CHICAGO -- The Great Fire of 1871, traditionally blamed on Mrs. O'Leary's cow, instead may have been caused by a stray comet, an author says.
'Everything in the book is scientifically possible,' said Mel Waskin, an educational filmmaker and author of 'Mrs. O'Leary's Comet: Cosmic Causes of the Great Chicago Fire.'
'I know a lot about mainstream science,' said Waskin, who has produced hundreds of science films for Coronet-MTI Film and Video of Deerfield. 'But I'm also interested in speculative science. Scientists tend to attack everything new, but eventually a lot of it becomes mainstream.'
Waskin's book tells several stories -- one about the rapid development of Chicago in the mid 1800s, and the other about Biela's Comet, an obscure celestial body that Waskin says broke into two parts in 1845.
Astronomers continued to track Biela I, Waskin said in a recent interview, but the fate of Biela II after 1959 is not known. It is that comet, he maintains, that could have been on a collision course with Earth and was responsible for the terror described by eyewitnesses as 'flames like a tornado' and 'a sheet of fire.'
'The idea came from one chapter in Ignatius Donnelly's book 'Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel,'' Waskin said. 'I read it in 1982 and got interested because it linked comets to ancient legends of catastrophe.
'I also thought a whole book could be written on the topic, so I started looking through old newspaper accounts and talking to astronomers,' he said.
The book also documents major fires that broke out Oct. 8, 1871, the same night as the Chicago blaze, in Peshtigo, Wis., and Manistee, Mich.
Although 800 people were killed in Peshtigo, the Chicago fire, which claimed some 300 lives, won most of the headlines and a bigger place in history.
Waskin said the descriptions of simultaneous fires breaking out, blue flames burning in basements and corpses found with no burn injuries all could be explained by a fire fueled by hot cometary gases.
The uncontrollable intensity of the fires also would explain why stone buildings melted, hot sand rained down on Wisconsin and witnesses described giant clouds of flame falling from the sky, he said.
'There were fires all over the Midwest at the time, but these three big ones were only about 200 miles apart,' Waskin said. 'It's not hard to imagine that parts of the comet all hit at the same time in the same area.'
Waskin said although he would like to see the Biela II comet take its place alongside the legend of Mrs. O'Leary's cow, he hopes it at least adds to the growing study of 'catastrophism,' that is, the theory that planetary history may actually be shaped by sudden and dramatic cataclysmic changes.