- The Great Chicago Fire
- The Web of Memory
- Touring the Fire
- Special Features
- Browse All Images
Bessie Bradwell (later Helmer) was the daughter of County Judge James B. Bradwell and Myra Colby Bradwell, who was founder and editor of the Chicago Legal News, whose subscription book thirteen-year-old Bessie saved from the flames. The Bradwells lived in the South Division. She sent her memoir to the Chicago Historical Society (now the Chicago History Museum) on the fifty-fifth anniversary of the fire, in 1926.
My experience on the memorable October 8th was certainly a unique one. We had retired when we were awakened by the fire. I was thirteen years old at the time. Arising I concluded to save my best clothes by putting them on. My mother, Myra Bradwell, slipped on a wrapper and proceeded to pack a trunk with our most precious possessions. Passing by a closet where my father's Masonic clothes were, she picked up father's Masonic hat (he was a 33rd degree Mason). She put it on her head exclaiming, "Masonry will certainly be an aid at a time like this." With her bird cage tightly clasped in her arms and the poor little bird gasping for breath in the smoke, she went down to the Lake at the floor of Washington St. with my brother.
When he saw the city was doomed, my father, Judge Bradwell's first thought was to save the rare old law books which he had been collecting for years and which, if they were burned, he could never replace.
I went down with him to his law office which was located on Washington St. opposite the old Chicago Court House. He spent his time picking out these books and carrying them down to the entrance of the building expecting to secure an expressman to take them away for him. After staying there for a while I concluded to go back to the Lake. I picked up a subscription book of my mother's law journal, the Chicago Legal News, which she founded in 1868, and which had attracted widespread attention throughout the legal world. The book contained all the accounts and the list of subscribers and it was very heavy indeed, I said to father "This is a good thing to save and I will take care of it."
On the street it was confusion worse confounded with people crowding you on all sides. It was like a snow storm only the flakes were red instead of white. On one side I was jostled by a man shrieking, "Oh the poor prisoners, they will be burned alive, locked up in their cells." On the other side I was hit by a burly negro carrying on top of his head a crate of live chickens. By chance, I met a gentleman and his wife, friends of my father and mother. They said "Come right along with us," and we proceeded down Washington St. toward the Lake. When we got to State St. the State St. bridge was burning. They said "Come, come with us, we must get over this bridge at once." I hesitated whether I should go down to the Lake or go with them but concluded to go with them across the bridge. Never shall I forget the sight as I looked back on the burning City. On the bridge, a man hurrying along, said "This is the end of Chicago" but with all assurance the thirteen-year-old replied, "No, no she will rise again." My coat had been on fire two or three times. People would run up to me and smother the flames with their hands. Then we hurried on, the fire madly pursuing us. After going a long way, we finally concluded it would be best for us to turn and go west, and early in the morning we crossed to the west side. Proceeding on the west side toward the south we finally found a restaurant. It was crowded and we were all relating our thrilling experiences. After breakfast I left my good friends, telling them I would keep on the west side going south until I got up to 12th St., when I would turn east and go to Mich. Ave. where I would try to find my father and mother. I told them if I did not find them I would go on the west side where we used to live to some old neighbors. When I finally reached Mich. Ave., a policeman stopped me saying they were blowing up the buildings and I could not go on. After I left my father he kept on carrying his valuable books downstairs, and they were then beginning to blow up the buildings. No expressman was in sight. He concluded his life was more valuable than his law books and ran down Washington St. to the Lake. There he found my mother and brother. His first words were "Where is Bessie?" Mother said "Why, I thought she was with you." My father was sure I was dead. My mother, who was always an optimist, said "No, I'd trust that girl to go the ends of the earth--she'll come out all right, don't you worry." The Lake front was covered with dry goods that had been taken out of the stores and placed in the park. My father concluded that the fire would sweep all over the park and that the only way to save the trunk was to bury it. He went to a neighbor's house and got a shovel and proceeded to dig a hole in the park to bury the trunk. The park was used as the City's baseball grounds. Up walked a policeman and showed his star. "Sir, you are defacing the ball grounds." My father raised his shovel to strike the policeman if he tried to stop him. "You go on or I'll make you see more stars than you ever saw in your life." Evidently this powerful 6 ft. 3 man with a shovel ready to strike was more than the policeman bargained for and he said "Oh, go on, Captain, go on." My mother told me many thrilling tales of the sights she saw there on the Lake front. The church of the Rev. Mr. Patterson caught fire first from the tower and swept down. A bystander said "Oh what a pity, the church is going." A man nearby laughed and said "If the Lord won't save his own church, let her go." As the fire burned all inflammable goods up to the Lake front, my family were obliged to go down to the very edge of the Lake and bathe their faces to keep from burning up. About ten o'clock Monday morning October 9th father dug up his precious trunk, the only thing which was saved on the Lake front. An expressman appearing on the scene, father said to him "Will you take us down to Mich. Ave. for $50?" "Alright" said the expressman, and he put the trunk on the wagon. Then looking down and seeing the clouds of smoke made worse by the blowing up of the buildings, said, "No, I won't," and he pulled the trunk off the wagon. Then my desperate father concluded to bluff the expressman a la cave man. He roared at the expressman, "Take your choice of three things: take us as you agreed to and we may go through in safety or we may die in the attempt, or you may stay right here and die now." The bluff worked. Grabbing the trunk and putting it back on the wagon, the expressman said, "For God's sake, come on." The poor little bird in mother's lap was gasping for breath as they rode through to safety, but its life was spared and it lived to a good old age.
The next night after the fire, my father attended a citizen's meeting and spoke of the loss of his little girl. A gentleman with whom I had breakfasted on Monday morning jumped to his feet and said, "Don't worry, Judge Bradwell, your daughter is safe on the west side and she carted that great heavy Legal News subscription book for nine hours."
With a full list of her subscribers Myra Bradwell went up to Milwaukee and brought out her Chicago Legal News on its regular publication day without missing an issue. Alas! the wonderful letters and papers of father's and mother's that the fire burned up!