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The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O'Leary's Cow [Hardcover]

by Richard F. Bales, Thomas F. Schwartz
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 9, 2002 0786414243 978-0786414246
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 swallowed up more than three square miles in two days, leaving thousands homeless and 300 dead. Throughout history, the fire has been attributed to Mrs. O’Leary, an immigrant Irish milkmaid, and her cow. On one level, the tale of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow is merely the quintessential urban legend. But the story also represents a means by which the upper classes of Chicago could blame the fire’s chaos on a member of the working poor.

Although that fire destroyed the official county documents, some land tract records were saved. Using this and other primary source information, Richard F. Bales created a scale drawing that reconstructed the O’Leary neighborhood. Next he turned to the transcripts—more than 1,100 handwritten pages—from an investigation conducted by the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners, which interviewed 50 people over the course of 12 days. The board’s final report, published in the Chicago newspapers on December 12, 1871, indicates that commissioners were unable to determine the cause of the fire. And yet, by analyzing the 50 witnesses’ testimonies, the author concludes that the commissioners could have determined the cause of the fire had they desired to do so. Being more concerned with saving their own reputation from post-fire reports of incompetence, drunkenness and bribery, the commissioners failed to press forward for an answer. The author has uncovered solid evidence as to what really caused the Great Chicago Fire.

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Editorial Reviews


“An entertaining and valuable source of information” --Journal of Illinois History

“Should exonerate Catherine O’Leary from more than 130 years of unmerited slander” --C&RL News

“Painstaking anaylsis” --City Talk --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

Richard F. Bales is Assistant Regional Counsel for the Wheaton, Illinois office of Chicago Title Insurance Company. This title insurance company maintains the only set of land records that survived the blaze of 1871. Bales’ initial conclusions concerning the cause of the Great Chicago Fire earned him the Illinois State Historical Society’s Harry E. Pratt Memorial Award. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 350 pages
  • Publisher: McFarland & Company (October 9, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0786414243
  • ISBN-13: 978-0786414246
  • Product Dimensions: 10.8 x 6.7 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #870,597 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superbly detailed, tightly argued, and convincing December 3, 2002
By A Customer
This work is simply superb! It is exhaustively researched, well-organized, tightly argued, beautifully illustrated, and entirely convincing. It covers virtually every feature of the fire, the resulting botched investigation, and the era's social contexts. An outstanding model of research, analysis, and writing.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Finally some justice for the cow! November 19, 2002
By A Customer
Very detailed and informative book about "The rest of the story." The author not only offers his version of the facts of the case, but also gives one an understanding of the politics and social mood of the period in which the fire took place. The photographs and drawings are terrific. There are few, if any, unanswered questions after reading this book. It's worth the money, I would say.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars FASCINATING! February 4, 2004
Dick Bales has covered every possible base in getting to the bottom of The Great Chicago Fire. With this event happening 130+ years ago, most people don't realize the devastation that this fire caused. The illustrations, photos and other research documents bring it into perspective on what may have really happened. I am sure many have been taught in school the myth of Mrs. O'Leary and her cow, but this book blows that idea out of the water! This should become required reading in every school so the truth may finally be revealed. A++++++
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Explodes myth September 7, 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Finally an accurate narrative of what actually happened to cause the The Great
Chicago Fire. Its nice to see Mrs O'Leary vindicated from the false charges
that have hung over her all these years and the Cow too.
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