Fire from a Comet?
Was a cow or a comet responsible for what is always called “the great Chicago fire”? The November 1990 issue of Fate Magazine had a fascinating article presenting material from a recent book about the great Chicago fire of 1871. The book is Mrs. O’Leary’s Comet by Mel Waskin. It was published in 1990 in Chicago by the Academy of Chicago Press. I would love to get a copy of the book and would be glad to pay for it if any of our Chicago readers can locate it and send it to me.
The Fate article by Frank Joseph describes Waskin’s work in tracking down material which suggests that the story is a myth that the great Chicago fire was started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern. I grew up in Chicago, and the cow (along with inadequate fire fighters and a city of wooden buildings) were still getting the blame for the huge fire. Cornell’s The Great International Disaster Book published as late as 1975 still says that the fire started in the O’Leary barn though he doesn’t blame the cow. But on checking the local historical records, Waskin found that the Chicago fire department was considered one of the finest and the best equipped in America. It is true that they were exhausted since they had successfully put out (with no loss of life) a large fire that gutted 14 acres of river front just one day before the fire which destroyed the city. Joseph claims that the O’Leary fire was successfully contained but that at least two other major fires broke out simultaneously on the south side of Chicago far from the O’Leary barn. Cornell writes that sparks from the O’Leary barn were carried by the wind to start other fires. But more telling in Joseph’s account was the fact that major fires broke out simultaneously in two other states, resulting in over 2,000 deaths in all. The other cities are apparently misspelled. Joseph gives them as Manitee, MI and Pestigo, WI, but the WI town is clearly Peshtigo since two other references describe its terrible fire on the same night and almost the same time as the Chicago fire. The MI town is probably Manistee, but I have not found any record of it having a simultaneous fire. Joseph says that there were at least 1200 deaths in a single night in the MI and WI towns which are located on either side of Lake Michigan and form a triangle with Chicago near the lower end of the lake. The New York Public Library Book of Chronologies says that 1500 people died in the Peshtigo fire. Cornell says that the fire killed 1300 in the town of Peshtigo and continued across northern WI and upper MI where it killed 250 people in Sugar Bush and 200 in Williamsonville. Cornell repeats the figure of an estimated 1500 dead in all. Chicago is listed as having between 200 and 250 known dead and 200 missing.
With modern communication, the whole world would immediately hear about the dramatic “coincidence” of simultaneous fires. In fact, the world would watch the flames. But in 1871, news reports were local and pictures were mostly sketches that were hand drawn after the event. The Cornell book which was mentioned above does remark on the coincidence of the simultaneous fires, but he blames them on the drought. He also describes the Peshtigo fire as the worst in American history and his details seem to me to support the case for a cometary origin. He writes that on the night of October 8, a “low rumbling noise was heard and the air temperature suddenly became hot enough to blister bare skin. As both the sound and heat increased, a huge tongue of flame shot above the trees in the west. Ten minutes later the city was engulfed by what has been described as a ‘fire tornado.’ A blast of superheated air shook every building, lifting off roofs and toppling chimneys. Houses, barns, trees, even grass on the lawn burst into flames. Every combustible item in the town was suddenly and completely consumed by fire, including 1,300 of the town’s residents.” p. 292
There are also eyewitness accounts of the dramatic heat of the Chicago fire which melted and fused objects made of metal! Joseph’s article has pictures which he took in the Chicago Historical Society of the clumps of fused objects. The witnesses also described the strange behavior of the fires which burned with blue flames all over the city, which often started in the basements of buildings far removed from the main conflagration, and which smelled as though whiskey or alcohol were burning.
The explanation offered by Waskin is that fragments of a comet hit the three separate cities at almost the same time. A comet would explain the intense heat which melted stone and steel buildings, the smell of alcohol since methane and acetylene are common cometary gasses, the color of the flames, and the basement fires since cometary gasses are heavier than air so they would tend to sink. Joseph says that eye witnesses also described “great balloons of flame” falling from the sky and “thick, unending showers of burning sand.” p.50
Waskin has even located a likely comet as the culprit. Biela was discovered almost 100 years before the Chicago fire, but its orbit was calculated by and it was named for the Austrian Captain Biela in 1826. It returned 6 years later and narrowly missed the earth (earth reached the spot where Biela crossed our orbit a month after the comet passed by). Astronomers calculated at the time that Biela would eventually hit the earth but not for millions of years. Biela was due again in 1845 but as astronomers watched, it split into two bodies which continued on nearly parallel paths. The twin comets were due again in 1859, but they were too close to the sun so were not seen, and five years later they were missed again by the watching astronomers. Biela Minor, the smaller eject from the original comet, was never seen again and Waskin suggests that its disappearance was approximately at the time of the Chicago fire. I have not had time to check Joseph’s statement that “the latest computer analysis of cometary movements over the past 500 years” (p.45) offers the preceding scenario for Biela, but in the meantime, I thought it might be interesting to run some charts for the great fires.
Joseph writes that the fires in all three states are said to have erupted at 9:30 P.M. on October 8, 1871. Cornell says that the Chicago fire department responded to the alarm at the O’Leary barn at 8:45 P.M. I calculated charts for both times, and the 9:30 time is astrologically more appropriate. In both Chicago and Peshtigo, exact (one-degree orb) aspects include Mars square the MC-IC axis, Vesta quincunx the MC, and MC octile Neptune. Saturn was exactly opposite the Ascendant in Peshtigo which had 1,000 more deaths even though it was a relatively small town compared to Chicago. Pluto was more widely conjunct the Antivertex (wider in Peshtigo than in Chicago), and Mars was widely opposite the East Point in both places. The 8:45 chart has Venus and Jupiter in a yod, quincunx the MC in both places (Jupiter just over one degree from exact), which is hardly an impressive picture. In Peshtigo, the nodes are exactly on the Ascendant axis with the south node on the Descendant—again, not a really impressive aspect. In view of the discrepancy in the information, we have to acknowledge that we are dealing with “dirty data” to use Lois Rodden’s nomenclature, and we can’t put much reliance on the charts.
I was still intrigued by the possibility that the Midwest had been hit by the fragments of a comet, so I progressed the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution for the date of the fire, with local house cusps in Chicago and Peshtigo. The Constitution is a historically firm chart and of course I am convinced that my rectified time on the Declaration is very close to accurate. For such a dramatic event, the charts should have angle aspects to natal and/or progressed Mars in the localities of the event. In the Constitution, natal Mars is on the natal IC in the area from about mid-87 to mid-89 degrees west longitude so it is on the angle in both cities. At the time of the fires, P Antivertex in both Chicago and Peshtigo was on natal Mars. Natal Pluto is square the Chicago Ascendant within one minute of longitude and just over a one degree square to the Peshtigo Ascendant. The Peshtigo Part of Death is within a one-degree square to Mars. P Moon and P Mercury at the time of the fire were quincunx the Peshtigo Ascendant and its P Ascendant was square Neptune and setting off the square of P Ceres to natal Mercury and P Saturn. Of course there were additional aspects involving planets such as P Mars square P Uranus, but P Mars was also opposite the natal Part of Mars calculated with the Chicago Ascendant. P Uranus squared the Peshtigo Part of Mars. The P Part of Mars was conjunct Ceres square Mercury. The natal south node of Mars was on the natal Peshtigo Antivertex within the permissible one degree and P south node of Mars was conjunct P Neptune. The P MCs in both cities were quincunx P Chiron in the eighth house. Many more aspects might be mentioned, but the chart does have the expected angle aspects to Mars etc.
My rectified chart for the Declaration of Independence also had appropriate angle aspects. P Mars was on the East Point in both Chicago and Peshtigo as well as opposite natal Moon. P Moon was just past P Mars but still in orb of the opposition to natal Moon. P Mars was also octile the natal south node of Mars while P Mercury (ruler of both the natal MC and Ascendant in Philadelphia) was square the Arabic Part of Mars. P Mercury was also octile the P Part of Mars and P Neptune. P Sun was on natal Saturn (in the natal chart they are square) and the P MCs in both cities were at the midpoint of Sun/Saturn, octile both within one degree! The P ICs, ruling the land and homes, would of course be trioctile Sun and Saturn. Aspects like these support my rectified time. If the vote on the Declaration had occurred much earlier or later (as in the charts preferred by many astrologers), the Moon would not have been in this position to be in aspect to P Mars and of course the local angles would be very different. P East Point in both cities was quincunx Venus, one of the rulers of the second house, and the Chicago P Ascendant was trioctile Venus. The P East Points were also square the natal Ascendants. P south lunar node held a long yod to natal Venus-Ascendant in this Midwest area, and for a couple of years, P East Point completed a second yod involving south node and Venus. Chicago’s P Part of Death was trioctile P Pluto while Peshtigo’s P Part of Death was square Uranus, opposite Ceres, and octile P Jupiter and P Saturn, at the midpoint of the last two.
We may never have final evidence that a comet hit the Midwest, but I hope to get more information on comet Biela in time.