For nearly one and a half centuries, the cause of the most notorious fire in U.S. history has been a source of "heated" controversy. Some researchers suggest that a disintegrating comet ignited the blaze. But the electrical theorists say that evidence most often ignored offers the best clues.

"With the heat increased the wind, which came howling across the prairie, until at last there arose a perfect hurricane. Mighty flakes of fire, hot cinders, black, stifling smoke, were driven fiercely at the people, and amid the terrible excitement hundreds of them had their very clothes burned off their backs, as they stood there watching with tearful eyes the going down of so many houses". -- James Goodsell's History of the Great Chicago Fire, October 8, 9, and 10, Published 1871 by J.H. and C.M. Goodsell.

Sunday evening, October 8, 1871 marked the beginning of one of the most devastating fires in U.S. history. Legend has it that "The Great Chicago Fire" resulted from an agitated cow kicking over a lantern in "Mrs O'Leary's barn". The dry leaves and parched wood of Illinois in early autumn were the perfect kindling for a wildfire, and the fire spread with extraordinary rapidity, consuming homes and buildings, leaping from rooftop to rooftop with the speed of a locomotive. Between October 8 and 10, an estimated 350 people perished. The fire destroyed the homes of up to one-third of the city's population, about 1,600 stores, 60 factories, and 28 public buildings. Four square miles of the city burned to the ground.

Contrary to popular folklore, the Chicago fire is not the worst in U.S. history. It was not even the worst to occur on October 8 that year. The same evening - in fact, at the same time, about 9:30 - a fierce wildfire struck in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, over 200 miles to the north of Chicago, destroying the town and a dozen other villages. Estimates of those killed range upward from 1200 to 2500 in a single night. It was not the Chicago fire but the simultaneous "Peshtigo Fire" that was the deadliest in U.S. history.

And there is more. On the same evening, across Lake Michigan, another fire also wreaked havoc. Though smaller fires had been burning for some time - not unusual under the reported conditions - the most intense outburst appears to have erupted simultaneously with the Chicago and Peshtigo fires. The blaze is said to have then burned for over a month, consuming over 2,000,000 acres and killing at least 200.

Concerning the Michigan outburst, it is reported that numerous fires endangered towns across the state. The city of Holland was destroyed by fire and in Lansing flames threatened the agricultural college. In Thumb, farmers fled an inferno that some newspapers dubbed, "The Fiery Fiend." Reports say that fires threatened Muskegon, South Haven, Grand Rapids, Wayland, reaching the outskirts of Big Rapids. A steamship passing the Manitou Islands reported they were on fire.

There can be no doubt that weather conditions at the time favored wildfires. But never before, and never since, has the U.S. seen such wildly destructive simultaneous conflagrations. This "coincidence", combined with many unusual phenomena reported by eyewitnesses, has led some to conclude that an extraordinary force, one not of the earth, was a more likely "arson" than either a misbehaving cow or a regional drought.

In 1883, Ignatius Donnelly, author of Ragnarok: the Rain of Fire and Gravel, suggested that in early historic times our Earth suffered great catastrophes from cometary intruders. To this claim he added: "There is reason to believe that the present generation has passed through the gaseous prolongation of a comet's tail, and that hundreds of human beings lost their lives". He was referring to the conflagration of 1871.

Is there plausible evidence that a comet may have caused the Chicago fire and its regional counterparts? In 1985, Mel Waskin, who had earlier discovered Donnelly's work, published a book, Mrs. O'Leary's Comet, suggesting that a comet did indeed spark the October 8th fires. More recently, Robert Wood, a physicist and aeronautical engineer formerly with Douglas Aircraft and McDonnell Douglas, gained attention from the Discovery Channel and other media for proposing the same idea.

The proponents of the cometary explanation cite many fascinating details confirmed by eye witness reports: the descent of fire from the heavens, a great "tornado" of fire rushing across the landscape and tearing buildings from their foundations, descending balls of fire, a rain of red dust, great explosions of wind accompanied by blasts of thunder, buildings exploding into flame where no fire was burning, and a good deal more. Some of the parallels with the later Tunguska event are impossible to miss.

It seems that the records of the conflagration hold many clues that are almost never mentioned in scientific discussion of the Chicago fire. Over time the clues have virtually disappeared. They have disappeared because they are not meaningful to minds conditioned by popular ideas about how the "Chicago fire" started and what is "scientifically" possible. Within these habits of perception, the most important evidence will often go unnoticed or unremembered.

Where was Comet Biela?

A strange thing happened to comet Biela in 1845. The nucleus of the comet split into two partners. The "smaller" comet (lower left in the picture above), subsequently became more active and brighter than the larger. And that was only the beginning.

In 1883, twelve years after the Chicago fire, Ignatius Donnelly published a widely read book, Ragnarok: the Rain of Fire and Gravel. Though the book dealt primarily with the evidence for cometary disasters in ancient times, Donnelly suggested that the Chicago fire provided a small glimpse of the terror experienced by our earlier ancestors. "There is reason to believe that the present generation has passed through the gaseous prolongation of a comet's tail, and that hundreds of human beings lost their lives".

Reflecting on the simultaneous events around Lake Michigan on the evening of October 8, 1871, Donnelly posed the underlying mystery: "At that hour, half past nine o'clock in the evening, at apparently the same moment, at points hundreds of kilometers apart, in three different states, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois, fires of the most peculiar and devastating kind broke out, so far as we know, by spontaneous combustion". (We take up the historic testimony cited by Donnelly and others in tomorrow's "Picture of the Day").

Donnelly believed he could identify the cause of the devastation. He said it was Comet Biela, a comet that captured attention from astronomers in 1826, returned for a few predictable visits, broke into two nuclei, and then disappeared.

The comet was named after Austrian officer W. von Biela, who observed the body in February 1826. By following the path of Biela, the French astronomer Marie-Charles-Théodore de Damoiseau estimated the time of its return. He said the comet would cross the orbit of the Earth about one month ahead of our planet's arrival at the same spot.

Donnelly does not mention that ten days after Biela's announcement, a French astronomer John Felix Adolphe Gambart also sighted the comet. Both Biela and Gambert calculated the orbit, recognizing that earlier comet apparitions in 1772 and 1805 were the same object that appeared in 1826. And Gambert, along with other astronomers, predicted that the comet would strike the earth on its return, which he projected for October 29, 1832.

Damoiseau's prediction was correct. Earth missed the comet by about a month.

On its anticipated 1846 return, Biela was first sighted in late 1845 as it moved toward perihelion (its closest approach to the Sun), astronomers were surprised to see that the head of the comet had acquired a faint satellite. It had split in two (picture above), something we now know to be fairly common for comets, but still mysterious to cometologists. In 1845, the event seemed unprecedented. As noted by Carl Sagan and Nancy Druyan in their book Comet, "the finding was so bizarre that the first astronomer to note this twinning dismissed it as some internal reflection in his telescope".

In Robert Chapman's and John Brandt's The Comet Book certain details of Biela's return are fascinating. The discovery of a partner occurred on January 13, 1846, when "a faint satellite comet was observed a small distance from the main comet". Two tails were seen parallel to each other. "Over the next month the fainter of the two comets increased in brightness and finally became brighter than the 'main' comet. The situation then reversed and the main comet became the brighter one again. In addition, the main comet grew a second tail and a luminous bridge of material joined the two comets" [emphasis ours]. At this time the two nuclei were apart an estimated 250,000 kilometers, about two thirds of the distance separating Earth and the Moon.

Donnelly's account at this point diverges from the history told by Chapman and Brandt. As Donnelly tells it, "In 1852, 1859, and 1866, the comet should have returned, but it did not". But Chapman and Brandt - prominent figures at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center at the time of their book's publication - say that the twin comet-heads did indeed appear at the appointed time in 1852. This reappearance is, in fact, well documented. And one detail in Chapman's and Brandt's account rarely shows up in standard discussions of cometology:

"...Both comets returned at the predicted time, though they were over 2 million kilometers apart [emphasis ours]. Once again the two comets took turns as the brighter of the pair. On at least one occasion a bright jet was seen between the two heads" [emphasis ours].

Though Sagan and Druyan report the splitting of Biela, they do not mention the jet, an event for which the standard view of comets has no theoretical reference.

The rest of Donnelly's discussion of Biela is in general agreement with the summary by Chapman and Brandt. Amazingly, and with the aid of a startling and unpredicted meteor shower on November 27, 1872, Professor W. Klinkerfues of Berlin, calculated the trajectories of the meteoric falls, concluding that they were the remains of the comet. This, in turn led him to send instructions to Norman Pogson, Government Astronomer at the Madras Observatory in India (far enough south to allow a good view). Pogson's answer to Klinkerfues, dated December 6, said he "found Biela immediately" on the first clearing of the sky, and on the second day he saw it again. It showed no tail, he said.

As Chapman and Brandt put it, this was either an "incredible coincidence", or it was the actual last view of the comet.

The spectacular meteor shower that inspired Klinkerfues to identify it with Biela has long since become an annual event - sort of - called the Andromedids. And astronomers do not hesitate to connect the shower to Biela. Each year the Earth passes through the remains of the comet, but with widely varying consequences. And the effect today is trivial by comparison with the November 1872 occurrence. Today the shower peaks around mid-November, averaging less than three meteors per hour - hardly deserving the title "shower". On the night of November 27, 1872, however, records show several thousand meteors per hour - a direct and obvious link to the disintegration of the comet.

It remains to be asked, then, whether the fragmentation of Biela, a comet on a path intersecting the orbit of the Earth, and predicted by some astronomers to collide with the Earth in 1832, might have been the source of the "great conflagration" in 1871. The comet had split at least 25 years earlier (the 1846 appearance), and the two partners had separated by more than 2 million kilometers by 1852. So whether or not Klinkerfues observed Biela after the spectacular shower of November 1872, we know he did not report seeing two bodies. Hence, at least one of the partners intersecting Earth's path had presumably already disintegrated entirely, leaving the possibility that on a subsequent orbit the Earth moved into debris left by the body.

The facts on the Andromedids, including their erratic occurrence over the years and the obvious dispersal and depletion of the cometary debris over a century and a half, cannot give us a definitive answer to Donnelly's views on Biela. But as for plausibility, the answer is definitive. Many facts are consistent with the interpretation, and there are no facts that exclude the interpretation.

Of course, it is not necessary to identify an intruder, in order to see the evidence of an intrusion. No one questions the exploding Tunguska comet, asteroid or meteor on the basis that astronomers cannot identify the incoming object.

But of all the scientific details about comet Biela, perhaps none stands out more dramatically than the fact almost never mentioned - a jet forming between the two nuclear fragments when they were 2 million kilometers apart. In the purely gravitational and mechanical terms that astronomers have sought to apply to comets, this jet is inconceivable. But when we remember how inconsequential is gravity in the presence of the electric force, the improbability disappears.

In fact, the jet is a clue more vital by far than the popular "scientific" commentary on Donnelly's hypothesis. By directing our attention to the electrical nature of comets, it also invites us to look again at the historic testimony, with an eye to details long unnoticed or forgotten.

Human Testimony Reconsidered

All investigators of the Chicago fire and its devastating regional counterparts rely on human testimony. But how should we view such testimony when it suggests things that are not currently believed? Good science will not ignore witnesses when, in unison, they suggest new lines of investigation.

On the evening of October 8, 1871 devastating fires erupted at virtually the same moment in three different states in the region of the Great Lakes - Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan. The outbursts included the notorious "Chicago fire", but also an even more devastating fire in Wisconsin, the worst in U.S. history, covering some 400 square miles. At the same time, wildfires also erupted across much of Michigan. In his book Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel, published in 1883, Ignatius Donnelly proposed that the simultaneous outbursts were no coincidence; they were the effect of our Earth meeting up with a fragment, or fragments, of comet Biela, a body that had disintegrated a few years earlier while on an Earth-threatening path.

As Donnelly reports it, in the Wisconsin fire near Lake Michigan, a large area including the town of Peshtigo and several neighboring cities was "swept bare by an absolute whirlwind of flame". His review of the event, based on eyewitness accounts, was taken primarily from the book "History of the Great Conflagration", by James W. Sheahan and George P. Upton (1871). It includes the following report:

"At sundown there was a lull in the wind and comparative stillness. For two hours there were no signs of danger; but at a few minutes after nine o'clock, and by a singular coincidence, precisely the time at which the Chicago fire commenced, the people of the village heard a terrible roar. It was that of a tornado, crushing through the forests. Instantly the heavens were illuminated with a terrible glare. The sky, which had been so dark a moment before, burst into clouds of flame. A spectator of the terrible scene says the fire did not come upon them gradually from burning trees and other objects to the windward, but the first notice they had of it was a whirlwind of flame in great clouds from above the tops of the trees, which fell upon and entirely enveloped everything". [Emphasis ours]

For many of the witnesses it seemed as if the biblical "last days" had come. Though well accustomed to wildfires, they had seen nothing like this before. "They could give no other interpretation to this ominous roar, this bursting of the sky with flame, and this dropping down of fire out of the very heavens, consuming instantly everything it touched".

Donnelly continues quoting from Sheahan and Upton: "No two give a like description of the great tornado as it smote and devoured the village. It seemed as if 'the fiery fiends of hell had been loosened', says one. 'It came in great sheeted flames from heaven', says another. 'There was a pitiless rain of fire and SAND. The atmosphere was all afire'. Some speak of 'great balls of fire unrolling and shooting forth, in streams'. The fire leaped over roofs and trees, and ignited whole streets at once". [Emphasis ours]

Donnelly notes that many of the victims were found in open spaces with "no visible marks of fire nearby" and "not a trace of burning upon their bodies or clothing". Many were found huddled together "in what were evidently regarded at the moment as the safest places, far away from buildings, trees, or other inflammable material, and there to have died together".

One clue, perhaps, is the mention of electrical phenomena:

"Much has been said of the intense heat of the fires which destroyed Peshtigo, Menekaune, Williamsonville, etc., but all that has been said can give the stranger but a faint conception of the reality. The heat has been compared to that engendered by a flame concentrated on an object by a blow-pipe; but even that would not account for some of the phenomena. For instance, we have in our possession a copper cent taken from the pocket of a dead man in the Peshtigo Sugar Bush, which will illustrate our point. This cent has been partially fused, but still retains its round form, and the inscription upon it is legible. Others, in the same pocket, were partially melted, and yet the clothing and the body of the man were not even singed. We do not know in what way to account for this, unless, as is asserted by some, the tornado and fire were accompanied by electrical phenomena".

It seems the idea that Mrs. O'Leary's cow triggered the conflagration in Chicago did not withstand investigation. Speaking of O'Leary's barn, the fire marshal testified: "We got the fire under control, and it would not have gone a foot farther; but the next thing I knew they came and told me that St. Paul's church, about two squares north, was on fire". They then checked the church-fire, but--"The next thing I knew the fire was in Bateham's planing-mill".

A writer in the New York "Evening Post" says he saw "buildings far beyond the line of fire, and in no contact with it, burst into flames from the interior".

To these references, Donnelly adds a quote from The Annual Record of Science and Industry" for 1876, page 84:

"The flames that consumed a great part of Chicago were of an unusual character and produced extraordinary effects. They absolutely melted the hardest building-stone, which had previously been considered fire-proof. Iron, glass, granite, were fused and run together into grotesque conglomerates, as if they had been put through a blast-furnace. No kind of material could stand its breath for a moment."

Another quote from Sheahan & Upton's Work:

"The huge stone and brick structures melted before the fierceness of the flames as a snow-flake melts and disappears in water, and almost as quickly. Six-story buildings would take fire and disappear for ever from sight in five minutes by the watch. . . . The fire also doubled on its track at the great Union Depot and burned half a mile southward in the very teeth of the gale--a gale which blew a perfect tornado, and in which no vessel could have lived on the lake. . . . Strange, fantastic fires of blue, red, and green played along the cornices of buildings".

Some additional detail and comments of interest appear in Mel Waskin's more recent book, Mrs. O'Leary's Comet (1985). Speaking of the Peshtigo outburst, he writes -

"Accompanying the firestorm and the wind was a rain of red hot sand. It was not clear to those eyewitnesses who survived their ordeal where this sand came from. It must have been raised from the earth by the incredible winds, but from where? There was sand on the beaches, but the beaches lay to the east, and the wind was blowing from the west and the south. There was no sand on the floor of the forest nor on the farmlands of Wisconsin".

Waskin also mentions incredible "balloons of fire" reported by many people, including one family that lived between Peshtigo and Green Bay. "The onslaught was so sudden that the family could only run to the center of an immense clearing on their farm where nothing combustible stood. They hoped to be safe, several hundreds yards from structures or trees.

"When the fire came, rushing on all sides of them, it did not in fact touch them. But eyewitnesses saw them die. A great balloon of fire dropped on them - father, mother, and four children. They were incinerated in an instant. Almost nothing was left of them".

"Many survivors described these great balls of fire falling from the sky. The whole sky was filled with them; round smoky masses about the size of a large balloon, traveling at unbelievable speed. They fell to the ground and burst". Waskin says that a brilliant blaze of fire erupted from the balloons as they landed, instantly consuming everything they touched.

Also noteworthy were the reports that the flames erupted from the basements of the stores when there was "no sign of fire in any other part of the building". And the basement fires burned with a strange light, "as if whisky or alcohol were burning".

As something of a footnote to this article, we note a contemporary report claiming that "The first (and most startling) piece of evidence is the recent discovery of a 26.5-kilogram carbonaceous chondrite meteorite on the shores of Lake Huron - 'ground zero' of the astral bombardment. This report, by Ken Riell, whose claims follow the work of Donnelly and Waskin, suggests the meteor is of the same composition as the incoming object in the Tunguska event in Siberia -- 1908.

Also of interest is a presentation on the Peshtigo fire by the Oconto County Web Project, which discusses the comet hypothesis as a "plausible" theory -

"Weather historians, using archives as a baseline, and adding information from recent decades, now offer a plausible theory. Meteor showers in Autumn are common in the upper great lakes. In recent years these showers have left burning chunks scattered over the entire region, some large enough to break through the roofs of homes and out buildings, starting fires in dry fields and wooded areas. With the tinder dry conditions present throughout the entire region on the night of October 8, 1871, such a meteor shower would easily have started what seemed like spontaneous fires in numerous places of Wisconsin, Michigan (upper and lower), and Illinois (the Great Chicago Fire). With the continuous thick smoke from smoldering smaller blazes already blanketing the land, and the unusually hot weather of that time making residents seek shelter inside their homes early in the evening, the meteors that entered the Earth's atmosphere could not easily be seen. This certainly would account for the sudden eruption of numerous blazes over the vast area at exactly the same time."

Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine the "cometary" explanation ever receiving the attention it deserves until those addressing the question familiarize themselves with the electric comet model. As we have already emphasized, without this deliberate reconsideration of the underlying question - what is a comet? - the investigator will either ignore or forget the most telling clues. In the above reports, for example, consider the following:

Whirlwind of flame or "perfect tornado"

Tornadoes are a slow electric discharge phenomenon. The ionized trails of cometary debris, descending through the ionosphere to the lower atmosphere, produces "lightning conductors" to allow various forms of "megalightning" to descend to the ground. One of the manifestations of a powerful direct discharge between the ionosphere and the Earth could well be a tornado, in which the usual swift lightning strike is replaced by a slower discharge. Powerful electromagnetic forces generate a devastating "charge sheath vortex" that slows the discharge while spreading the devastation on Earth.

Fire descending from the sky

As in the Tunguska event, the appearance of fireballs or electrically discharging debris, along with associated lightning manifestations from a clear sky, would be expected as an external body penetrated Earth's plasma sheath.

Rain of fire and sand

An electrically charged fragment of a comet nucleus will undergo explosive electrical fragmentation before reaching the Earth's atmosphere. The electrical model of comets envisions these bodies being formed by the same processes that created asteroids. Most, if not all, are as rocky as asteroids. The result of their fragmentation will be a meteoric shower of granulated silicates, or sand, mixed with flammable gases and electric discharge phenomena - a 'biblical' rain of fire and sand.

Descending "balloons" of fire

It is well established that comets discharge carbon compounds that would be flammable in the Earth's oxygen atmosphere. Gaseous balls of fire would combine with various weird manifestations of megalightning, reaching through the meteoric shower of dust to the ionosphere, almost 100 kilometres above the Earth. The spectacle would be beyond normal experience. In addition, near the Earth, ball lightning could be expected, given the extreme electrical conditions - and the presence of ball lightning is surely the plausible explanation for descending "balloons" with the power to incinerate objects they strike.

Buildings exploding with fire when no fire was yet present

Electrical discharges would take place between metal objects inside buildings, igniting any flammable materials. The same would hold true for the hapless man found with melted coins in his pocket but clothes intact and no other signs of burning. There is, in fact, no other natural explanation for this enigma.

Colorful flames running along cornices of buildings

This is the usual description of a glow discharge from sharp edges of rooftops, seen in the midst of powerful electrical storms. It is called "St. Elmo's fire". The different colors of the flames are due to the metallic ions sputtered from the surface material.

Fusing of fire-proof building material

Plasma discharges can be used to melt anything. Industrially, plasma torches are used to destroy the most refractory materials.

Basements exploding

"...the basement fires burned with a strange light, "as if whisky or alcohol were burning". Whisky or alcohol burns with a ghostly blue light. Similarly, electrical glow discharges from grounded metallic objects or electrical wiring in the basements of buildings would emit a flickering, eerie blue light. Any trapped flammable gases formed in the basements would be ignited by the discharge, resulting in explosions.


Our purpose here is not to suggest a definitive answer to the "Great Conflagration". But the cost of ignoring evidence should be obvious. The moment one entertains the electrical vantage point, if only to compare the explanatory power of alternative views, the most incongruous elements of the story become predictable features. And who could deny that this ability to resolve paradoxes is the mark of a hypothesis that deserves consideration?