In October 1871, a little girl named Bessie Bradwell stumbled through a flame-choked city, clutching photographs of two dead siblings and a book.
This is the story of the only newspaper to make deadline after the Great Chicago Fire.
“… the Legal News is fire-proof, being the only paper in Chicago that never missed a number in consequence of the fire, and appeared on time in its usual dress; as an advertising medium to reach the lawyers it has no superior in the nation; Eastern book houses, miscellaneous as well as law, may use its columns with profit to themselves.”
If Bessie’s mother Myra Bradwell isn’t a legend, she should be.
She was sort of the nation’s first female lawyer (explanation on that “sort of” a bit below). The newspaper she founded and published became an indispensable document for lawyers across the nation and revolutionized legal publishing. She helped free Mary Todd Lincoln from an insane asylum and drafted laws allowing women to run for office and earn some measure of control over their property and earnings.
This is her story too.
The Burning District
No one knows why a fire broke out on the O’Leary farm on Oct. 8, 1871. Stories of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow would later be traced to a newspaper reporter named Michael Ahern and a couple reporter buddies.
Chicago would burn for 36 hours, the flames that first night reaching the offices of the Chicago Legal News, just south of and 40 years prior to the current City Hall.
“It was near midnight when the fiery fiend took possession of the block in which we were. Our little daughter Bessie, twelve years of age, rushed into the office, grasped the Subscription Book and the portraits of a brother and sister who are in the spirit world, and went out into the wild night, and, crowded through the surging mass of humanity until finding her burden too great, she was prevailed upon to resign her pictures into the hands of an acquaintance, and pressed forward. She continued to walk the streets until three o’clock the next day — first going to the North Side, then back to the South Side — and, when found, was near Western Avenue — the extreme western portion of the city.”
After finding their daughter, America’s first female lawyer (sort of) and her husband then rushed “from the burning district” down Washington Street “to the Base-ball Grounds,” where they buried what few possessions they had.
What they buried was worth less than $100 in 1871 dollars, or just shy of $2,000 day.
“We were driven by the flames to the lake, and there, amid smoke and falling cinders, and a heat that was almost stifling, remained until two o’clock the next day, when we made our escape to the West Side, being obliged to go by the way of Twelfth Street, rushing by falling walls and through clouds of smoke.”
Myra Bradwell wrote those lines from “Room 7 Lind’s Block” in Milwaukee, Wisc., in the Chicago Legal News of Oct. 14, 1871, just four days after the Great Chicago Fire puttered out. She sent the issue to every name in the book her daughter had grabbed out of a burning city block.
The world burnt down, but Myra Bradwell’s newspaper hadn’t missed an issue.
A Woman of Law
“The first legal paper edited by a woman — Myra Bradwell — This file is from 1868 & 1869 — It was Mrs. Bradwell whose right to be admitted to the Bar of Illinois was carried up to the United States Supreme Court. Senator Matthew Carpenter made the argument for her.”
Myra Bradwell was the first female lawyer in the United States of America.
On Aug. 2, 1869, Myra Bradwell passed the Illinois bar exam and, in September, applied for a license to practice law. She was denied. On paper it wasn’t because she was a woman, but because she was married.
Under the laws of the time, women couldn’t make binding contracts without their husbands’ consent. This meant Myra Bradwell’s husband James would need to sign off on any contracts she drafted for her clients, rendering her useless as an attorney.
Bradwell’s appeal went up to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 7-1 decision, SCOTUS sided with the state’s right to ban women from law.
“Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.”
The decision added that unmarried women in law, while avoiding the legal issues Illinois cited, would be against God’s will.
Only Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase dissented, siding with Bradwell. He did not write an opinion explaining his reasons why.
In 1869, the same year Bradwell’s legal battle started in Illinois, Arabella Mansfield had her own fight in Iowa. Mansfield won at the state level, however, becoming the first woman lawyer in the nation. She opted for a career in academia rather than practice.
Although she never again sought it, in 1890, the Illinois Supreme Court granted Bradwell her license to practice law. In 1892, the U.S. Supreme Court followed.
Both licenses were granted retroactively, putting Bradwell ahead of Mansfield. Myra Bradwell became the first lawyer of 1869 in 1890.
A Life in Law
After the high court of the land told her she wasn’t a lawyer, Bradwell’s returned to her life as one of the nation’s most influential legal figures.
The Legal News was not only her tool but her weapon. Along with its position as an indispensable subscription for any lawyer to have (not only did she publish new statutes before the state Legislature did, the General Assembly later deemed it the official publisher of all legal records lost in the fire), she used it as her platform to call for change on topics from civil rights to drunken judges.
She also helped draft statutes like the Illinois Married Women’s Property Act of 1861 and the Earnings Act of 1869, laws that helped women control their own economic destinies. Her husband James, a judge turned state legislator, introduced laws Myra drafted that allowed women to hold school board offices and become notaries, small steps on the way to the burgeoning women’s suffrage and later feminist movements.
They were survived by two children: Thomas and Bessie.
“When I finally reached Mich. Ave., a policeman stopped me saying they were blowing up the buildings and I could not go on. After I left my father he kept on carrying his valuable books downstairs, and they were then beginning to blow up the buildings. No expressman was in sight. He concluded his life was more valuable than his law books and ran down Washington St. to the Lake. There he found my mother and brother. His first words were ‘Where is Bessie?’ Mother said ‘Why, I thought she was with you.’ My father was sure I was dead. My mother, who was always an optimist, said ‘No, I’d trust that girl to go the ends of the earth — she’ll come out all right, don’t you worry.’”
The girl who carried the Legal News records through a city on fire became a lawyer, just like her father, brother and of course her mother.
Bessie Bradwell Helmer ran the fireproof newspaper until 1925.