From the Left



Still We Ask, What cCaused the Great Chicago Fire? Not a Cow

Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

Yet the great question remained uneasily answered: If Daisy the cow didn’t start the blaze, who did?

Influenced perhaps by the age of NASA and “Star Wars,” I am drawn to a celestial notion: Maybe the fire came from outer space.

For one thing, Chicago’s fire was not alone. Fires erupted across the Midwest in that very hot and dry autumn.

To the north, for example, more than 1,000 people were killed at Peshtigo, Wisconsin, making it the most deadly fire in this country’s history.

To the east, multiple forest fires, often called the Great Michigan Fire, erupted in Alpena, Holland, Manistee and Port Huron, along with some towns in the Upper Peninsula.

These clues led the late Mel Waskin of Skokie, Illinois, a former head writer and producer for Chicago area-based Coronet Educational Films, to write “Mrs. O’Leary’s Comet!: Cosmic Causes of the Great Chicago Fire Paperback” in 1985.

“My goal,” he told the Tribune at the time, “is to have the comet dislodge Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and take its rightful place in our folklore.”

Waskin’s research zeroed in on a comet named for Wilhelm von Biela, an Austrian army officer and amateur astronomer.


Maybe. But there’s a hitch with Biela’s comet: It appeared in 1872, a year after the Chicago fire. A researcher directed me to another shooting star, Comet Encke, named for German astronomer Johann Franz Encke. It zoomed past earth in the year of the Chicago fire, throwing off meteoroids as comets do.

But other experts also cast doubt on the whole idea of such fire starter comets. Meteors, they note, also are called “dirty ice” and tend to cool too much in their fall through earth’s atmosphere to set much ablaze.

Still, I appreciate Waskin’s faith. “I’m convinced of the possibility,” he told a Tribune reporter. “There are enough strange, documented events and coincidences that happened that night to make it a very convincing possibility.”

Or, as Shakespeare wrote, “There more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Indeed, I can’t quite dismiss the possibility that all of those fires cut across the Midwest by pure coincidence, even if it does help me to sleep better at night.


(E-mail Clarence Page at

©2021 Clarence Page. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.




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