The Great Fire Summary (Jim Murphy)

Jim Murphy


On October 8, 1871, on a lazy Sunday, a fire broke out in a barn near the edge of Chicago. According to Murphy, no one knows for certain how the fire started. He refutes the popular myth that it began when a cow being milked by Catherine O'Leary kicked over a gas lamp, saying that it was impossible for O'Leary to have been in the barn at the time.

At that time, Chicago was in the midst of a long drought, making its wooden buildings and wooden sidewalks very dry and thus vulnerable to fire. The city had already experienced a number of relatively small fires, including an especially troublesome one that the fire department had extinguished the previous day near the neighborhood of the O'Learys. Still, the fire department was well organized and well equipped, and it had been extinguishing fires with a high degree of success. Even so, failure to properly call in the fire in the O'Learys' barn, an insubordinate employee at the fire department's main tower, and high winds blowing flames to the city's center combined to turn a small fire into one of history's most notorious blazes. One hundred thousand people lost their homes; several tens of thousands of buildings were destroyed; and many people, including children, died.

Based on firsthand accounts, The Great Fire brings to life the panic, the confusion, and the desperation of the people who were caught in the fire's path. The book also details both the heroic and the foolish actions of some...

(The entire section is 350 words.)