Ghosts of Peshtigo


On October 8th, 1871, a fire that killed more people than any other fire in the history of the United States ravaged NE Wisconsin.

Known today as The Great Peshtigo Fire, it has been largely forgotten in the annals of American history. The reason for this is due to the fact that it occurred on the exact same day as The Great Chicago Fire.  Chicago, being obviously the much larger and well-known city, had pushed those lost in the Peshtigo fire onto the back pages of the newspapers, as well as our history books of today.

250 people were lost in The Great Chicago Fire.  It is unknown today, and never will be known exactly how many lives were lost in The Great Peshtigo Fire, although the estimates range from 1,800-2,400.

Seemingly an astonishing coincidence to have two fires of that magnitude only miles apart on the exact same day, it actually wasn’t. The entire upper midwest was experiencing an epic drought in the summer of 1871. The upper midwest being prime logging country made the environment ripe for fire. Writings from the time tell of residents of Peshtigo, weeks before the fire, having to cover their faces and mouths to prevent breathing in ash from multiple prairie fires burning in Illinois, Michigan, and Minneapolis.  A large fire ravaged Oconto, WI  just days prior, which many had thought was “The Big One” they were waiting for.  They were ready for that one…

They had no idea what was coming.

The weather pattern on that day created contrasting fronts which produced winds up to 100 MPH, pushing the many smaller fires in the area into 1 gigantic fire centered over Peshtigo. It was, literally, a fire tornado.

Mass Grave of the Peshtigo Fire Victims

Mass Grave of the Peshtigo Fire Victims

Peshtigo burned in 90 minutes.

No buildings survived.

800 residents of Peshtigo were dead, along with hundreds more in the surrounding areas and across the bay in the Door County Peninsula.

Some were burned alive.  Some were killed by flying fireballs and debris.  Some were killed by simply breathing in the air which was so hot they spontaneously combusted.

The reason the number dead will never truly be known is that many of the dead didn’t have bodies left to identify.

Those who survived the fire did so by staying in the river that cut through the town for 12 hours until the air was safe enough to breathe again.  Many of those then died of hypothermia.

Bodies were still being found well into the next year.

It is still today the worst natural disaster, in regards to number dead, in our nation’s history.

Today, many people believe the spirits of those killed on that day still remain in Peshtigo.  Stories of shadow people and “black figures” crossing the streets are commonplace among locals.

In the fall of 2013, the Midwestern Paranormal Investigative Network (MPIN) conducted a paranormal investigation throughout the city of Peshtigo, just 4 days prior to the fire’s 142nd anniversary.  “Our goal was to examine the possibilities if the energies from that day still exist, if spirits of those effected by that tragedy are still searching for answers, and to let them know that they, even if our history books tell them so, have definitely not been forgotten,”  says Jim Cooper, co-founder and Lead Investigator.  “We were able to collect what we believe is credible evidence that the spirits of many of those lost that day do, indeed, remain there.  We have no doubt.”

As we come upon the 143rd anniversary of one of the most notorious and tragic days in American history, one must wonder if those lost souls of Peshtigo are still calling out for our help.

Scott Wittman is a professional Historical Landscape photographer, writer, researcher, and traveler.  All photos, unless otherwise noted, are copyright Scott Wittman Visual.  More of his work can be seen at

Sorry guys, this page is copyright, 2014. You do not have permission to copy this for any reason. Please learn how to cite your work.


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