One hundred and thirty-one years ago today, on November 2, 1882, a catastrophic fire swept the Baltic Sea town of Oulu, Finland. The fire evidently began in the basement of a pharmacy at the corner of Kirkkokatu and Pakkahuoneenkatu streets, then spread to the salt and grain warehouses along the shoreline. At the time, Oulu was a center for the export of salmon and wood tar. A fire brigade was able to control the conflagration, but plenty of damage was done as you can see from the above photo.
This is all I can tell you about the Great Oulu Fire of 1882. I don’t know how many people, if any, were killed in the fire, or what its historical significance is. In fact, while researching this article, I began to smell a rat. Don’t get me wrong–I’m sure the fire really did happen–but there’s something very strange about this event and the way I found out about it. In fact, the Great Oulu Fire of 1882 appears to be more of an Internet meme than a piece of history.
This is not a usual “today in history” article. In fact, this is a journey down a rabbit hole. Let me take you with me on the journey I took today while trying to research the real story behind the Great Oulu Fire of 1882.
Act I: How did I find out about this event?
First things first. You may have noticed that I do a lot of posts about events that occurred “today in history.” (In the keyword cloud to the right of this article, you will see that term looms among the largest and most-often used tags on this site). What I often do to find ideas for articles on this blog is enter a date into Wikipedia’s search function. Try it, if you never have. I often program articles well in advance, but I really did write this article today, November 2, so I typed “November 2” into the search box. It brought up a list of historical occurrences for that date (here is the link). Among them is the mention of this event: “1882 – Oulu, Finland is devastated by the Great Oulu Fire of 1882.”
I was intrigued. I have written about fires on this blog before–the most notable being my 5-part series on the Great Fire of London in 1666. When I clicked on the Wikipedia article (here), I got a very simple write-up on the Great Oulu Fire, conveying exactly the information I gave you in the first paragraph of this article.
Okay. I went searching for more information, so I Googled “Great Oulu Fire” and “1882.” Google brings up 81,000 hits for those search terms. I’m thinking, wow! 81,000 results? This fire must be really pivotal in history with a lot written on it. I’m even more intrigued. But when I begin clicking, I see that almost all of these 81,000 hits are articles that mirror, crib or quote the Wikipedia article. There is simply no more information on the Great Oulu Fire.
There’s something wrong here.
Act II: Oulu burns again. And again. And again.
So now I’m curious as to how Wikipedia knows what happened in Oulu in 1882, and, more importantly, why it thinks it matters.
Back to the Wikipedia article, I looked at the one source quoted: a book called “Oulun kaupungin historia IV” (HIstory of Oulu, Vol. IV) by a fellow named Kustaa Hautala. This book was published in 1976 in Finland and has never been translated into English. It’s very obscure and out of print. Furthermore, I notice the article is part of a category, “History of Oulu.” Clicking on that category, I saw various articles about other “great fires” in Oulu, Finland. In addition to 1882, this unfortunate town seems to have burned down in 1652 and 1916. The sources for these articles is an online book called–get ready for a mouthful–“Paloturvallisuus ja kaupunkipalot Suomen puukaupungeissa – historiasta nykypäivään“ which means “Fire Safety and Urban Fires in Finland’s Capitals from History to Today.”
Okay. This tells me that someone out there, who probably speaks Finnish, wants Wikipedia to have comprehensive coverage of the history of urban fires in Finland. I begin to suspect all these articles can be traced back to a single user.
Act III: Yupik and Disasterpeace.
When I started looking up the various articles on Oulu fires, the same Wikipedia user kept coming up: someone called “Yupik.” Eventually I found a page on him, and here it is. He sounds like an absolutely fascinating fellow. A professional translator, Yupik spends much of his time translating various articles into languages back and forth on Wikipedia, including Finnish. He seems to be the ultimate source of the various Oulu fire disaster articles. He wrote the original article on the Great Oulu Fire of 1882, or at least translated it from Finnish to English Wikipedia, on November 2, 2009–rather a fitting date.
Curious, I brought up Oulu, Finland on Google Earth. This is what it looks like today.
Now firmly down the rabbit hole, I began searching for other mentions on the Internet of Oulu fires, suspecting that it had somehow become a self-referential in-joke. I kept finding references to a song called “The Great Oulu Fire of 2082” by a techno music artist called Disasterpeace. (Here is Disasterpeace’s Twitter). You can hear the song, which is composed in 8-bit electronic format, here. The song is obviously a reference to the Great Oulu Fire of 1882. But why? What does it mean?
Act IV: A sort of stealthy Internet meme?
So now I’m confronted with a strange set of circumstances: here is a historical event which seems to have few details, mentioned in one source, no obvious historical significance, which was imported onto Wikipedia by a single user and then artificially inflated–by inclusion onto the “today in history” page for November 2–into an event of great historical import, alongside various other fires that seem to have occurred in Oulu over the years. The “famousness” of the various Great Oulu Fires do not seem to come from genuine notoriety in the historical record, but from their inclusion on Wikipedia, which by definition makes various historical events significant. In other words, the Great Oulu Fire of 1882 is sort of a stealthy Internet meme–something that gets picked up, propagated, republished, talked about, referenced and re-referenced somewhat virally, by the power of the Internet, like cat videos or simple cartoons.
So what is the real story of the Great Oulu Fire of 1882?
At the end of all this web searching, which took me a couple of hours, I wound up at exactly the same place I started: what is the historical significance of the Great Oulu Fire of 1882? My take: there is none. Oulu burned down on November 2, 1882, and they built it up again, and then it burned again in 1916. That’s it.
Yet now, when anyone searches for “The Great Oulu Fire of 1882,” they will bring up this article, a 1200-word blog on this site, run on the anniversary of the event, which will contribute to the virality of the meme. I mean, if the Great Oulu Fire of 1882 was not historically significant, why would a guy who runs a blog known for talking about history run an unusually lengthy article on it?
I don’t know whether it’s accurate to say I’ve been punk’d–and, in all honesty, I find the phenomenon I encountered today both amusing and interesting–but if I’m ever in Finland, I think I’ll see if Yupik will buy me a beer.