1871: The Great Fire

The Curse of Peg Leg Sullivan/1871: The Great Fire
The House Theatre
Written By The House Theatre

The House is Chicago's premier home for intimate, original works of epic story and stagecraft. Founded and led by Artistic Director Nathan Allen and driven by an interdisciplinary ensemble of Chicago’s next generation of great storytellers, The House aims to become a laboratory and platform for the evolution of the American theatre as an inclusive and popular artform.

The modern city of Chicago was settled in the first quarter of the nineteenth century after the Potawatomi Indians ceded their land to the United States. The rich farmlands and boundless opportunity attracted Yankee settlers from the Northeast, spurring urban development and technological innovation. In just a few decades, the city grew from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of residents, becoming a symbol of modernity. Much of this growth can be attributed to the increasing population of German, Irish and Polish immigrants. Among them were the O'Learys, Irish immigrants, who settled in the modern-day South Loop.

We all know the legend. Around 9 P.M. on October 8, 1871, Mrs. O'Leary was milking her cow when the animal knocked over a lantern. The dry hay caught immediately. The fire spread quickly across a young city constructed mostly out of wood, burning almost everything in its path. It lasted for days. Over 300 people died. O'Leary was immediately fingered as the culprit, and was soon immortalized as such in song.

Late one night, when we were all in bed, Mrs. O’Leary lit a lantern in the shed. Her cow kicked it over,  then winked her eye and said,  “There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!'”   -Old Chicago folk song

But is any of that true? The legitimacy of the O'Leary cow theory has been debated by historians since the blaze subsided. Although the local media immediately pinned the blame on Mrs. O'Leary, she claimed to have been in bed when the fire started. An inquiry by Chicago's Board of Police and Fire commissioners concluded that the cause of the fire was unclear. However, the public continued to fan the flames of O'Leary culpability. Anti-immigrant and anti-female sentiment contributed to her depiction as a stereotypically irresponsible and careless immigrant woman.

We prefer an alternate theory.

Another man, Daniel "Peg Leg" Sullivan, lived next door to the O’Learys. He frequently visited their barn to tend to his family’s cow. After the fire, he testified to the inquiry board that he was in the barn the night of the fire. Sullivan's story was that while smoking his pipe outside the barn, he noticed flames within. He screamed for help, then hobbled on his wooden leg into the barn to save his cow. 

But doubts linger to this day — was Peg Leg an innocent bystander? Or could he have started the fire himself? The story of Mrs. O’Leary and her cow are cemented into our collective mythology, but some historians believe she’s a mere scapegoat, and the true blame lies with Sullivan.

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What if on that fateful night, Sullivan loitered in the O’Leary barn after feeding his cow to enjoy a smoke? What if with a fateful slip, Sullivan bobbled his pipe and dropped it onto the barn floor? What if Peg Leg rushed to pick it up and stamp out the embers, but couldn’t properly do it with one bum leg? What if the fire spread too quickly for Sullivan to do anything but retreat? What if Sullivan fled his mess, and concocted an alibi on his way down the block?

What if, in scapegoating an innocent woman and her cow, Peg Leg Sullivan escaped infamy, but instead brought down a much harsher punishment — a curse! A curse that would attach itself to everything that Peg Leg touched, and would thereby change the very course of history.

This adventure is a story — and a puzzle

Peg Leg Sullivan was a real person. The historical record, however, is silent on his post-fire life, so we took it upon ourselves to wonder if perhaps he was part of more infamous moments in Chicago history, spreading his curse far and wide.

The puzzle requires you to pay close attention to the text — and to the real world environment around each story's location. In each chapter, a single answer word is hidden. Some of the answers will be easy to find, some will take thinking and decoding. It wouldn't be a bad idea to have a code reference handy, like the Puzzle Sidekick app.

All of them will require traveling to the spot of the story and looking around. Solve each story's puzzle, and you'll learn the code to unlock the next chapter. Here's a hint: pay attention to the things that obviously deviate from the historical record; they'll likely be important for solving the puzzle.

You might also learn a hint or two by following @peglegscurse on Twitter.

After you've solved all nine puzzles, you'll unlock the final chapter, which will reward you with an adventure of another sort. Use that final code to see a brand new show at The House Theatre of Chicago for free!

We'll kick things off with this, a new spin on an old classic.

Many nights ago, As we were all in bed,  Dopey Peg Leg Sullivan  Napped as a pipe hung from his head. Embers lit the floor ablaze, then Sully eyed the cow and said,  She started it, in the old barn, tonight!”

(Found the hidden word? Head to the next chapter to enter it in…)

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