Prologue Magazine

While Chicago Burned

Records of an Obscure Court Case Yield New Details on the 1871 Fire

Winter 2011 Vol. 43, No. 4

By Ann Patricia Duffy

When the fire brigade's general alarm bells sounded on the night of October 8, 1871, most Chicagoans paid no special notice. The summer had been the hottest and driest of many seasons, and October had already seen several fires in the city.

That Sunday, however, a ferocious wind frustrated the exhausted firefighters’ efforts and propelled the flames across the city. By the time the fire died out on Tuesday morning, roughly 300 people were dead, 100,000 were homeless, and Chicago's central business district was destroyed.

Those who fled before the flames never forgot the fear and panic of those days. Nearly 70 years later, one Chicagoan described the night of October 8 for the Federal Writers' Project:

I jumped out of bed and pulled on my pants. Everybody in the house was trying to save as much as possible. I tied my clothes in a sheet. With my clothes under my arm and my pack on my back, I left the house with the rest of the family. Everybody was running north. People were carrying all kinds of crazy things. A woman was carrying a pot of soup, which was spilling all over her dress. People were carrying cats, dogs and goats. In the great excitement people saved worthless things and left behind good things. I saw a woman carrying a big frame in which was framed her wedding veil and wreath. She said it would have been bad luck to leave it behind.
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The case of Fuller v. Crosby, heard in 1881, gives us an eyewitness account of the Chicago Fire of October 8, 1871. (National Archives at Chicago, Records of District Courts of the United States, RG 21)

Additional eyewitness accounts appeared in newspapers and magazines, but another source of firsthand descriptions can be found in an unexpected source: federal court records in the National Archives at Chicago.

Case 17084, Henry Fuller v. Albert Crosby et al. was heard in the circuit court for the Northern District of Illinois in 1881, a decade after the fire. Crosby was the owner of the Crosby Opera House on Washington Street between State and Dearborn. Fuller accused Crosby of not repaying a loan of $25,000, given to Crosby by Henry's father. Crosby claimed bankruptcy; Fuller was contesting that claim.

The opera house was more than a theater; it also housed an art gallery that featured several paintings reflecting the style of the Hudson River School. The story of that collection's rescue during the Chicago Fire, preserved in the court case file, gives us a glimpse of the events and reactions of those on the scene the night of October 8, 1871.

Chief usher James S. Osgood and several others were executing the final touches required for the opera house's grand opening on Monday, October 9. The theater had been closed for renovations, and there was still much to do before it could be opened to the public. Osgood and others knew there was a fire in the city, but they continued their work.

A Rush Begins To Save
Valuable Works of Art

Osgood could hear explosions, but it was not until several hours after the alarm sounded that he became concerned. Mr. Garrison (no first name is given in the testimony), the house/financial manager, Crosby, and Osgood left the opera house and walked to the corner of Clark and Washington Streets to look at the fire. "It seemed so distant to them that they didn't feel so much alarm as I did," Osgood recalled.

As they watched, a "brand came over and struck the Court House dome setting it afire." Not being more than a block away from the courthouse, the trio agreed that it was time for action and returned to the opera house.

Saving the art gallery pictures was uppermost in their minds. They took the large pictures out of their frames and lowered them by rope to the street below. The smaller pictures, as many as could be saved, were carried down or lowered via ropes. No one panicked, even though smoke was visible in the building. In his testimony, Osgood recalled that "[t]he inside of the Opera House was not on fire at the time, but we could see that it was on fire [somewhere] there from the smoke coming up from the stage."

The next part of the plan called for the pictures to be taken to the "fireproof" First National Bank building across the street. But there was too much traffic to transport the pictures safely, and a second location was suggested: Garrison's house at 226 South Wabash Street.

According to Osgood, "I picked up two or three strangers, one or two volunteers, I knew their faces," and they began carrying the pictures to the Garrison house, three to four blocks away. At the house, Mrs. Garrison took charge of organizing the storage and placement of the pictures and several statues.

His work completed, Osgood left to check on the progress of the fire. The testimony of almost all those questioned in the case displays similar curiosity but rarely fear or recognition of the magnitude of the fire. Returning to the Garrison house, Osgood suggested moving the pictures to his lodgings near 21st and Prairie to keep them out of harm's way. And so began the next phase, which entailed getting a wagon and team of some kind to move the pictures a distance of about 20 blocks.

Getting a Wagon and Horses
Required More Than Persuasion

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Crosby's Opera House before the Chicago Fire. (Library of Congress)

When queried by the plaintiff's attorney as to how he acquired such a conveyance Osgood replied, "Well, I got it the way a good many teams were gotten that night, partly persuasion and partly by force." The wagon carried the artwork to the house of Edward Saunders, the uncle of Mrs. Osgood. By 1:30 a.m. all the pictures were settled in.

Osgood returned to the Garrisons' house to complete a few more tasks. Osgood testified that "the danger seemed to be over at that time, the Palmer House . . . if they could hold out for an hour or two longer they were all right . . . the men were standing around with buckets."

When challenged on the timeline and his assessment of events, Osgood replied, "You know if you were in the city, that there was a great deal of excitement and anxiety."

Osgood was not the only one among the opera house crowd who did not panic at the sight of the fire. Ellery W. Eldridge (a wholesale druggist and friend to Albert Crosby), Crosby's daughter Fannie, and a Charles Crosby (no relation) all made their way around the city that night. Eldridge and Fannie Crosby were in the opera house when the fire bells sounded.

"I sent someone, I don't know who it was, but one of the boys, over to Price's Stable and told them to send me a horse wagon or any kind of conveyance big enough to take four people to the fire, . . . we went to the fire over the bridge," Eldridge related.

For some time they watched the fire and then went to the Sherman House hotel. There, Charles and Eldridge carried down Miss Fannie's Saratoga trunk and other trunks belonging to Charles Crosby. Garrison got a horse-drawn truck to carry the luggage, and they drove to South Water Street to see if Eldridge's store was burning. The store was still safe, and they returned to the opera house.

"We came to the southeast corner of Washington and State, and there we met Mr. [Albert] Crosby and we stopped there quite a while to see the Opera House burn and then the Music Hall . . . and watched the people moving up and around there," Eldridge testified.

The Bread Was Baked,
But How Was it Baked?

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Testimony from Fuller v. Crosby, taken 10 years after the fire, was wide-ranging, delving into Crosby's stock in a brewery and a bank. Of the 500 pages of testimony, about 26 touch on the fire. (Records of District Courts of the United States, RG 21, National Archives at Chicago)

Even after those sobering sights, Eldridge and Fannie were not through for the evening. Because the opera house had burned and the Garrison house seemed to be in danger, everyone began the task of removing the Garrisons' furnishings to the lake shore, which at the time was against the eastern side of present-day Michigan Avenue. But first, according to Mrs. Garrison, "We had a little breakfast before it [her lodgings] burnt."

After several trips back and forth, they agreed that they would meet at the Saunders' home if they became separated. That is, except for Eldridge, who once more set "out to see the fire" and, because he was "a pretty good hand with fires," aided the efforts at DeKovan and Canal Streets, the fire's origin.

The plaintiff's attorney, again fruitlessly trying to pin down a timeline, asked Eldridge what he had done early that Monday morning. Eldridge replied, "it was about 5 or 6 a.m. I got a loaf of bread out of a bakery that was down here back of McVicker's Theater and I got a cup of coffee some place down on Wabash, I don't know whose house it was." Eldridge did not clarify if the loaf had been baked by the baker or by the fire.

Mrs. Garrison, when asked to recall what was happening as she waited on the lake shore for the wagon, replied, "I know the houses were burning around us. The wagon could not get through so we had to drag, carry [our belongings] to the Brewery wagon. There was a great deal of confusion."

No doubt there was confusion, but those associated with the opera house expressed no sense of panic. And there seems to have been no real panic generally, as people were able to move about the city center with a certain amount of ease. That some even hired a rig to view the Great Chicago Fire demonstrates a fascination and curiosity about the conflagration.

When asked what time the pictures were taken to the Garrison house, Albert Crosby replied, "Well, I don't really remember, it was very exciting times about that time. I know that."

While the Fuller v. Crosby case did not directly concern the fire, the testimony, with its vivid and detailed recollections of witnesses 10 years later, provides insight into the actions taken during on the first day of the fire.

Once again, federal court records in the holdings of the National Archives have yielded another new piece of history: a small but enlightening story about the Great Chicago Fire in the records of an unlikely source, a legal action for debt repayment.

Ann Patricia Duffy is a lifelong resident of Chicago. In 2006, after 36 years of teaching in the Chicago public schools, she began to volunteer at the National Archives in Chicago. She is most happy to acknowledge all the wonderful people who make volunteering there a very rewarding experience.

Note on Sources

Case file 17084 for George W. Fuller v. Albert Crosby et al. is in the records of the U.S. Circuit Court for the Northern District of Illinois, 1871–1911, Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21, at the  National Archives at Chicago.

The recollection of the Chicago Fire recorded by the Federal Writers' Project is available online in the Library of Congress’s American Memory collection:

An interesting footnote to the story of the Crosby Opera House is that Mrs. Garrison, who temporarily sheltered the art collection and provided breakfast for her guests before her house burned, divorced Garrison in 1872 and married Albert Crosby.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.