Julia Lemos

Fire Memoir of Julia Lemos, 1912 (ichi-63803)

Julia Lemos was living in the North Division with her elderly parents and her five children when the fire broke out. "My experiences of the Fire of 1871 in Chicago" is the verbal counterpart of her oil painting of the fire, which is in the "A Visual Record" gallery of this section. (3438 words)

Two weeks before the fire, on account of my mother's failure in health, so she could not take charge of my children as she formerly did, by the advice of a lady friend, I put four of them in the half orphan asylum on Burling st. north side, but left the baby who was not yet a year old with my mother. I was to pay $7 a week for them at the asylum and provide their clothing. It was a trial to me to have them there, but I had a situation down town at Lithographic work, and had to hold fast to it to support the family. The second week I worried so that I could not stand it, and determined to go bring them home, no matter if I lost my situation or not, so I went and told the matron I wanted them, she refused to let them go, she said the rules were not to change the last of the week, but if I came Monday I could have them. Well I had to go home then, and said I would come after them Monday morning. That evening I went next door to our landlord and paid $12 rent in advance for a month. About 9-o'clock that evening, my baby was asleep and I began to get ready to retire. Our cottage had front shutters, solid without slats in them, so when shut, the room was in complete darkness. I pulled the shutters to close them, but there was such a strong wind blowing, that I had to pull hard to close them, I said out loud, Oh what a wind. It would be bad if there was a fire--I did not know it then, but the fire had already started on the west side, I retired, but about five o'clock in the morning was woke up by a rumbling noise, so as I was awake I got up and threw open the shutters, I thought I was dreaming, the whole street was crowded with people, with hats and shawls on, a neighbor who stood in front of our house called to me, and said Mrs. Lemos, are you just getting up? I said yes, what is the matter? The sky was reflecting fire, she said the city has been burning all night, and the fire is coming to the north side, Well, that startled me, and I ran to the back room and called my father and mother up, I said the city is burning, father ran around shaking his hands, the children, the children, I must go for them, he said. I said no, you do not know where the asylum is, I will go, you stay here and take care of mother and the baby, then I ran to the asylum, they were moving there up north to another building, the matron said my children would be all right, and wanted me to leave them, but I insisted on taking them, and had to bring them with ragged clothes on, though I had given good clothes when I took them there, but I was thankful to get them in any way. My youngest boy had to go with me without a hat, as it was all confusion there. Well we got home and I gave the children breakfast, then father said I should go to the landlord next door and ask him to return to me, the $12 I had given him for rent in advance, as we were going to be burnt out, and I was a widow with all that family, he refused to give me back the money, but was an expressman and had a wagon, he said that he had been moving their household goods up north on the prairie, and that he would move one load of my things for that money, which he did, things we would need at first, but all our best things had to burn. I had a trunk with papers valuable to the family and my best clothes, and father had a large trunk with papers of value and mother's and his best clothes. His name was on the outside of his trunk and my name was on my trunk also, then there was a mattress and a feather bed and other things put on the wagon, and it went off. We did not know if we could find the things again, by that time the fire was advancing on us, I wanted to leave the house, but father said, O, the wind will change. People were running in crowds past our house, I stood with my baby in my arms and the other children beside me, when a woman running past with three children, said to me, Madam, ain't you going to save those children, that started me, I went to Father and said I was going to leave at once, he said O wait, but I started and then he and mother gathered some things, mother put some bread and a pound of coffee in a valise, then she took a small tin kettle--father came out of the house, with his hunting dog, which was worth $25 on a chain, his gun and a large round cloak he wore those days, then he locked the door, and put the key in his pocket, we always laughed about that afterwards--then we started away with the crowd and went way up north till we came to prairies, where people had moved their goods. We found our goods and trunks in a pile by themselves, by that time it was getting late in the afternoon, the children were very tired as we all were, father took the mattress and laid the children on it and the feather bed and covered them with his large cloak, they got asleep for about an hour, when word came that we would have to run again. The fire was on us, the wind blew the blazing boards for a long distance and set fire to all the goods on the prairie. A dry goods store, on the corner of Wells and North Ave had their stock here, and the fire ran along the long grass too, we had no rain for a long time, and everything was very dry. I had to wake the children up, and we had to run again, and leave everything to burn, this time we felt the heat on our backs when we ran, like when one stands with the back to a grate fire. Well we ran a good way North, then father thought we were safe and we stopped, then the sky was clouding up and getting dark, there was an old board fence where we were and father pulled four boards off, and laid them on the grass and laid three of the children on them and covered them with his large cloak again, but my oldest child, a boy about 9 yrs old stayed with me. I set on the grass holding the baby, and the boy laid his head on my lap and went to sleep, then it was dark, and from where I was sitting I could see a circle of fire at a distance, then I saw a church steeple topple over in the flames. Just then, my boy woke up, and began to sob, I said, Willie, mama is here, do not cry. He said yes but Mama, Isn't this the Last Day? You see, he had been to Sunday school and heard about the Day of Judgment--the end of the world. Well it was getting very dark, then it began to rain, a pouring rain, I said to father it will kill those children to sleep in that rain. Poor old man, he said, I have done all I can. I said I think this is a farm, or this fence would not be here, I will go see if there is not a shed we might go in out of the rain, father said you must not go, I will, then he went and we were afraid he would lose his way, it was so very dark, but soon he came back, and said he had found a shed, so the second time I had to wake the children up, and we all went to the shed. Of course it was pitch dark inside, and we did not know if there were cows or pigs or dogs there, and not one of us had a match. Mother and I sat flat on the ground, each with a baby in our arms, for my 4th child was about two years old, and still a baby, then we tried to sleep as we were all worn out, about midnight I was roused, and saw two figures coming in, but it was so dark we could not see who it was, at the first rays of daylight I saw it was a poor woman with her little boy. Well, in the morning father went to the farm, and they sent us a pitcher of milk, and a cup to drink it, but nothing to eat, all we had in the bag was half a loaf of bread, so I gave the children some and ourselves, so that was our breakfast, then father said I should stay there with the children, while he and mother went to see if our trunks and things were burnt up. By and by they came back and told me that everything that was stored on that prairie was burned. We had a mattress and feather bed, all that remained of that was a few feathers flying in the air. A policeman saw father hunting around, and asked him what he was looking for. Father told him we had goods there, and among them were two trunks, but he could not find the remains of them. The policeman asked him, what names were on the outside of the trunks, father said his name Eustace Wyszynski was on one, and my name Mrs. Julia Lemos, was on the other. The policeman said, here they are, and he pointed to a mound of earth, then he took a spade and dug them out. He told father he was there when the fire reached the goods, and saw the trunks and thought they were of value, so he covered them with the ground, so the fire passed over them. People have said it was a miracle, as everything else there was burned. Then father got a man with a wheelbarrow to take them in the basement of a church which was opened for the refugees, then father came after us, and we all went to the church. My children were comfortable in two pews, the whole church was crowded, even the pulpit. The government sent wagons to the church with provisions, and the janitor of the church made rye coffee for the people, we could not drink it, and mother had a pound of ground coffee in her valise, and a tin pail that she brought along, so we were allowed to go in the basement and make our coffee three times a day. While we were drinking it a lady came down from the pulpit with her pet poodle in her arms, she had a silk dress on and diamond earrings, she came to me and told me that the smell of our coffee made her crazy, that she could not drink the rye coffee they were making, and that she had never begged in her life, but was going to beg now of me for a cup of coffee. Of course I gave it to her and told her that every time we had coffee she should come and have some, which she did, we were there three days. The second day, about noon I saw a gentleman come in the church door, and at the same time saw that lady whom I had been giving the coffee to, running down the steps of the pulpit with her arms outstretched, he met her half way down the aisle and took her in his arms, and the little poodle jumped over both of them. It was her husband, he was in St. Louis on business at the time of the fire, he was looking for her and had a carriage outside to take her, they were going to St. Louis, she came to me and kissed me Good Bye she said we may never meet again, but we will meet in Heaven, then father told me that the government was giving free passes on the railroads, so people could go to their friends and that he could take us to New York to my aunt there. As all the firms I worked for were burned I knew it would be very long before I would have work to support the family, but might get work in New York, so I told father to get the pass and we would go. The next morning he went after the pass. While he was gone there was a great commotion, every one ran to the church doors and looked out, so I went to see what was the matter. There was a crowd in the middle of the street dragging a man along with a rope around his neck, they were going to hang him, he had been caught setting fire for robbery, that frightened me, and I said we will leave Chicago at once, I would be afraid to have my children on the street. The second night at the church every one was asleep at midnight, but on account of my baby being restless, I woke up, and saw a rough looking man coming in the church door, I pretended to be asleep but watched him, he laid down in a pew for awhile, then he rose up and looked about to see if he was observed, a man laid asleep in the next pew, and he reached over and was just taking his watch, when I set up and the thief started and laid down again, I pretended to wait on baby, but whispered to mother to tell father, which she did, and as father was an old soldier and had a gun, he with several others were appointed a guard in the church, he went to the others and called them, and they closed about the man and took him to a guardhouse they had about there. There was a lady in the church who had become insane from the fire, her husband was away, all night she walked the aisles, calling out loud John, John. The ladies made a bed for her and tended her. We left the third day but we heard long after that she died in the insane asylum. She was a very celebrated singer. Well how were we to get to the train for New York. There was no way--so the janitor of the church had a wagon and horse, and offered, if father would let him have the dog (which was worth $25, a trained hunter, father brought him from Louisville, Kentucky) he would take us to the train, in his wagon, so father arranged it, and he put our two trunks in the wagon then we got in, I set on one trunk with one baby, and mother set on the other with the little two year old. The other three children set on the bottom of the wagon, and father on the seat with the driver. The street car tracks as far as you could see, were in scollops... all over the city, the heat had warped them. We drove, I expect, through a rough part of the city, rowdies came and stood about our wagon and I was much afraid, till we arrived at the station. I suppose the driver took the shortest route there, without regard to the neighborhood. Well, we felt perfectly safe when we got on the train. The passengers were very kind to my children, buying cake and candy for them, when they were brought in at different stations. There were many other refugees on the train, going to different towns on the route. In spite of all my trouble, I was happy, because I had all my children with me--We arrived in New York, and father told me to stay in the station with the children, while he and mother went to find my Aunt, she had not written for six months, so they were not sure of her address. They left me, and it is a fact, I did not have 10 cts in the world. I had given all my money for the rent, and expected to get my salary $15 on Monday--that firm paid the artists Monday instead of Saturday--but the fire happened, so that settled it. While they were gone, a gentleman, rather old, came in the station, and walked over to me, he asked me if I had been burned out in the Chicago Fire. I said yes, then he asked if all those were my children, I said they were. He said, too bad, too bad. Then he put his hand in his pocket, and handed me a bill, I drew back and said, Thank you, but I will not take it. He said Madam, take it for the children, his tone was so kind, that I took it then--he said good Bye Madam and good luck, he took his hat off and bowed as he left, when he got to the door of the station, I saw the bill was a $10 bill, I had thought it was $1--so I ran after him, and stopped him, I told him he had made a mistake, he had given me $10. He said, Madam I know it, I wanted you to have it--Good Bye and then he left. Just then father came in the door and seeing a stranger talking to me, he frowned, and the janitor who was sweeping saw him. He said to father, do you know who that gentleman is? Father said, no, who is he. The janitor said, he is the richest man in New York, and is helping the Chicago refugees, he will not give his money to the societies, but investigates every case himself. He told father his name, but I cannot remember it—

Well following father as he came in, was mother and my cousin, a young lady, I had not seen her since she was a child of 10 years. Of course we were glad to meet, and she told me to come along, she had a carriage waiting for us, so we went out, got in the carriage, and had rode a long block, when my cousin said to me, Julia, I heard you had five children, I said yes. Then she looked around the carriage, and said, but there are only four here. I looked and saw my baby was not with us, mother had been holding her, and in the excitement, forgot her in the station. I told father, and he called the coachman, and said, drive back like lightning, we have left a baby in the station. The coachman hurried his horses back, and I jumped out and ran in the station. Fortunately, no other train had came in, so the station was empty, otherwise, if people had found a baby there alone, we might have lost her. She was leaning on a cushioned seat looking out the window, she did not know we had gone. Well the way I clasped her in my arms, and the feelings that I had only a mother knows, it seemed so ridiculous, that I had saved the children from the fire, and was so near losing my baby, just as our troubles were ending--which they were, my cousin took us to her mother my Aunt and she kept us with her for two weeks, then we got a small flat, and with things the relatives gave us started housekeeping. The third day after we arrived, I got work at Lithograph work, to do at home by the piece, so I got started--We returned to Chicago a year and a half after the Fire, I got my old situation back, at Carqueville & Shober Lithograph establishment, and father done some work for them also. We have remained here ever since then—

Mrs. Julia Lemos