The fateful kick of Mrs. O'Leary's cow, the wild flight before the flames, the astonishingly quick rebuilding—these are the well-known stories of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. But as much as Chicago's recovery from disaster was a remarkable civic achievement, the Great Fire is also the story of a city's people divided and at odds. This is the story that Karen Sawislak tells so revealingly in this book.
In a detailed account, drawn on memoirs, private correspondences, and other documents, Sawislak chronicles years of widespread, sometimes bitter, social and political conflict in the fire's wake, from fights over relief soup kitchens to cries against profiteering and marches on city hall by workers burned out of their homes. She shows how through the years of rebuilding the people of Chicago struggled to define civic order—and the role that "good citizens" would play within it. As they rebuilt, she writes, Chicagoans confronted hard questions about charity and social welfare, work and labor relations, morality, and the limits of state power. Their debates in turn exposed the array of values and interests that different class, ethnic, and religious groups brought to these public discussions.
"Sawislak combines the copious detail of a historian with the vivid portrayals of a storyteller in her investigation of the infamous Chicago fire. . . . Highlighted by historical maps, plates and engravings, with an epilogue and notes, Smoldering City presents an extremely thorough and engaging study of this extraordinary disaster."—Publishers Weekly
Sawislak combines the copious detail of a historian with the vivid portrayals of a storyteller in her investigation of the infamous Chicago fire. Drawing historical accounts from one of the nation's first media frenzies, she examines the various philosophical debates the city faced after the fire in dealing with homelessness, the care and feeding of much of the population and the problem of rebuilding amidst political chaos and people working at cross purposes. She also explains the events that led up to the inferno. ``Intensely dry conditions, a 20-m.p.h. southwest wind, and an unfortunate spark at approximately 10 o'clock on the night of October 8 all combined to turn Chicago into what two historians of the Great Fire would describe as `a vast ocean of flame.'" The rift between the immigrant working class and the wealthy ``native-born'' Chicagoans made Catherine O'Leary (and her infamous bovine) a perfect scapegoat for anti-Irish, anti-working class invective. Highlighted by historical maps, plates and engravings, with an epilogue and notes, Smoldering City presents an extremely thorough and engaging study of this extraordinary disaster. (Jan.)