in October 1871, when the Great Chicago Fire laid waste a large portion of the city and destroyed
all of the official Cook County real estate records stored in the office of the county recorder,
there were three abstract firms in business - Chase Brothers and Co.; Shortall and Hoard; and
Jones and Sellers.
When the fire spread into the present Loop district and consumed the public buildings and records,
three companies - Shortall and Hoard, Jones and Sellers and Chase Brothers and Co. - had snatched
their records from the inferno. Soon they were housed together in the untouched western outskirts
of the city.
Less than three weeks after the conflagration, the Chicago Times made the following editorial
"There has been absolute destruction of all legal evidence of titles to property in Cook
County. The annoyance, calamity and actual distress that will arise from this misfortune are not
yet properly appreciated. Something equal to the necessities of the case must be done quickly.
"We have in Chicago three firms - Shortall and Hoard, Jones and Sellers and Chase
Brothers and Co. - who have saved nearly all of their papers, including the indices to every
piece of property in Cook County, and actual abstracts to a large proportion of this property.
We have one firm - J.H. Rees and Co. - who has saved copies of all the maps and all the plats
ever made of Cook County property.
"Nobody has hesitated, heretofore, to accept their copies of the records as official -
why should not some equitable plan be provided now, by which these copies, carefully compared
and compiled, should become official?"
Burnt Records Act
Eventually, this consolidation took place under the somewhat expanded title of Chase Brothers,
Jones, Sellers, Shortall and Hoard. In April 1872, the Burnt Records Act was passed by the
Illinois Legislature, and the existing abstract records of the three companies were made
admissible as evidence in all courts of record. These were part of the framework on which
Chicagoans began to rebuild a greater Chicago.
The combined books were moved to a store building on the north side of Lake Street between
Peoria and Green streets. After a time, the old firm turned the business and a lease of its
books over to the newly organized firm of Handy, Simmons, Smith and Stocker. This firm became
Handy, Simmons and Co., and this was followed by Handy and Co., under which the business was
continued until 1887.
The title abstract business in Chicago was forever altered by the Great Fire of Oct. 8-9, 1871. The dramatic rescue of title books from doomed abstract businesses proved a greater public good when all official land records were lost. John G. Shortall, who forced a passing wagon driver at gunpoint to load his records, would thereafter be remembered for more than the arrangement of legal conveyances.