How I Relate to Mrs. O’Leary, Her Cow, and the Great Chicago Fire

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Great Chicago Fire
Currier & Ives Image

The Great Chicago Fire was a deadly, massive fire that ran from October 8 – October 10, 1871. Hundreds of people were killed, but outstandingly, 110,000 were left homeless. The exact cause of the fire was never established, but it began in a barn owned by one Mrs. O’Leary, just behind 137 DeKoven Street. A map was made in 1871 showing the area of the conflagration.

Examining Pieces of the Puzzle

One of the theories was that it was Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern that ignited the fire. Certainly it is the most romantic theory. But how does Mrs. O’Leary and a fire in her barn relate to me? First, it involves the famous Abraham Lincoln photographer, Alexander Hesler. It also involves a distant family relation of mine, George Bucher Ayres.

Great Chicago Fire

Alexander Hesler and the Great Chicago Fire

A single act or collection of acts can make a person famous. Alexander Hesler (1823-1895) is no exception. He is best known for his photographs of Abraham Lincoln—particularly Lincoln without his beard. In 1865, Hesler transferred his Chicago studio to George Bucher Ayres. Ayres discovered Hesler’s glass negatives and made platinum prints of them. Ayres specialized in colorizing photographs. A mere six years later came the fire. Was GBA still in Chicago?

He is unquestionably listed in the 1867-1868 City Directory. However, he married during October of 1868 and moved to Buffalo, New York. He left before the fire, just in the nick of time!

Great Chicago Fire
GBA in the 1867-1868 city directory.

How do I connect?

GB Ayres was the great-grandson of John Ayres (1751/52 – 1825). John Ayres was my 5x Great-grandfather. Doubtless your family has one or more individuals who were colorful and made some mark during their time. But I will say this… There were a host of things George Bucher Ayres did of interest during his lifetime. You can read more about him in my article,

George Bucher Ayres: a Letter to His Niece.


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