Monday, February 15, 2010

Recommended Reading

If you’d like to read more about the fire (or about the other events in my book) here are a few things you might enjoy.

First of all, here are a few websites that cover these events in more detail:

American Experience - Chicago: City of the Century

This site ties into a PBS documentary that aired in 2002. The documentary is excellent, and it's available on DVD if you're interested. Both the website and the film are based on Donald Miller's book, which is included in the reading list below.

Did the Cow Do It?: A New Look at the Cause of the Chicago Fire

This is Richard Bales's website, and it ties into his book (which is also listed below). To make a long story short, Bales has changed the way we think of the Chicago Fire. He researched the origin of the fire in exhausting detail, and he debunked many of the myths and legends that had built up around the fire. In response to his work, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution absolving Mrs. O’Leary and her family from any responsibility.

The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory

A site from Northwestern University and the Chicago Historical Society. It hasn't been updated since 1996, so by Internet standards, it's a dinosaur. But it does have some good information, ranging from photo galleries to eyewitness accounts.

If you want to go beyond the web, here are a few books I would recommend.

These titles are easy to find. There are certainly more where these came from, and a history buff can always find more info in an archive or a rare-books section. But for the purposes of this list, I stuck to the books that you can (hopefully) find at your local library. I’ve also included links to their sites on Amazon in case you're interested.

Asbury, Herbert. Gem of the Prairie: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld. New York: Knopf, 1940.

A look at the prostitution, the corruption, and the poverty in 19th- and early 20th-century Chicago. From the author of Gangs of New York, this book was later reissued under the title Gangs of Chicago.

Baker, Jean H. Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1987.

Every biography of Mary Lincoln is different; she was such a multifaceted person that no two writers have come to the same conclusions about her. But this is a good, well-balanced account of her life.

Bales, Richard F. The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2002.

The most groundbreaking Chicago Fire book in decades. See also the tie-in website listed above.

Cromie, Robert Allen. The Great Chicago Fire. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1958.

Probably the most well-known history of the Chicago Fire. This book has gone through several printings, and the illustrated versions are quite good. There are a few mistakes in it, and I disagree with some of the author’s conclusions. But it’s good for the general reader.

Gess, Denise, and William Lutz. Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History. New York: Henry Holt, 2002.

I touched upon the Peshtigo Fire in my book, but it wasn’t central to the story, so I couldn’t go into much detail. In truth, though, the fire in Peshtigo was a lot bigger and deadlier than the one in Chicago. This book chronicles it in terrifying detail.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

This book focuses on Lincoln’s cabinet and his handling of the Civil War. It has no direct connection to the events of 1871, but it does show the human side of Abraham Lincoln and the inner workings of his family. John Hay plays a particularly important role, so I figured I should include it in this list.

Hoffer, Peter Charles. Seven Fires: The Urban Infernos that Reshaped America. New York: Public Affairs, 2006.

This writer chronicles seven major fires, from Boston in 1760 to the events of 9/11, and he analyzes how they changed American history. To be honest, I disagree with some of his conclusions; for example, I don’t think the Chicago Fire had anything directly to do with the Haymarket Riot or the Pullman Strike. He also skips over the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, which was far more historic than, say, the Pittsburgh Fire of 1845. But it’s an interesting book nonetheless.

Miller, Donald L. City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

A history of Chicago from its founding to the 1893 World’s Fair. I particularly like this one because it focuses on the 19th century, and it shows how ambitious and hard-nosed the city’s founders really were. It was later adapted into a PBS documentary, under its American Experience series; you can find the official website listed above.

Neely, Mark E. The Insanity File: The Case of Mary Todd Lincoln. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

The Insanity File lay hidden for decades after Robert Lincoln’s death. This book uses it to piece together the events leading up to Mary Lincoln’s commitment.

Sawislak, Karen. Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871-1874. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

This book focuses on the aftermath of the fire: the humanitarian efforts, the infighting among various groups, and the city’s eventual rebuilding. This side of the story is usually overlooked, but the book does a good job of bringing it to life.

Schreiner, Samuel Agnew. The Trials of Mrs. Lincoln. New York: D.I. Fine, 1987.

A detailed look at Mary Lincoln’s insanity trial, and the treatment of mental illness in the late 19th century.

Spinney, Robert Guy. City of Big Shoulders: A History of Chicago. DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 2000.

Another history of Chicago, chronicling its growth from a pioneer village to a modern metropolis.

Turner, Justin, ed. Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters. New York: Knopf, 1972.

A collection of Mary Lincoln’s letters to friends and family. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to learn about her; however, it’s not the final word on the subject, since it was published before the discovery of the Insanity File.

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