of the same composition as the
incoming object in the Tunguska event in Siberia -- 1908.
interest is a presentation on the Peshtigo fire by the
Oconto County Web Project, which discusses
the comet hypothesis as a "plausible" theory—
"Weather historians, using archives as a baseline, and adding
information from recent decades, now offer a plausible theory.
Meteor showers in Autumn are common in the upper great lakes. In
recent years these showers have left burning chunks scattered over
the entire region, some large enough to break through the roofs of
homes and out buildings, starting fires in dry fields and wooded
areas. With the tinder dry conditions present throughout the entire
region on the night of October 8, 1871, such a meteor shower would
easily have started what seemed like spontaneous fires in numerous
places of Wisconsin, Michigan (upper and lower), and Illinois (the
Great Chicago Fire). With the continuous thick smoke from smoldering
smaller blazes already blanketing the land, and the unusually hot
weather of that time making residents seek shelter inside their
homes early in the evening, the meteors that entered the Earth's
atmosphere could not easily be seen. This certainly would account
for the sudden eruption of numerous blazes over the vast area at
exactly the same time."
Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine the “cometary” explanation ever
receiving the attention it deserves until those addressing the
question familiarize themselves with the electric comet model. As we
have already emphasized, without this deliberate reconsideration of
the underlying question—what is a comet?— the investigator will
either ignore or forget the most telling clues. In the above
reports, for example, consider the following:
flame or “perfect tornado”
Tornadoes are a
slow electric discharge phenomenon.
The ionized trails of cometary debris, descending through the
ionosphere to the lower atmosphere, produces "lightning conductors"
to allow various forms of "megalightning" to descend to the ground.
One of the manifestations of a powerful direct discharge between the
ionosphere and the Earth could well be a tornado, in which the usual
swift lightning strike is replaced by a slower discharge. Powerful
electromagnetic forces generate a devastating "charge sheath
that slows the discharge while spreading the devastation on Earth.
Fire descending from the sky
As in the Tunguska event, the appearance of fireballs or electrically
discharging debris, along with associated lightning manifestations
from a clear sky, would be expected as an external body penetrated
Earth’s plasma sheath.
Rain of fire and sand
An electrically charged fragment of a comet nucleus will undergo
explosive electrical fragmentation before reaching the Earth's
atmosphere. The electrical model of comets envisions these bodies
being formed by the same processes that created asteroids. Most, if
not all, are as rocky as asteroids. The result of their
fragmentation will be a meteoric shower of granulated silicates, or
sand, mixed with flammable gases and electric discharge phenomena –
a 'biblical' rain of fire and sand.
Descending "balloons" of fire.
well established that comets discharge carbon compounds that would
be flammable in the Earth's oxygen atmosphere. Gaseous balls of fire
would combine with various weird manifestations of megalightning,
reaching through the meteoric shower of dust to the ionosphere,
almost 100 kilometres above the Earth. The spectacle would be beyond
normal experience. In addition, near the Earth, ball lightning could
be expected, given the extreme electrical conditions—and the
presence of ball lightning is surely the plausible explanation for
descending “balloons” with the power to incinerate objects they
exploding with fire when no fire was yet present
Electrical discharges would take place between metal objects inside
buildings, igniting any flammable materials. The same would hold
true for the hapless man found with melted coins in his pocket but
clothes intact and no other signs of burning. There is, in fact, no
other natural explanation for this enigma.
flames running along cornices of buildings
the usual description of a glow discharge from sharp edges of
rooftops, seen in the midst of powerful electrical storms. It is
called "St. Elmo's fire". The different colors of the flames are due
to the metallic ions sputtered from the surface material.
fire-proof building material
discharges can be used to melt anything. Industrially,
plasma torches are used to destroy the most refractory materials.
"…the basement fires burned with a strange
light, "as if whisky or alcohol were burning". Whisky or alcohol
burns with a ghostly blue light. Similarly, electrical glow
discharges from grounded metallic objects or electrical wiring in
the basements of buildings would emit a flickering, eerie blue
light. Any trapped flammable gases formed in the basements would be
ignited by the discharge, resulting in explosions.
Our purpose here
is not to suggest a definitive answer to the “Great Conflagration”.
But the cost of ignoring evidence should be obvious. The moment one
entertains the electrical vantage point, if only to compare the
explanatory power of alternative views, the most incongruous
elements of the story become predictable features. And who could deny that this ability to resolve paradoxes
is the mark of a hypothesis that deserves consideration?
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