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.

Exploring the City

I've gotten a lot of questions about the settings in the book. To answer those questions, yes, all the settings really existed, and most of them can still be seen today.

For those who are interested, I've put together maps of Chicago in 1871 and 2010. (Click on the images to see them in full size.) As you can see, the city's basic geography hasn't changed, and you can find a lot of historical bits and pieces if you know where to look.

To see relics of the fire, the best place to go is the Chicago History Museum. It’s at the southern end of Lincoln Park, at the corner of North and Clark Streets. The museum’s exhibits change sometimes, but they usually show things like William Henry Musham’s fireman’s hat, W. D. Kerfoot’s “Wife, Children and Energy” sign, and various pieces of burned debris. Behind the museum is the last remaining grave from the old City Cemetery; it belongs to the founder of the Tremont House. Within easy walking distance, at the corner of Clark Street and Lincoln Park West, is a fire-damaged piece of the old Courthouse. (The original Courthouse was located across from what is now Daley Plaza. Why this piece was moved to Lincoln Park, I have no idea.

he Water Tower, of course, is a landmark along the Magnificent Mile. The tower was taken offline in the early twentieth century, but it was preserved as a sort of unofficial memorial to the fire. The pumping station across the street is open to the public, and is still in use to this day.

he official fire memorial is at the Chicago Fire Academy, which sits on the site of the O’Leary barn. There is a sculpture and a plaque at the corner of Jefferson and DeKoven Streets, but that’s not the exact spot where the fire started. The exact spot is inside the building, and it’s marked by a cross on the floor.

You can see the other locations in the book too, but you have to use a little imagination. For example, the modern-day City Hall is on the same spot as the old Courthouse, and Daley Plaza is the modern-day equivalent of Courthouse Square, but they’re practically unrecognizable from the way they used to look. The old Union Depot—where Simon first arrived in Chicago—is still in use, but it has been relocated underground and is now known as Millennium Station. The site of Terrace Row is now home to the Auditorium Building at the corner of Michigan and Congress. Mercy Hospital is still at the same location as before, but all of its original buildings are gone. And the list goes on.


I think it's funny how I get the same questions over and over. I don’t mind answering questions—far from it—but for every person who asks one, I’m guessing there are more people who were thinking the same thing but never brought it up.

So, without further ado, here’s a list of Frequently Asked Questions about 1871. And keep the questions coming—each one is good!

How much of this story is true?

Like any novel, it’s ultimately fiction, but most of the events in the story are true. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to violate any historical facts, because the true story was too incredible to pass up. But at the same time, I did have a fictional story that I wanted to tell. So I took the best of both worlds, and I made sure that all the fictional details were consistent with real history.

For example, anytime Simon writes an article for the Tribune, that article is real—it ran in the paper exactly as I described it, and you can find it in the Tribune archives. I also made sure the geography checked out. And anytime we meet a historical figure, the novel stays true to what we know about the real person.

In a few places, the historical facts were unclear. For example, nobody really knows what happened during the first ten or fifteen minutes of the fire. There were plenty of eyewitnesses, but nobody wanted to take blame for anything. If you read the witnesses’ testimonies, it’s perfectly clear they’re all fudging the truth to cover their own behinds. So I took the undisputed historical facts, and I had to use my judgment—and sometimes my imagination—to fill in the blanks.

At the end of the day, this is my interpretation of the Chicago Fire, nothing more and nothing less. Like any version of history, it’s up for debate. Some historians may dispute the decisions I made, and I’m fine with that. But so it is.

I never knew the Lincoln family lived in Chicago. Did they really live through the fire the way the book described?

Yes. I had to fictionalize a few details, because Robert Lincoln was zealous about guarding his family’s privacy, so he didn’t leave many records behind. But the thrust of the story is 100% accurate.

At the risk of tooting my own horn, I’ve never found a Chicago Fire book or a Lincoln book that has gone into this in any detail. So I might be the first person to write about it. Even so, I have to be honest and say that was never my plan; my original outline didn’t even include the Lincolns. I just stumbled across their story when I was doing my research. The true story was so juicy that I couldn’t resist using it, and the rest is history—literally.

Did you get cooperation from the Tribune, or from any of the real people’s families?

I contacted some of them as part of my research. But I didn’t ask for anybody’s cooperation, because I didn’t want to be beholden to them.

Legally, I didn’t need anyone’s permission. That’s one advantage to writing about this period: all 19th-century books are in the public domain, so I could freely use excerpts from the Tribune or any other publication from that time.

To me, it’s important to be honest about what happened, and I wanted the freedom to do what was right for the story. Sometimes that meant having to show people in an unflattering light. I was worried that some of the families might get offended, and I certainly didn’t want the Tribune Company breathing down my neck. So I did my homework the way any researcher would, and I left it at that.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

"1871" available as e-Book

Well, it's official: my historical novel 1871 is now available on Amazon. It should be available soon on Barnes and Noble's Nook, Sony's Reader, and a number of other e-book stores.

Before you ask, it's not available in print, at least not at this stage. I’m shopping it around, and I’d love to see it get picked up, but that’s easier said than done. The publishing industry is going through the same painful changes that the record labels went through a few years ago: everybody is switching to digital downloads, and it’s hitting them right in the pocketbook.

So there you have it. Check it out, read the book, let me know what you think... comments are always welcome, good or bad.