These Are the Worst Tragedies in Illinois History, According to a Poll by the Lincoln Library

Abraham Lincoln’s death, the Great Chicago Fire and the deadliest tornado in American history top the list of Illinois’ most heartbreaking moments, according to voters in the Illinois Top 200 project.

Residents of Illinois have voted in a poll of natural disasters, horrifying accidents and bursts of violence, according to results from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum released earlier this week.

“It’s fitting that President Lincoln’s death leads this list. His loss was heartbreaking in so many ways,” said Dr. Samuel Wheeler, the Illinois state historian. “America lost a leader at a critical moment, the people of Illinois lost a favorite son, and his family lost a husband and father.”

The Illinois Top 200 project lets Illinoisans vote every two weeks on the most inspiring leaders, greatest inventions, top businesses and much more, a press release from the museum said. By the state’s 200th birthday on Dec. 3, voters will have chosen 10 favorites in 20 different categories – the Illinois Top 200.

Here are the 10 most heartbreaking moments chosen in online voting:

  • 1. Lincoln Shot – Yes, it took place in Washington and was a national tragedy, but the 1865 murder of Abraham Lincoln hit especially hard in his home state. Some 75,000 people visited the Old State Capitol to see Lincoln’s body during the 24 hours it lay in state in Springfield.
  • 2. Chicago Fire – On October 8, 1871, fire broke out in a barn southwest of Chicago’s Loop. It spread rapidly, killing about 300 people and leaving one-third of the city’s population homeless. The city soon adopted better fire codes, rebuilt and entered a period of tremendous growth.
  • 3. Tri-State Tornado – The deadliest tornado in U.S. history hit southeast Missouri, southern Illinois and southern Indiana on March 18, 1925. At least 695 people were killed, more than 600 of them in Illinois. Murphysboro suffered 234 deaths, and two Illinois towns were essentially wiped off the map.
  • 4. 1993 Flood – The Mississippi and Missouri rivers rose to unprecedented levels in the spring of 1993 and stayed there for months. Flooding lasted 195 days at Grafton and 152 days at Quincy. Afterward, the entire town of Valmeyer was rebuilt on higher ground.
  • 5. Death in the Mines – Illinois suffered three of the worst mining disasters in U.S. history. The deadliest occurred in Cherry in 1909, when a fire killed 259 men and boys. In 1947, an explosion killed 111 people near Centralia. Four years later, a West Frankfort mine was rocked by an explosion that killed 119 miners.
  • 6. Chicago riots – Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination shocked America and triggered multiple riots. Chicago saw some of the worst violence. More than 48 hours of rioting left 11 people dead, 48 wounded by police gunfire and 90 police officers injured.
  • 7. Eastland Disaster – On July 24, 1915, people crowded aboard the excursion boat S.S. Eastland, docked in the Chicago River. The unstable ship rolled over onto her side, throwing people against bulkheads, pilling them atop one another and trapping them underwater. The disaster killed 844 people.
  • 8. Effingham Hospital Fire – Fire engulfed the 100-bed St. Anthony’s Hospital on April 4, 1949. A total of 74 people died, including 11 infants and the nuns who stayed with them. Investigators found many safety deficiencies in the hospital, which inspired new regulations to prevent similar tragedies.
  • 9. Decade of Racial Violence – In 1908, white mobs attacked Springfield’s black residents, burning their homes, beating them and killing some. The scene repeated itself on a larger scale nine years later in East St. Louis and then again in Chicago in 1919. The Springfield riot helped spur creation of the NAACP.
  • 10. Tylenol Murders – Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide killed seven people in the Chicago area in 1982, prompting new safety measures for over-the-counter medicines. The killer was never found.

Voting in the next category, top musicians, is underway at The nominees include Muddy Waters, Alison Krauss, Nat King Cole, Smashing Pumpkins and Sir Georg Solti.

Nominated events that did not make the top 10 include a 1903 theater fire that killed at least 600, multiple incidents of labor violence at Illinois coal mines and massive flooding along the Ohio River in 1937.

The Illinois Top 200 is a joint initiative of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, The Springfield State Journal-Register and the Illinois Bicentennial Commission.

Future categories include actors, leaders and unforgettable moments. Everyone is invited to suggest possible nominees in each category by using the hashtag #ILtop200 on social media.

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