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Survivor Stories of the Peshtigo Fire

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Family descendant: Kevin Twiest

As with many legendary figures in Northeastern Wisconsin, Big John H. Mulligan has acquired many versions of his life and heroics. Researching state and local histories and several histories of the Great Peshtigo Fire of the night on October 8, 1871, of that time and more recently written, has resulted in the following summary.

John H. Mulligan was born to 1833 Irish immigrants Samuel Mulligan and his wife Isabella Hamilton at Williamsburg, Kings County, New York in 1842, surrounded by a very large number of extended Mulligan Family in that town. He was the second youngest of at least 7 of his parents' surviving children. His mother, Isabella, died shortly after the birth of the youngest, George, and by 1850 he was 8 years old and being raised in a household that included his older married sister, Isabella (Jr.) Mulligan English, her husband John, a niece, a nephew, his father Samuel, 3 brother and 2 more sisters. The men in the family were all laborers.

By 1860 the English family were living alone in Flushing, New York. John was 16 years old and on his own as a farm laborer in East Hampton, New York. Father Samuel Mulligan could not be found and may have passed away. John Mulligan grew into a sizable man who built his considerable muscle and agility as a laborer in areas that included farming, lumbering and railroad building.

Pugilist Match
1860s - 1870s
He was also known to be quick witted, aggressive, and definitely not the man to anger. For recreation and later for added prizefight money, he became a pugilist of some renowned. This was a profession much admired in that time, especially among the traditional working population. It had started out as a "gentleman's sport" and grew on both sides of the Atlantic to include not only official championship barehanded fisticuffs, but numerous traveling matches featuring their own "Champions" battling each other and local challengers.

Over the next few years Big John moved westward. In 1870 he met Jane (Jennie) Laneuville (also Laneville, Leneville) in Manitowoc Rapids, Wisconsin. At the age of 28 he was married in the city of Manitowoc to 21 year old Jennie in a civil ceremony.

Jennie had been born on the family farm in Manitowoc Rapids, Wisconsin on May 16, 1849 to Edward S. Laneuville, a Yamaska, Quebec, Canadian born April 12, 1815, and his wife Jane Johnson, born June 6, 1825 in Lisbon, St. Lawrence County, New York. She was the fifth of twelve children all born to the family on the Manitowoc Rapids farm between 1842 and 1867. The Laneuville family later moved to Verndale, Wadena, Minnesota where Edward died in 1897 and is buried in Green Lawn Cemetery there.

John and Jennie Mulligan were settled in Peshtigo, Oconto County (now Marinette County), Wisconsin in 1871, living in a company boarding house in the village along the river by the same name. Big John was
a lumber camp foreman for Issac Stevenson, a member of the Lumber milling family in Williamsonville. He was getting the men signed up and organizing for going to the woods on winter logging assignments.

 There had been a severe two year drought in the whole region and by the first week in October the residents had endured weeks of choking smoke filled air and numerous small forest and dried marsh wildfires. Even the ship hauling goods on Lake Michigan ran their fog horns day and night to avoid collision. The many isolated homesteaders and woodsmen living
in small clearings surrounded by dense pine and hardwood forests with only miles of footpaths between log buildings, could not escape the suffocating haze.

After dark on the very warm night of Sunday, October 8, 1871, many people in Peshtigo had either retired to their beds for a restless sleep or were sitting on the porches hoping for a cool breeze. Suddenly, the wind grew stronger and became very hot. Startled folks saw a frightful orange glow in the distance which grew quickly into a low roaring sound. The alarm spread through Peshtigo. Panic and chaos mixed with frantic digging to bury family valuables before the fire struck. It came far faster than anyone could have imagined.

Big John told Jennie that they had to make it to the river. They both took off out Hale's boarding house door into the maelstrom of running people and flaming debris. The searing air was moving at tornado speed and Jennie ran as fast as she could, but she was no match for the long muscular strides of her husband, who soon was ahead of her by yards. John realized Jennie had fallen behind and ran back to fetch her. He grabbed her wrist and pulled her along behind him as he ran, but she was still not able to keep up and she fell. Scooping her up in his arms, the ex-boxer ran down the dirt road toward the bridge. Half a mile down the road he crossed the burning span over the river, which collapsed within minutes of their crossing as a large number of people were on it. All the buildings of the village were now aflame. As John carried Jennie down the steep, 30 foot bank, to the mudflats along the river's edge, they were nearly deafened by the thunderous roar of the inferno and blinded by the smoke and lightning it caused. The river water was very low, leaving a wide mud flats along the west bank that normally would have been under water. There, hundred residents and animals tried to save themselves. Many burned to death trying to make it to safety and helping others. There were those who, having been warned by recent traveling preachers of the end of the world, had given up and never tried. Still more succumbed in efforts to save their homes or hide in pit wells and cellars. The cold river waters took the lives of many who outran the fire. By morning, only hot ashes and desolation were left to those who came out to the river.

John and Jennie survived. Jennie busied herself in helping the injured, which included every living being. John went for help, traveling north to Marinette. Issac Stephenson wrote that as he surveyed the damage in Marinette the following morning, he recognized John Mulligan coming toward him through the smoke. Eyes nearly swollen shut, covered by ash and wearing only a burned shirt and trousers, John had found a horse loose and road him bareback with a rope halter the last part of the way. Coughing and hoarse, John tried to explain that the village of Peshtigo was completely destroyed; with nothing left standing, and many bodies of the dead scattered along his way. Help was desperately needed by the many injured who somehow survived, and for identifying and burying the hundreds of dead.

Before 6 in the morning, Stephenson sent John Mulligan directly across the Menominee River bridge to his brothers and other businessmen for assistance and the help began. Both
women and men were involved in the rescue and recovery effort; Mrs. Mulligan and Mrs.Fairchild (the Wisconsin governor's wife) being especially  prominent for their immediate and persisting hard work. Jennie organized distributing food and clothing as it arrived;  in helping people gather together to reconnect with other family members who survived and in arranging transportation for them to emergency hospitals, such as Dunlap Hotel in Marinette and the Place family home, where doctors volunteered their services and there was necessary equipment for treatment.

There were no buildings left in Peshtigo. No one to report the dead and missing to, or to keep records. Many of the dead could never be found or if they were, never identified. Graves could not be dug fast enough for the sudden hundreds of village bodies, and more in the the rural township. Some were buried, unidentified and unmarked, along the roadsides near were they were found, their homes not known.
There was no government recovery group for such events. The first ones reported to collect the dead and make arrangements for their burial were organized by John Mulligan and his wife Jennie.

Marinette Eagle newspaper:
Yesterday, Mulligan, having in his charge a gang of railroad employees, was engaged in gathering together the remains at Peshtigo and in the immediate vicinity, and identified all that was possible to identify, and arranging the charred and blackened corpses for burial. He was assisted by his wife and several men, and his efforts have been noble and heroic. He deserves much credit for the good and efficient service he has rendered.
Reaction and Relief Railroad company foreman Big John Mulligan led a gang of railroad laborers who rounded up the dead, identified them and arranged for their burial the next day. He sent a messenger to nearby Marinette, the first news of the catastrophe to reach the outside world, which returned with a wagonload of supplies that morning. Word did not reach Green Bay, six miles to the south of Peshtigo, and Madison, the state capital, until the morning of Monday the 9th. The first aid was a load of provisions from John Mulligan's railroad camp. Provisions from Marinette arrived about noon, and from Green Bay next day.

Both Jennie and John Mulligan, as almost everyone who experienced it, had lasting injuries from the fire. Life would never be the same. The couple resettled in Menominee, Michigan, just a few miles to the north of Peshtigo. Within weeks after the fire Jennie realized that she was pregnant. On August 8, 1872, little John E. Mulligan was delivered in the city of Menominee, Michigan. The birth was so close in time to the fire that Jennie may have been pregnant at the time.

Wisconsin Vital Records tell us that Jennie Mulligan died May 20, 1875 in Oconto County, Wisconsin. In 1880 widowed John H. Mulligan and his 7 year old son John E. were living in Breitung township, Menominee County, Michigan where John owned a tavern and had a small boarding house. John H. Mulligan died December 3, 1890, in Florence, Wisconsin.  

Son, John E. moved to Minnesota (where his late mother Jennie's family were at the time) in the early 1900s. As a surveyor and forester John E. Mulligan left his legacy in Cook County, Minnesota, by naming lakes after his wife Grace, and his daughters. There is also a scenic county road named the Honeymoon Trail because he brought his bride, Grace, home after the wedding to a ranger cabin out in the middle of the Superior National Forest.

Mulligan Tree

Mulligan, Samuel
    b: about 1810 in Ireland
    immigrated: 1833
    occupation: laborer   
    d: probably between 1850 and 1860 in New York
+ Mulligan, Isabella nee Hamilton
wife of Samuel
in Ireland
    immigrated: 1833
    marriage: in Ireland
    d: in New York between 1846 and 1850   
    children of Samuel and Isabelle:
        1. Mulligan, Isabella
b: 1826 in Ireland
English, John b: 1825 in Ireland
                 Children of Isabelle and John:  Margaret English - 1844 in NY, Thomas English, 1846 in NY
        2. Mulligan, James b:1833 in Ireland 
        3. Mulligan, Alexander
b: 1832 in Ireland
        4. Mulligan, Sarah
b: 1834 in New York
        5. Mulligan, Eliza  
b:1836 in New York
        6. Mulligan, John H.
 b: 1842 in Williamsburg, New York
        7. Mulligan, George
in Williamsburg, New York
John H Mulligan
    b: 1842 Williamsburg, New York, USA     
    d: December 3, 1890 Florence, Wisconsin, USA
+ Jane Lenerville/Laneuville

    b: May 16, 1849  in Manitowoc Rapids, Manitowoc, Wisconsin, USA
    d: May
20, 1875 in Oconto, Oconto, Wisconsin, USA      
Marriage: Sept
12, 1870 in Manitowoc, Manitowoc Cty, Civil Service Wisconsin
        Child of John H. and Jennie:
        1. John E Mulligan  
b: Aug
8, 1872 in Menominee, Menominee, Michigan d: Aug 3, 1956 in Grand Marais, Cook, Minnesota

Laneuville Tree

1. Laneuville, Francois
    b: Apr 30, 1787 in St. Michel d'Yamaska, Quebec,
 + Marguerite Verville Couturier - wife of Francoisd
    b: Apr 11, 1797 in St-Pierre de Sorel, Richelieu, Quebec
    Child of Francois and Marguerite:
        Francis (Frank) Laneuville
            b: May
22, 1846 Manitowoc Rapids, Manitowoc, Wisconsin, USA     
            d:   Aug
31, 1919 Menominee, Wi
        + Jane Johnson
b: June 6, 1825 in Lisbon, St. Lawrence Cty., New York
                Children of Frank and  Jane:
                    George Laneuville b: Dec. 8, 1842 in Manitowoc Rapids, Manitowoc Cty, WI 
                    John   Laneuville
b: July 20, 1844 in Manitowoc Rapids, Manitowoc, Wisconsin
                    Francis' Frank'  Laneuville
b: May 22, 1846 in Manitowoc Rapids, Manitowoc Cty, Wisconsin  
                    Maria   Laneuville
b: May 30, 1847 in Manitowoc Rapids, Manitowoc, Wisconsin  
                    Jane 'Jennie'  Laneuville
b: May 16, 1849 in Manitowoc Rapids, Manitowoc Cty, WI  
                    Elizabeth Ruth 'Lizzie'  Laneuville
b: Nov. 17, 1851 in Manitowoc Rapids, Manitowoc, Wisconsin  
                    Amelia Aurelia Elizabeth  Laneuville
b: Feb. 20, 1853 in Manitowoc Rapids, Manitowoc, Wisconsin 
                    Edward L.  Laneuville
b: Sept 18, 1856 in Manitowoc Rapids, Manitowoc Cty, WI  
                    Albert Laneuville
b: Sept 11, 1858 in Manitowoc Rapids, Manitowoc, Wisconsin
                    George  Laneuville
b: Dec. 24, 1861 in Manitowoc Rapids, Manitowoc, Wisconsin  
                    Robert J.   Laneuville
b: Feb 9, 1864 in Manitowoc Rapids, Manitowoc, Wisconsin  
                    Lowa Myrtle  Laneuville
b: April 14, 1867 in Manitowoc Rapids, Wisconsin


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