Sifting through the Rubble

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is one of the best-documented events in history. Chicago was a newspaper town, and within 48 hours most of the major papers were back up and running. They had plenty of eyewitness accounts to choose among, including those from their owners and reporters. Other educated persons quickly published their own eyewitness accounts. Then the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners held a public inquiry, heard sworn testimony from fifty-one witnesses, and published its report—all before the end of the year.

Even so, much of the evidence is inconclusive. We know where the fire started, but we don’t know how. We don’t even know exactly when. (The evidence puts it anywhere between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.) We know that the early response to the fire was a comedy of errors (combined with circumstances beyond anyone’s control), but we don’t always know who was responsible for the errors or the reasons for them. And only God knows whether the fire could have been controlled if everything had gone right.

In 1871, even the most reputable newspapers had a taste for sensationalism. Besides that, eyewitness testimony is only as reliable as the eyewitness is. Some people misinterpret what they see, some exaggerate, and some simply make things up for effect. So how much of the eyewitness accounts can I use in my middle-grade historical novel on the Great Chicago Fire?

Take this story:

One little girl, in particular, I saw, whose golden hair was loose down her back and caught afire. She ran screaming past me, and somebody threw a glass of liquor upon her, which flared up and covered her with a blue flame.

At first glance, the story looks pretty improbable. Not because the girl’s hair caught fire—that was common. But would somebody really be mean enough to throw alcohol on her? Still, maybe it wasn’t meanness and the person was so intoxicated that he thought his drink would put out the fire like water would. Besides, the eyewitness was Alexander Frear, a visitor who was a member of the New York State Assembly and a New York City commissioner. Surely we can believe someone like that.

Maybe yes, and maybe no. I can hear you saying, “Never believe a politician.” But for me, the biggest problem with Mr. Frear’s is that it is filled with similarly dramatic events. One or two such instances might simply mean that Mr. Frear was observant and knew how to use vivid language to describe what he saw, but the entire account seems over the top.

So even if it’s true, I won’t be using the story of the girl catching fire from a liquor bath. And that’s okay, because I don’t need it. There are plenty of better documented yet still dramatic incidents scattered among the many eyewitness accounts.

It’s all a matter of sifting through the rubble.


Carla Lee Suson said...

I think the story could be true simply because dumb things happen in the heat of the moment. The person meant to do the right thing and had a glass of "liquid" in their hands. Liquid extinguishes fire, right? So in order to help, he flung in on her and in his horror realizes his mistake. Good luck with the research.

Kathryn Page Camp said...

Yes, it could be true. Every event that Alexander Frear relates could be true, and maybe they all are. It's just a little suspect that he experienced so many unusual events that others didn't experience. And I do love the story, but I don't need it. It's also a little too disturbing for my audience.

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