The vague and mythical family tale of the Great Chicago Fire

14 Oct

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!


4 Responses to “The vague and mythical family tale of the Great Chicago Fire”

  1. gh0stpupp3t October 14, 2015 at 11:36 am #

    It must have been scary for Mary.

    • phoebz4 October 14, 2015 at 11:39 am #

      Oh, you went there. LOL!

  2. Rosemary Niedziela October 14, 2015 at 12:39 pm #

    Mary O’Hern left Ireland when she was 14 with her brother Tom. James & Peter Healy arrived in Chicago in 1870. At some point they brought their mother Mary to Chicago. She was buried, I believe in Grant Park. The city moved those remains to Calvary Cemetery to a particular section. That is when James bought the family plot at Calvary. Mom never said anything that I can remember about her grandmother & the Fire. She did have a way with creative story telling. Remember the one about the exiled O’Hanley’s & the land-grant signed by King George? She could put a fine edge on a story.

  3. garonnevik October 14, 2015 at 4:06 pm #

    So, here’s my weird Chicago story. I was trying to fill out my ancestry online family tree. My paternal grandmother was an Irish Catholic, who died when my dad was 7. She had a heart condition, she wasn’t supposed to have lots of kids, but she did, and she died giving birth to the 8th or 9th one. It’s vague and there’s lots of half-siblings involved after the fact. Anyway, her name was Helen Smith, and my dad said she was born in Chicago. So I’m looking for documents. Any documents, like a birth certificate, or something that would have information on who her parents were. This huge family has been largely silent on this issue. I found census records for when they moved to Oregon, when she was a teenager, but nothing prior to that. So I corner my dad, and ask him if he has any information on this. He says (and other family members have since confirmed this) that her dad worked for Al Capone. My great-grandpa left Chicago in a hurry with his family, moved to Oregon, and changed their name to Smith. A year or two later, he was mysteriously murdered. After his murder, my grandmother’s mother received a large sum of money every month until the day she died, sent anonymously in the mail. My great aunts and uncles were told to keep their mouths shut about their family name, and to. this. day they have told us nothing.

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