Chicago’s 1909 “Crib Fire” which killed 50 men, may have been due to bed bugs

by nobugsonme on February 17, 2009

in bad ideas, bed bugs, chicago, fire

On January 20, 1909, fifty working men perished, after the structure they were living on caught fire. The “crib” was a wood-and-brick structure the men lived on for weeks at a time while building a brick-lined tunnel under the lake. They were paid $1-$2 a week and were mostly Irish immigrants.

Historians think the fire was caused when one of the men used gasoline to “ward off” (probably more likely to treat a case of) bed bugs.

The Southtown Star reports on a recent event held by the Mount Greenwood Cemetary and the Ridge Historical Society, marking the 100th Anniversary of this tragedy.

More than 50 men perished in a mysterious 1909 fire that swept through a water-intake crib a mile off the shores of Lake Michigan near 71st Street. The men were living and working on the lake to build a tunnel under Lake Michigan.

The tunnel would supply Chicago’s growing South Side with fresh drinking water.

While the cause of the Jan. 20, 1909, fire remains one of Chicago’s great unsolved mysteries – a janitor was rumored to have sprinkled gasoline to ward off bed bugs – the fire also represents a chapter of city history largely unknown.

We will never know for sure that bed bugs were behind these deaths, but we do know that people have died — or come close to it — trying to self-treat for bed bugs.

This story from 1909 reminds us of a time when everyone knew what bed bugs were, and they were nearly impossible to kill.

While many of us have more options today, others of us still feel as desperate.


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