The Comet and the Chicago
For nearly one and a
half centuries, the cause of the most notorious fire in U.S.
history has been a source of “heated” controversy. Some
researchers suggest that a disintegrating comet ignited the
blaze. But the electrical theorists say that evidence most
often ignored offers the best clues.
“With the heat
increased the wind, which came howling across the prairie,
until at last there arose a perfect hurricane. Mighty flakes
of fire, hot cinders, black, stifling smoke, were driven
fiercely at the people, and amid the terrible excitement
hundreds of them had their very clothes burned off their
backs, as they stood there watching with tearful eyes the
going down of so many houses”. -- James Goodsell's History
of the Great Chicago Fire, October 8, 9, and 10, Published
1871 by J.H. and C.M. Goodsell.
October 8, 1871 marked the beginning of one of the most
devastating fires in U.S. history. Legend has it that “The
Great Chicago Fire” resulted from an agitated cow kicking
over a lantern in “Mrs O’Leary’s barn”. The dry leaves and
parched wood of Illinois in early autumn were the perfect
kindling for a wildfire, and the fire spread with
extraordinary rapidity, consuming homes and buildings,
leaping from rooftop to rooftop with the speed of a
locomotive. Between October 8 and 10, an estimated 350
people perished. The fire destroyed the homes of up to
one-third of the city's population, about 1,600 stores, 60
factories, and 28 public buildings. Four square miles of the
city burned to the ground.
popular folklore, the Chicago fire is not the worst in U.S.
history. It was not even the worst to occur on October 8
that year. The same evening—in fact, at the same time,
about 9:30—a fierce wildfire struck in Peshtigo, Wisconsin,
over 200 miles to the north of Chicago, destroying the town
and a dozen other villages. Estimates of those killed range
upward from 1200 to 2500 in a single night. It was not the
Chicago fire but the simultaneous “Peshtigo Fire” that was
the deadliest in U.S. history.
And there is
more. On the same evening, across Lake Michigan,
another fire also wreaked havoc. Though smaller fires had
been burning for some time—not unusual under the reported
conditions—the most intense outburst appears to have erupted
simultaneously with the Chicago and Peshtigo fires. The
blaze is said to have then burned for over a month,
consuming over 2,000,000 acres and killing at least 200.
Michigan outburst, it is reported that numerous fires
endangered towns across the state. The city of Holland was
destroyed by fire and in Lansing flames threatened the
agricultural college. In Thumb, farmers fled an inferno that
some newspapers dubbed, "The Fiery Fiend." Reports say that
fires threatened Muskegon, South Haven, Grand Rapids,
Wayland, reaching the outskirts of Big Rapids. A steamship
passing the Manitou Islands reported they were on fire.
There can be no
doubt that weather conditions at the time favored
wildfires. But never before, and never since, has the U.S.
seen such wildly destructive simultaneous
conflagrations. This “coincidence”, combined with many
unusual phenomena reported by eyewitnesses, has led some to
conclude that an extraordinary force, one not of the earth,
was a more likely “arson” than either a misbehaving cow or a
Ignatius Donnelly, author of Ragnarok: the Rain of Fire
and Gravel, suggested that in early historic times our
Earth suffered great catastrophes from cometary intruders.
To this claim he added: “There is reason to believe that the
present generation has passed through the gaseous
prolongation of a comet's tail, and that hundreds of human
beings lost their lives”. He was referring to the
conflagration of 1871.
plausible evidence that a comet may have caused the Chicago
fire and its regional counterparts? In 1985, Mel Waskin,
who had earlier discovered Donnelly’s work, published a
book, Mrs. O’Leary’s Comet, suggesting that a
comet did indeed spark the October 8th fires. More recently,
Robert Wood, a physicist and aeronautical engineer formerly
with Douglas Aircraft and McDonnell Douglas, gained
attention from the Discovery Channel and other media for
proposing the same idea.
of the cometary explanation cite many fascinating details
confirmed by eye witness reports: the descent of fire from
the heavens, a great “tornado” of fire rushing across the
landscape and tearing buildings from their foundations,
descending balls of fire, a rain of red dust, great
explosions of wind accompanied by blasts of thunder,
buildings exploding into flame where no fire was burning,
and a good deal more. Some of the parallels with the later
Tunguska event are impossible to miss.
It seems that
the records of the conflagration hold many clues that are
almost never mentioned in scientific discussion of the
Chicago fire. Over time the clues have virtually
disappeared. They have disappeared because they are not
meaningful to minds conditioned by popular ideas about how
the “Chicago fire” started and what is “scientifically”
possible. Within these habits of perception, the most
important evidence will often go unnoticed or unremembered.