All Commentary
Tuesday, February 1, 2000

Lessons from the Chicago Fire

A Historic Disaster Offers Lessons about Modern Charity

Daniel Oliver is a research associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Capital Research Center and a freelance writer. A version of this article appeared in the Center’s newsletter, Alternatives in Philanthropy.

Imagine hearing on the news that one of America’s largest cities had just been virtually destroyed by a manmade or natural disaster. What steps would have to be taken to deal with the calamity? How would the survivors be fed, clothed, and sheltered? After their basic needs were met, how would they be helped to find work, rebuild their homes, and return to their everyday lives? Would the government have to provide most of the relief supplies and money for rebuilding? Or could victims turn to charitable organizations and the generosity of their fellow Americans?

In 1871, one-third of the city of Chicago—including the entire downtown and surrounding neighborhoods—burned to the ground. While it may seem startling to Americans today, the government did almost nothing in response. But within two years, Chicago’s burned district had been almost completely rebuilt through private initiative.

Besides calling into question the need for major government assistance following disasters, the aftermath of the Chicago Fire offers a case study in how to help the needy. One-third of the city’s 300,000 residents lost their homes and were in immediate need of basic necessities. Many also lost their places of employment. The task of meeting life-or-death needs and of finding employment for victims fell largely to one charity, the Chicago Relief and Aid Society. How it responded is a very interesting story.

The Fire

Two physical conditions set the stage for the Chicago Fire. First, the summer of 1871 had been exceptionally dry. Second, of the city’s 60,000 barns, stables, warehouses, homes, stores, and other buildings, an estimated two-thirds were built entirely of wood. Many also contained combustible materials such as firewood, lumber, hay, grain, coal, and oil. In addition, there were wooden fences, sidewalks, bridges, and 55 miles of streets paved with pine blocks. As one author relates, “The entire city, to exaggerate only slightly, was a huge potential bonfire waiting to be lit.”1

On the evening of October 8, a fire began on the city’s south side in a barn owned by Patrick and Catherine O’Leary. The well-known but dubious tale is that Mrs. O’Leary was milking a cow, which kicked over a lantern. While the fire no doubt started in the O’Leary barn, it was more likely the result of spontaneous combustion of hay or a carelessly tossed cigar. In any case, it quickly grew into a huge wall of flame that was propelled northward by strong winds. The fire burned for nearly 24 hours, cutting a path four miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide through what is today the Loop and the area surrounding the Magnificent Mile. Nearly everything in its path was consumed. Wrote an observer as the flames were finally extinguished by long- overdue rain, “The fire here last night and to-day has destroyed almost all that was very valuable in this city. There is not a business house, bank, or hotel left. Most of the best part of the city is gone.”2 At least 200 Chicagoans lost their lives, and the city suffered $200 million in property damage—about a third of its valuation.

Government’s Limited Role

The role of the government immediately following the fire was largely limited to keeping order. Martial law was not officially declared, but it was imposed de facto, enforced by army troops, the police, and specially enlisted volunteers. Mayor Roswell B. Mason also issued executive orders that established the price of bread, banned smoking, limited saloon hours, and prohibited wagon drivers from charging more than their usual rate. Mason appointed Lieutenant-General Philip Sheridan, the Civil War hero, to command the Division of the Missouri in patrolling the streets, guarding relief supplies, and enforcing curfews. Four companies of infantry were also stationed just outside the city for several months. But after only two weeks, Mason discharged Sheridan’s troops on the grounds that they were no longer needed.

Mason also asked the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, the city’s largest charity, to direct the relief effort. Other charities, such as the German Relief Society, played a small role in providing relief, but the Chicago Relief and Aid Society took charge of the vast majority of funds and supplies that began to arrive from around the country. On October 13, the mayor issued a proclamation reading, “I have deemed it best for the interest of the city to turn over to the Chicago Relief and Aid Society all contributions for the suffering people of this city. This Society is an incorporated and old established organization, having possessed for many years the entire confidence of our community, and is familiar with the work to be done.”

Founded in 1857, the Chicago Relief and Aid Society was a “charity organization society,” a type of charity common in the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was part of a broader charity organization movement that arose in response to growing concerns that indiscriminate charity fostered dependency and undermined self-reliance. As charity expert James L. Payne explains, “Reformers saw that the needy could make a permanent living by going from house to house and from charity group to charity group, telling tales of woe. To stop this practice, they formed central clearinghouses in each city to which they referred each case of neediness; from there, each case was assigned to a particular church group or friendly visitor.”3

Charity organization societies practiced what they called “scientific charity.” They distributed application forms to those seeking aid, required references who could verify an applicant’s neediness, and kept detailed records on all who received help. One key feature was their use of family histories and interviews with neighbors and relatives to determine if applicants were “worthy” of aid. By 1912, there were charity organization societies in 154 American cities.

The Chicago Relief and Aid Society’s immediate task was to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless before the onset of winter. It divided the city into several districts and opened relief supply offices and depots connected by telegraph. It also separated its work into several divisions, including contributions, distributions, employment, health, reception and correspondence (to receive out-of-town visitors and answer letters and telegraphs), shelter, special relief (discussed below), and transportation. A committee of prominent Chicagoans oversaw each division.4

On October 16, a week after the fire, the Society opened a temporary headquarters in the heart of the burned district. Documents show that the Society was acutely concerned that some recipients might try to take advantage of “the generous aid pouring in.” An early relief plan issued by Society president Henry W. King called on “all persons engaged in [relief] work to stop hasty distributions, and give applications as much examination as possible.” O. C. Gibbs, general superintendent of Distribution of Supplies, issued an October 24 circular that read, “In all cases of applicants moving into your district from another, you will before giving relief, ascertain, by inquiry at the office of the district from which they came, if they had been aided in that district, and to what extent.” Another early notice by Society chairman E. C. Larned instructed, “All applications should be made in writing, and should state specifically the place of residence before and since the fire, the nature and extent of the losses suffered, and the particular articles or form of aid desired . . . . Relief by payment of money is only extended in a few exceptional cases.”

The Primary Task

The Society saw its most important task as arranging work for victims of the fire so that they would not become accustomed to charity. There was obviously ample work to do, including clearing away rubble and collecting salvageable bricks and other building materials. The Society’s Employment Bureau sought “at the earliest possible period, to obtain support [that is, work], and relieve [victims] from the necessity of any further application for assistance.”

On October 24, two weeks after the fire, Gibbs issued a circular to all Society personnel. After pointing out that work was available to nearly everyone, including boys, it stated: “Give no aid to any families who are capable of earning their own support, if fully employed (except it be to supply some needed articles of clothing, bedding, or furniture which their earnings will not enable them to procure, and at the same time meet their ordinary expenses of food and fuel.)” Neither was aid to be extended to anyone “possessed of property, either personal or real, from which they might, by reasonable exertions, procure the means to supply their wants, nor to those who have friends able to help them.” The circular insisted that “Our aid must be held sacred for the aged, infirm, widows and orphans, and to supply to families those actual necessaries of life, which, with the best exertions on their part, they are unable to procure by their labor.” Sternly it concluded: “Any failure on the part of any employee of the Society to conform to the instructions given above will be regarded as sufficient cause for his instant dismissal.”

An October 27 notice from Gibbs is also worth quoting:

There are several thousand men and boys working this week whose families we are feeding, who will be paid for their work on Saturday night, sufficient to meet all the wants of the family for food next week. Be sure that every such family is known in your District, and reported at the office, so that no more supplies be given to it. Our supplies are going at a fearful rate. If any men, boys or women are not working, apply St. Paul’s Rule: If any man among you will not work, neither let him eat.

More Inducements to Work

The Society’s Special Relief Committee provided materials to help those in trades return to work. It helped to outfit dentists’ and doctors’ offices, stock dry-goods stores, and pay the first month’s rent for new business establishments. It also assisted bookbinders, carpenters, locksmiths, masons, shoemakers, tailors, and tinners. Almost a quarter of the Committee’s funds—$140,000—was used to buy 5,300 sewing machines for destitute sewing women. Sewing machine companies offered a discount on new machines, and applicants themselves paid part of the cost when possible. The Society also opened its own clothing factory, employing 100 women, to replace garments lost in the fire.

The Committee also sought to discreetly help well-to-do victims of the fire who would be hesitant to seek help. As one letter from a father to his son related, “Do not say anything about it to Dyer, but we hear that his sister Mrs. Loving has actually been to the ‘Relief’ for clothing. However, a good many other ladies as respectable as she have done the same thing. I fear that in some cases, respectable people have gone for aid who ought to wait a little while for their friends to come forward; but some folks seem to give way to despair almost immediately.”5

The Society also gave 30,000 people materials to build temporary one-room shanties and supplied materials for another 5,000 larger shelter houses. It erected barracks at five locations in the burned district to house 1,000 poor, homeless families and also administered 64,000 smallpox vaccinations.

The Society received some criticism for its arguably bureaucratic way of administering aid, which appears to have delayed assistance in some cases and resulted in a failure to help some truly needy people. But most observers judged its work as outstanding. Frederick Law Olmsted wrote in The Nation, “In the midst of the most pressing demands of their private affairs, men of great good sense and well informed have taken time to devise and bring others into a comprehensive and sufficient organization, acting under well-guarded law.” The Society’s work is particularly impressive considering that it had to expand quickly from an organization that had served 7,000 annually before the fire to one that helped 157,000—about half the population of Chicago—during the year and a half it provided fire relief.

Moreover, there is no doubt that the Society’s meticulous record-keeping and careful investigation of applicants helped it to detect fraud. Documents relate one story about a woman named Kate Moran who applied to the Shelter Committee for materials to build a house. A reference named John Kenedy [sic] supplied a letter saying that Moran had permission to build on his lot and that she was “a Destitute and Severer Suffer[er] By the Late Disastrous Fire and has A Large Family & yong [sic] children None of them Able to Help them Selfs.” On investigation, a Society visitor found that Moran already owned a home and that the application was “a perfect fraud. Has been living here 5 years. A hard drinking woman. Never lost a cent. Owns house here & has been drunk nearly all the time. Would give her nothing.”


The story of the Chicago Fire relief effort raises at least three points worth pondering. First, it calls into question how we help the needy today, both through welfare and charity. Although many victims of the fire lost their possessions and means of livelihood and were reduced to paupers, relief workers were extremely wary about providing them with material goods. Instead, they helped victims find work so that they would not become dependent on charity. That model can be contrasted with what appears to be a fairly common mindset among charity workers today: that “helping” means “giving” people things. As one example, a spokeswomen at a food charity recently remarked that no one at her agency had stopped to count the number of people coming through the door because “we’re just trying to get the food out the door.”6 But if a charity fails to collect even the most basic information on those it serves, how can it know if it is encouraging self-reliance or dependency? How can it tell if it is serving the genuinely needy or only those who take advantage of others’ generosity?

Second, the Chicago fire relief effort challenges those who contend that private charity is insufficient to cope with disasters and that strong government action is necessary. Even before the fire was fully extinguished, the citizens of Cincinnati held a rally that raised $160,000 for fire victims. Citizens in dozens of other cities around the country did likewise. In New York City, wagons went through the streets to collect clothing. Money raised for the relief effort totaled $4.8 million, including nearly $1 million from 29 foreign countries. Much more was donated in goods such as clothing and food. This pattern of generosity has been typical of all major disasters in U.S. history.

By contrast, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), established by the Carter administration in 1979, and other federal agencies now cover an estimated one-third of the cost of recovery from a typical disaster. Federal and state agencies have increasingly supplanted the role of private insurance and relief organizations by providing cash grants and low-interest loans to homeowners, renters, and businesses affected by every conceivable type of disaster or hardship: severe storms, tornadoes, snow, ice, flooding, ground saturation, and mudslides. Government assistance is available to cover home repairs, temporary housing, employment income lost as a result of a disaster, medical, dental, and crisis-counseling bills, and many other disaster-related expenses.

Moreover, FEMA exhibits the expansionist tendencies typical of other government agencies. It has increasingly exaggerated the number of major disasters during its 20-year history. In 1983 it declared 20 major disasters. By 1996, the number had risen to 75, and it has remained roughly three times higher than during FEMA’s early years. (While the president officially declares disasters, the decision is based largely on advice given by FEMA and other federal and state agencies.) White House assistants have reportedly called governors to prod them into making requests for federal disaster aid; under federal law governors must formally request aid from the president. FEMA has even reimbursed cities for the cost of ordinary winter snow removal.7

Finally, we should question whether taxpayer-funded disaster relief discourages Americans from voluntarily contributing to relief efforts. After all, if our taxes increasingly cover the cost of disasters, why make a voluntary contribution? Fortunately, the United States still has many private relief organizations, and Americans continue to respond generously to disasters. In 1997, the American Red Cross, America’s largest disaster relief organization and fourth largest nonprofit organization, received only 4 percent of its $1.9-billion revenue from the government. It responds to hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, hazardous materials spills, transportation accidents, explosions, and other natural and man-made disasters, including house and apartment fires. In the last five years, it has responded to an average of 64,800 disasters and tragedies annually, mostly house fires, and all relief is provided free of charge. But if government agencies such as FEMA continue to expand their role, will future generations of Americans feel any obligation to voluntarily help victims of disasters?


  1. Robert Cromie, A Short History of Chicago (San Francisco: Lexikos, 1984), p. 81.
  2. W. W. Belknap, secretary of war, to Philip H. Sheridan, lieutenant-general, U.S. Army; Chicago Historical Society, All subsequent quotes that are not end-noted are taken from this source.
  3. James L. Payne, Overcoming Welfare: Expecting More from the Poor and from Ourselves (New York: Basic Books, 1998), p. 48. See also Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1992).
  4. On the Society’s board sat merchant Marshall Field, sleeping-car manufacturer George Pullman (who served as treasurer), and attorney Wirt Dexter.
  5. Ellis Chesbrough, Chicago Historical Society.
  6. Fran Griffith, Food Bank of Delaware, quoted in “Feeding a Growing Need,” Chronicle of Philanthropy, August 7, 1997, p. 27.
  7. James Bovard, “The FEMA Snow Job,” Cato Institute op-ed, February 19, 1997; J. Taylor Buckley, “Aid and Insurance Help, But the Victims Pay a Lot,” USA Today, September 6, 1996; and Barbara J. Saffir, “FEMA Sets Criteria for Disaster Relief,” Washington Times, April 2, 1999.