Getting History Right

Monday, June 20, 2016

You’ve probably heard that the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was started by a cow. Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, to be exact.

The rumor was apparently begun by a reporter who wanted a colorful story to tell in his newspaper. It spread as quickly as the fire and had equally disastrous results—at least for the O’Leary family. Mrs. O’Leary never lived it down, even after the rumors were shown to be false. After all, people thought, every rumor has some truth to it.

And there was a germ of truth in this one. The fire did start in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn. But it started long after Mrs. O’Leary had finished her milking, taken away the lamp, and retired to bed in the nearby house.

One plausible theory is that a careless neighbor was smoking in the hay-filled barn. Another report speculated that men were gambling there and one of them knocked over a lamp. While the cause is still unknown, it is unlikely that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow did it.

I have started researching my next middle-grade historical novel, which takes place during the Great Chicago Fire. So how historically accurate do I need to be? Should I include the story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow?

Personally, I believe that historical fiction should be as accurate as possible. That doesn’t require me to ignore the story, but I need to place it after the fact and treat it as the rumor it was. I’m not far enough along to know whether I’ll even use it, but it can be done without portraying the contents of the rumor as fact.

With her back against the church wall, Julia pulled her legs up and hugged them. To her left, a woman held a squirming toddler and watched an older child rock back and forth.

“One of those Irish immigrants started it,” the woman told Julia. “She was milking a cow and left the lantern too close to his hoofs.” The mother moaned. “One kick, and now my children are homeless and the entire city is gone.”

“Did you see the cow do it?” Julia asked.

“No, but everybody’s saying it, so it must be true.”

The rumor of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow started within a day or two after the fire, and the existence of the rumor is factual even if the contents aren’t. The trick in writing historical fiction is to find a way to incorporate them without validating them.

Because false rumors have their role in history, too.

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