The vague and mythical family tale of the Great Chicago Fire

Once upon a time, the city of Chicago caught on fire. They blamed a cow, but a century and some years later, the city did exonerate the cow of all charges. True story.

My grandmother’s mother’s people came over a year or so before the fire. I always knew this because she would say how her grandfather made his fortune helping rebuild the city…’s sewer system after the fire. However, he then lost all his money after the stock market crash, because I guess once a poor Irish lad, always a poor Irish lad.

But this isn’t the mythical story I was referring to.

No, this was a tale my grandmother told me once, back when I was a child. I don’t know if she told me more than once about this, which is why it’s validity is hazy. But Grandma was not one for tall tales (that was Grandpa’s job). And it was such a fascinating story, it stuck in my memory.

The night of the Great Fire, thousands of Chicagoans fled for safety, including my great-great-grandmother, Mary O’Hern. According to my research and the records I’ve found through, Mary would have been about 16 years old and fairly new to the city of Chicago. There she was, in this great new world, only to end up in one of the great memorable disasters of our country.

So on the night in question, Mary O’Hern found herself with others, fleeing the fire, through the streets on foot, passing the historic water tower that was one of the few surviving structures. At some point, they were tired, and stopped in the old Lincoln Park Cemetery. My grandmother described her grandmother, sitting on a tombstone, waiting to see if they’d have to keep moving. The image of this young Irish woman, sitting on a headstone, possibly legs swinging because why not?, holding a bundle of worldly possessions has always stuck in my brain. Maybe it helps my vision that in the family, we have an old tintype of Mary O’Hern, in her plaid dress, around that time period. It also helps the image that my grandmother took after her in looks.

What could that teenager have been thinking as she sat there on a gravestone, watching the city she just spent weeks and months traveling to, burn to the ground? Was she very stereotypical Irish and said prayers and rosaries? Or was she a bit cheeky and thinking “Ah sure, I finally get here and the fecking city burns down.”  Or was she just thinking of the immediate – if she had a place to live still and a job to go back to and that her feet hurt.

Eventually, she had to leave her morbid spot, with all the others resting in the cemetery (yes, I am aware of the irony of that statement!). The fire spread through the cemetery at some point during the course of its two days.

Now, I was a child of the Chicago of the 1970’s and didn’t know a lot about the city’s history except for things like the fire and other tidbits my grandparents shared. Lincoln Park was a park and fancy section of Chicago in my little mind. I had no clue there was a cemetery there because there actually wasn’t. So the story of Mary O’Hern’s flight from fire seemed outlandish.

Until I discovered that oh, there was a cemetery in Lincoln Park – it was just kind of destroyed by the fire, and anyway, it was too close to the lake to make for good burying. So eventually, what bodies they could find were moved, and it was turned into a park. A park that still has many a skeleton buried within it, because they never did find all the graves.

And like I said, Grandma wasn’t one for tall tales. So maybe that image of teenaged Mary O’Hern, swinging her legs while siting on someone’s grave marker in the middle of the night, as the city of Chicago burned, is true.

a later portrait of Mary O'Hern
a later portrait of Mary O’Hern


This is part of the 31 Days writing challenge…to find out more about it or read more from this challenge, check out the 31 Days page!