Title: Silhouette in Diamonds: The Life of Mrs Potter Palmer by Ishbel Ross
Location: Internet Archive Date: 1960
This is the only book of which I am aware that is devoted solely to the life of Bertha Honore Palmer.
A City in Flames
A brisk wind rustled the withered autumn leaves in the garden of Potter Palmer s country house on the outskirts of Chicago on the fateful night of October 8, 1871. The grass on the lawn was like tinder for it had been one of the driest summers in the city s history. Bertha Honore Palmer, a bride of twenty-two, was passing a quiet Sunday evening by herself in the home she was about to leave to take up quarters in the newly finished Palmer House, her husband s wedding gift to her. Potter Palmer, millionaire merchant and real estate man, had gone east to attend the funeral of one of his sisters in upstate New York. It was Bertha s first separation from her husband since their marriage fourteen months earlier.
Soon after nine o clock she became conscious of a yellowish glow hanging over the city. She studied the scene with concern. Fires were an everyday occurrence but before long she saw that this was no ordinary blaze. Shafts of flame shot across the skyline until it seemed as if most of the city were on fire. She thought anxiously of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Hamilton Honore, who lived on Michigan Avenue, right in the path of the flames, which seemed to leap out in different areas, leaving no clue to their focus. It was not until some time later that the legend spread of Mrs. Catherine O’ Leary’s cow kicking over her kerosene lamp in a De Koven Street barn at milking time. But in any event this was where the fire began and a dry southwest wind funneled the flames to adjoining shacks. Soon homes, shops, churches, factories, were going up like matchsticks. The downtown business area was quickly enveloped. From the slums to La Salle Street devastation prevailed.
At first Mrs. Palmer had confidence that the new water-works on the North Side would be equal to the situation, but when the fire jumped the river and set them ablaze, all hope of staying its demoniac course was ended. When she saw that things were completely out of control she went into practical action with her servants and neighbors. Although at a safe distance from the burning city they all began assembling their treasures and preparing their houses for the dispossessed. Bertha murmured prayers for her family as she busied herself around the house. There was no way of reaching them in the blazing city.
By this time the sky was an awesome yellow, streaked with vivid columns of crimson where fire flashed out in yet another section of the city. There was little smoke because of the speed and intensity of the conflagration. Here and there the blaze was sharp and clear, illumining the distorted motions of a frantic population. The streets were jammed with fleeing families, carrying babies, bundles, furniture and armfuls of clothes. They ran in all directions, shouting and crying, while cinders hit them like stinging hailstones and sparks danced be fore their eyes like twinkling stars. Embers seemed to rain from the sky. Jets of flame pulverized safes and buildings that had been pronounced fireproof. Synthetic granite walls seemed to offer little more resistance than wooden shacks.
The noise was unearthly. To one it sounded like the lake on a stormy night. To another the crackling murmur suggested an enormous bundle of dry twigs burning. There were sharp explosions as barrels of oil and paint were touched off by the flames.
For days and weeks afterward Bertha heard tales of the terrible scenes enacted in the streets that night. One little girl with flames licking her long golden hair ran screaming through the crowd. But silence followed when a distracted onlooker threw a container of liquor over her. It flared up and enveloped her in blue flame. Fire touched off the skirt of a woman who knelt in the street, praying with her crucifix. Her anguished face was long remembered by those who saw her and survived. A forgotten canary sang in its gilded cage in a hotel window which was brightly lit by the approaching curtain of flame. A bride with half -wrapped wedding presents in her arms ran frantically back and forth calling for her husband. Women dragged Saratoga trunks along the sidewalks.
Wheelbarrows and perambulators were piled high with family possessions.
There were screams and shouts and curses, tears and voice less despair. The slum sections tossed up thieves, footpads and murderers, who plundered and rioted as the city burned. All along Lake Street they ravaged the shops. Liquor ran in the gutters and many were drunk. But the most desperate scenes were at the bridges, where struggling masses converged while fire already licked the foundations and one after another of the structures went down. Human beings and horses were inextricably mixed in the jam as carriages and teams attempted to cross the river. The horses, half mad from the flick of cinders and the frantic crowding, trampled men and women. Scores of the trapped clung to the guard rails; some wound up in the river. The ships drifted like sagging ghosts as sails and masts caught fire. The sirens of tugs trying to get through added piercing blasts.
Before many hours had passed Bertha knew that the Palmer and Honore fortunes had gone up in flames.Her husband’s thirty-two fine new buildings on State Street, as well as the nearly finished Palmer House, were burned to the ground. Honore Block, a magnificent building for its time, put up by her father, with walls decorated with colonnades of synthetic marble, was in ruins. Most of his other properties were burned, too. The Palmer House was one of the first large buildings to go, although its fireproof equipment had promised protection. Terrified citizens sought safety in its lobby, bringing their valuables with them. But liquor or explosive oils had been stored in the cellar by some of the refugees and a terrific explosion wrecked the building when the fire reached this area. Detonations were so frequent that night that Bertha never knew which one signaled the collapse of her wedding gift.