Blame it on Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, although the jury is still out on the matter, and the cow wasn’t talking. On October 8, 1871, around nine o’clock at night, the unnamed cow kicked over a lantern in the O’Leary’s barn, located on DeKoven Street in Chicago, Illinois.
The fire spread rapidly through the mostly wooden city, dry from summer drought. After two days and nights, the flames wore themselves out, moving north and helped along by rain. Three hundred people died, with 17,500 buildings burned and 100,000 rendered homeless.
News of the disaster reached Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory, via a telegram, which was admittedly brief. Since the Union Pacific Railroad now passed through Cheyenne, 110 miles south, more detailed newspapers made their way to the fort when troopers rode south for mail and supplies.
“My word, Chicago is suffering,” Mrs. Gertrude Hayes told her husband over breakfast on Officers’ Row one morning in mid October.
She handed the paper to Captain Hayes, G Troop, Fifth Cavalry. He read it with his porridge. Oatmeal was his least favorite breakfast, but that was the army. There was a current overabundance of oats and raisins in the commissary. Too bad there was never a surplus of eggs.
When Captain Hayes left for guard mount, Mrs. Hayes began to wonder what to do for Chicago. She knew the city well enough, with its rows of wooden houses, most with shingled or tarred roofs. A woman of some imagination, Gertrude Hayes could picture desperate women fleeing with babes in arms and little more. Newspaper in hand, she walked next door to the post surgeon’s quarters, where she found Mrs. Stanley staring at her newspaper.
Gertrude plunked herself down. They were friends of great standing, having moved together from garrison to garrison since before the War of the Rebellion. “Augusta, how can we help these pitiful folk?” she asked.
Augusta Stanley was cut from the same army cloth. “Let’s have fun and do some good at the same time. We should hold a calico ball.”
“I’ve heard of them,” Mrs. Hayes said. “Heavens, who hasn’t?”
“Granted, we are pretty small potatoes out here,” Augusta Stanley said (she was regrettably prone to slang). “If every lady made a calico dress and wore it, we could send the dresses to the poor women in Chicago. We should include the sergeants’ wives in this ball.”
“Would we charge the men one dollar admission?” Mrs. Hayes asked.
“At least. We can donate refreshments. The regimental band will play.”
The women looked at each other, thoughtful, because the next matter loomed. Neither was prone to much exertion, and rank did have its privileges.
“Who should be in charge of this event?”
“Who is the lowest-ranking lieutenant in the garrison?” Mrs. Stanley asked.
“Lieutenant Yeatman, I Company, and a bachelor. He won’t do.”
As the sound of the band faded away, indicating the end of guard mount, Mrs. Stanley and Mrs. Hayes thought a little more.
“I have it,” Mrs. Hayes declared. “Lieutenant Masterson’s wife. He is my husband’s brand new second lieutenant. I’ll grant you Victoria Masterson is self-centered, but she has what we need.”
“Augusta, think a moment. Can you sew a dress?”
“Certainly not. That is what the lower orders are for.”
“Precisely,” Mrs. Hayes said. “Victoria Masterson’s maid—you know, the one with the silly name—is a seamstress without equal. She sews all of Victoria’s clothing, and you know smart she always looks.”
“Yes, Mary Blue Eye,” Mrs. Stanley said. “My husband says that is a Seneca or Mohawk name. But will she do it?”
“Of course! It’s time Victoria Masterson learned how things are done in the army. The Blue Eye maid has no choice.”