AUTHOR'S NEW EVIDENCE SOLVES CHICAGO FIRE WHODUNIT (NOT THE COW)
By Richard Frisbie
When the Discovery Channel did a piece on Richard F. Bales' book, The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O'Leary's Cow, they called the program Unsolved History. If her cow didn't start kick over a lantern and start the fire, who did?
Bales answered that question at the Jan. 11 SMA meeting in the Chicago Athletic Association. An attorney with the Chicago Title Insurance Company, he was able to research the company's land records and determine that a neighbor of the O'Learys named Daniel "Peg Leg" Sullivan gave testimony to investigators that could not have been true.
Bales exhibited a detailed drawing of the O'Leary neighborhood based on the company's copies of the official tract records, which burned along with the courthouse.
Sullivan said he noticed the fire in the O'Leary barn and tried unsuccessfully to put it out. Bales' map showed that Sullivan could not have seen the barn from where he said he had been sitting, in front of another house on De Koven St. There were buildings in the way.
Bales said there wasn't "enough evidence to sue Sullivan," but it seems likely that he may have accidentally started the fire himself and concocted a cover story.
The O'Leary barn held two tons of hay. Once the hay ignited, a strong southwest wind fanned the flames across wooden houses and sidewalks, destroying more than three square miles of the city and leaving at least 300 dead.
R. Craig Sautter, SMA president, set the tone for the evening by reading an excerpt from a best-selling 1872 novel, Barriers Burned Away, which included a vivid scene of panicked Chicagoans fleeing through the LaSalle St. tunnel under the Chicago River.
While the fire was still burning, on Oct. 9, 1871, the Evening Journal somehow managed to publish a thin issue in which a story blamed Mrs. O'Leary. Bales thinks this must have been a false rumor picked up by a reporter working on deadline. It seems clear that Catherine and Patrick O'Leary had already gone to bed when the fire started.
Researching the book, Bales also examined more than 1,100 handwritten pages from the transcript of the investigation conducted after the fire. He said he was surprised by the "softball" questioning of the 50 witnesses, including Sullivan.
There seems to have been little concern that when the fire was reported, dispatcher William Brown at first sent firefighters to the wrong address. Rather than criticize the fire department, it seemed easier to "let the lower class Irish lady take the fall."
In the end, Bales said, Catherine O'Leary was the one who showed true class. It was said that when P.T. Barnum came to offer her money to be exhibited she chased him away with a broom. And when the Columbian Exposition wanted her to appear, milking a cow, she said, "I don't need the money, and even if I did, I wouldn't take it."
Commenting on discrepancies turned up by his research, Bales said, "people like to lie." He has been especially amused by the "thousands" of people whose families claim to have been neighbors of the O'Learys, although in one case that seems to have been true. Shirley Haas, an SMA board member in the audience, has preserved a family tradition that her maternal grandmother as a small child lived at 109 De Koven St.
Bales said that would have been about a block away from the O'Learys at 237 De Koven.
Haas' grandmother, Annie McSloy, always remembered being carried on her father's shoulders into the cold October waters of Lake Michigan to escape the fire.
! Starting our 90th year, SMA is attempting to rebuild the archives housed at the University of Illinois Chicago.
Over the years, as responsibilities change hands from one volunteer to another things tend to get lost.
Any member who possesses SMA records, such as minutes of board meetings, dinner programs, correspondence and other items that bear on SMA history is asked to contact SMA president R. Craig Sautter, 7658 N. Rogers Ave., Chicago, IL 60626.
! SMA is grateful to the Siragusa Foundation again for a grant of $1,000 in support of the awards program. SMA is a 501c3 nonprofit corporation.
! Some members have asked why SMA has moved recent annual dinners from the Cliff Dwellers Club to the Chicago Athletic Association.
Despite the Cliff's parallel historic associations and splendid view of Lake Michigan, the CAA offers a larger room with better sight lines and acoustics.
! During the past year, members have posted 32 new books on the SMA Web site, complete with images of the covers and descriptive blurbs.
(Ed. Note: When I Google myself, I always come up on the first page and often as the first name out of the whole world because of the link through the SMA Web site.)
OTHER MEMBER NEWS
Advice to Poets
Ted Kooser's new book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual, is due out this month from the University of Nebraska Press.
As the 13th U.S. Poet Laureate, he advises young writers, "You'll never be able to make a living writing poetry. But look at it this way: Any activity that's worth lots of money, like professional baseball, comes with rules pinned all over it.
"In poetry, the only rules worth thinking about are the standards of perfection you set for yourself."
Report from New Member
Rebecca A. Meacham writes: "I just received my copy of Literary License and am enjoying it very much. Now, as a new member, I would like to share a bit of good news with other members.
"My first book, a story collection entitled Let's Do, was selected for Barnes & Noble's "Discover Great New Writers" program for Winter (Feb-April) 2005.
"At that time, the book should be available in more than 800 B&N stores nationwide.
"A little background: the book was published as the winner of 2004 University of North Texas Press's Katherine Anne Porter Prize, which awards $1000 and publication."
The book also received a good review in Publishers Weekly, and stories in the collection have won individual short story prizes (the 2002 Indiana Review fiction prize, the 2002 Chelsea Award for short fiction) and have appeared in several literary journals.
She's on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay.
Alzina Stone Dale will speak March 7 at the Oak Park (Ill.) 19th Century Club on "Mysteries in Chicago Old and New." Her talk will be a preview of her Loop Mystery Walk to be given in connection with Bouchercon (36) at Chicago Labor Day Weekend 2005.
New Day Job: Circuit Judge
When he's not writing novels, Patrick Murphy's day job has been working as Cook County (Ill.) Public Guardian, defending the interests of abused and neglected children and elderly. Now he's moving on, having been elected a judge of the Cook County Circuit Court.
In the wake of the recent SMA program on James T. Farrell, the City of Chicago was moved to proclaim Dec. 18 as James T. Farrell Day.
The committee pushing for recognition of the author's 100th anniversary included Ron Offen and William Lederer, both of whom spoke at the SMA program.
Another echo of the event came in an E-mail from SMA member Merv Block in New York, who remembered having Farrell home for dinner.
"My mother was displeased by his table manners. And his flopping on the living room couch.
"(The Literary License) article's mention of his winning letters (for sports) at St. Cyril's remind me of a lead on one of the long pieces I wrote about him.
"It went something like this: 'James T. Farrell was an eight-letter man in high school, but in literature he's a four-letter man.'"
What Dagger Do I See?
Sara Paretsky won the British Crime Writers' Association prestigious Golden Dagger Award for 2004 with her novel, Blacklist.
Writers About Town
Two SMA members, Jeanne M. Dams and Eleanor Taylor Bland, signed books at Centuries and Sleuths bookstore in Forest Park, Ill, on Dec. 11.
Peter Thompson spoke Jan. 13 at a novelists'-night program at the Lisle, Ill., public library.
Mark Perlberg was featured Jan. 16 at a poetry reading in the Wilmette, Ill., public library. It was part of a series sponsored by Free Lunch, poetry journal published by SMA member Ron Offen.
Perlberg, a widely published poet, founded the Poetry Center of Chicago and remains its director emeritus.
RECENT NEW MEMBERS
By Thomas Frisbie
Former print journalist Elizabeth Flock reported for Time and People magazines before becoming an on-air correspondent for CBS. She lives with her husband and two stepdaughters in Chicago. She is author of Me & Emma (Mira, 2004) and But Inside I'm Screaming (Mira, 2003).
Adam Langer is a journalist, author, playwright and filmmaker. His work has been featured on NPR's Selected Shorts. His plays have been produced in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities. He is author of Crossing California (Riverside Books, 2004).
Pop culture author Billy McCarthy is a former rock drummer, composer and producer. He is author of The Devil in Shakespeare.
Martha Miller teaches in the Richland Community College English Department. She was named Lincoln Library Fiction Writer of the Year in 1995 and received an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship, 1997-98. She is author of Dispatch to Death (2003), Nine Nights on The Windy Tree (2000) and Skin to Skin: Erotic Lesbian Love Stories (1998), all published by New Victoria.
Simone Muench is poetry editor of ACM. She was raised in Benson, La., and Ark., and received her BA and MA from the University of Colorado. Her poems have been published, or are forthcoming, in Paris Review, Indiana Review, Notre Dame Review, Poetry and more.
Her book, The Air Lost in Breathing (Helicon Nine Editions, 2000), won the 1999 Marianne Moore Prize for Poetry. She's a recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship, the 49th Parallel Award, the Charles Goodnow Award, the AWP Intro Journals Project Award and the Poetry Center's 9th Annual Juried Reading Award.
She won the 2004 Kathryn A. Morton Prize for Poetry and Sarabande Books will publish her Downing by the Light of Oranges aka Lampblack and Ash in 2005.
New Michigan Press released her chapbook Notebook. Knife. Mentholatum in 2003. She was one of the Fine Lines Poetry Contest winners co-sponsored by Olay and the Poetry Society of America.
Chuck Schaden is a longtime Chicago broadcaster. His book, Speaking of Radio, contains interviews with old-time radio personalities.
Elizabeth G. Schrader is a Chicago attorney and Hinsdale native who formerly worked in the Cook County (Ill.) State's Attorney's Office. A graduate of the Loyola University School of Law, she is author of For the Defendant (Leisure Books, 2004).
Her next book, part of the same series, will be For the State, and she is planning a third called The Verdict.
January 19, 2005
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