Born and raised in the Twin Cities, Scott Berg has always had a love affair with Chicago. He remembers coming down often to go to ball games, and seeing the Frank Lloyd Wright houses as an undergraduate in architecture. Compared to stoic Minnesota, Chicago seemed like the Midwest’s exuberant id, a place that “wore its heart on its sleeve,” Berg says.
So though many books had already been written about the Great Chicago Fire, Berg wanted to write his own, because “you write the book you want to read,” Berg says in an interview.
“There hasn’t been anything of what you call a straight narrative history,” says Berg, who teaches publishing, writing and literature at George Mason University in Virginia. While teaching a class about the writing that came out of Hurricane Katrina, he recognized parallels between the New Orleans and Chicago disasters.
“A disaster story is always kind of the same—you read about a flood or a hurricane or a fire, and there are the same stories of heroism and disaster, and they play out in similar ways… The aftermath is where the real action is,” he says. Looking at both Hurricane Katrina and the Great Chicago Fire, Berg found them “weirdly similar” in the political fight that followed.
“People sense opportunity in the aftermath of a disaster,” he says. “Mine is a story of the politics of disaster, once the flames cooled.”
The first third of Berg’s book is a brilliantly detailed account of the fire, filled with literary color. We meet Mathias Schaefer, a fireman in the “most fire-prone city in the world,” acting as watchman on that warm October night in 1871. We stand on the Randolph Street bridge with the somber Chicago Tribune owner Joseph Medill, who risked his life (and those of his staff) trying to get out a paper the next day and later becomes mayor. We also meet the fire itself in all its terror and power—in one passage, Berg describes how it was “crouched on the West Side along the Chicago River and directly across from downtown, tensed and ready to spring.”
The morning after, journalist Ed Chamberlin sees working girls in the streets with their lunch baskets—heading to jobs that no longer exist. The sight was “one of the saddest and most peculiar moments of Chamberlin’s life. But in another way, the sight was the most Chicagoan thing he’d ever seen.”
The second two-thirds of the book are about what came after—the struggle for power between city and state, and between business and municipal leaders. Berg also shows how Kate Leary was turned into an ethnic caricature—an “Irish hag” instead of a blameless entrepreneur. (Berg said he found that Irish names at the time were often pronounced and written without the “O,” and that the Learys used both spellings. Leary’s friends, neighbors, and the official record used “Leary,” while those trying to brand her with responsibility for the fire used “O’Leary.” Berg went with the “Leary” spelling.)
Berg says he developed his meticulous timeline for the fire—from the “Red Flash” blaze that came the day before and exhausted the understaffed fire crews, to the progress of the Great Fire itself—from fire narratives, previous books and newspaper stories. “There’s a lot of triangulation from what other people have done,” Berg says. He says he was in a better situation than previous writers because of improved digitized and online resources, including access to thousands of images from Chicago newspapers and the Newberry Library.
Berg also examined business ledgers—Marshall Field kept meticulous notes—government reports and documents. He was surprised at the amount of personality, including flares of anger and frustration, in the reports of people like Illinois Governor John Palmer, General Philip Sheridan and Common Council President Charles C. P. Holden, who becomes one of the story’s heroes.
Another source was council meeting minutes. “They’d be really sarcastic to each other, really snide and tell jokes…” Berg notes, though votes were usually not heavily contested. “They didn’t give a crap what was going on nationally in those Chicago council meetings. Chicago was enough. Chicago was like its own country. A lot of the war for the city’s soul happened in those council meetings.”
Berg was surprised by the humor and spirit of Chicago’s people. Before the fire, the poor and foreign-born in the city had “shockingly little power.” After the fire, they became “very much enfranchised and found their power,” sometimes in comical ways. When the city banned saloons from serving beer on Sundays, German saloon owners took wagons carrying kegs of beer onto Milwaukee Avenue, and anyone who had a cup or a glass could drink for free. So beer wasn’t being sold or served at a saloon—thus circumventing the anti-immigrant and anti-working-class law.
“They don’t go to a meeting and complain—they just drink all over the city,” Berg says. “It was the first day after the fire that much of Chicago felt like itself again.”
Berg also was impressed by Leary. He notes that Chicago was an interesting place for independent women like Kate Leary, who had five cows, fed high-grade timothy hay. The Learys also owned their own land.
“They were exactly the kind of family the WASPs say you should be, then this fire happens and they throw her under the bus,” says Berg. “For someone like that to get blamed so thoroughly for something she had nothing to do with is kind of interesting.” He notes that Americans are always quick to turn people into entertainment. “As awful as it was, it was just a good story, you could make a poem out of it, you could make a song out of it.”
Berg wonders if Leary was targeted not only because she was an immigrant, but because she was making her own money. “A working woman is always suspect.”
Berg credits Chicago writer Richard F. Bales, who dug into insurance records for his book, “The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” (2002), for exonerating Leary and pinning the blaze on Peg Leg Sullivan: “The person who reported the fire is very often the person who started it.”
Chicago’s physical and political changes were accelerated by the fire. But it also brought cultural change, Berg says. Chicago didn’t really have an artistic scene of its own before 1871. Afterwards, the writers and artists came, including architects like the young Louis Sullivan. In his autobiography, Sullivan describes how he entered the ruined city by train, stamped his foot, raised his hand, and cried out, “THIS IS THE PLACE FOR ME!”
“I think Chicago gained an ineradicable sense of a blank slate, where people could go in and do things and build and write,” Berg says.
“The Burning of the World: The Great Chicago Fire and the War for a City’s Soul”
By Scott W. Berg
Pantheon Books, 464 pages, $32
Mary Wisniewski is a Chicago writer and author of “Algren: A Life.”