The Great Chicago Fire

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Everyone knows that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern and started the fire that destroyed a large portion of Chicago, Illinois. It even became a nursery rhyme:

Late one night, when we were all in bed,
Mrs. O’Leary lit a lantern in the shed.
Her cow kicked it over,
Then winked her eye and said,
“There’ll be a hot time in the
old town tonight!”

Well, as is becoming a common theme, the true story is more complex.

The summer of 1871 had been a hot one and a drought plagued the city. It was still dry coming into the fall months. Chicago at that time was a city of wood buildings with tar shingle roofs. Even the streets and sidewalks were made of wood. The “Windy City” was living up to its nickname, and a brisk southwest wind was blowing the evening of October 8, 1871. The city was a tinder box waiting to go up.

Around 9pm, a fire was spotted at the barn behind 137 DeKoven Street. This barn belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Patrick O’Leary, and housed many animals. Some belonged to neighbors, and some of them were cows used for Mrs. O’Leary’s milking business. The fire spread and due to an error by a watchman, fire fighters were sent to the wrong place. The fire grew unchecked and by the time fire fighters got to it, it was raging towards the heart of the city. The heat was so intense fireman Charles Anderson could only put water on the flames with a hose when protected behind a door. The fire’s ferocity melted the hat on his head.

The fierce fire took three days to put out and was described by Fire Marshall Robert A. Williams as a “hurricane of fire and cinders.” When it was all over, the fire burned roughly 3.3 square miles and killed 300 people. 100,000 more were left homeless. Property loss was estimated at $200 million. As the ashes settled, people demanded to know how such a thing could have happened.

Newspapers pointed the finger of blame at Mrs. Catherine O’Leary. The Chicago Evening Journal reported the fire began when the cow kicked over her lantern as she was milking. The Chicago Tribune picked up the story and embroidered it describing Mrs. O’Leary as “[an] old hag [who] swore she would be revenged on a city that would deny her a bit of wood or a pound of bacon.” People eagerly believed this story as prejudice against Irish immigrants ran rampant.

Mrs. O’Leary stoutly denied thus saying she never milked at night and was in bed nursing a sore foot. Her alibi was corroborated by Daniel “Pegleg” Sullivan, who testified at the official inquiry by the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners Mrs. O’Leary had been in her home when he raised the alarm about the fire. Sullivan had spotted the flames while smoking his pipe outside. The inquiry officially ruled although the fire started in the barn, they could not determine the cause. “Whether it originated from a spark blown from a chimney on that windy night or was set on fire by human agency, we are unable to determine.”

Despite this decision, Mrs. O’Leary was never quite free of suspicion. She lived out the rest of her days as a recluse, and only left her home to go to Mass on Sunday. However, she could not escape her infamy as reporters hounded her for quotes every October. P.T. Barnum even offered her a place in his circus and she chased him off with a broom. Catherine O’Leary died in 1895. The death certificate said “acute pneumonia”. Those who knew her said she died of a broken heart.

The blame unofficially remained at Mrs. O’Leary’s feet until 1997. Richard Bales became fascinated with the fire after studying it in college. He began researching it in earnest and using the only surviving land records of the neighborhood, he made some disvoveries. He published an article and later a book, The Great Chicago Fire And the Myth of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow, on his findings.

Bales found the first instance of the cow story appeared in a story by Richard Ahern in the Chicago Republican. In a 1921 article in the Chicago Tribune, Ahern admitted to concocting the cow story with two colleague to give the story more pizzazz. This brought forth a story from John Kelly, another reporter, who told Catherine O’Leary’s grandson he made up the cow story and filed it under Ahern’s name. Kelly said Ahern was too drunk to file anything. Yet another source said the Chicago Daily Journal got the cow story from neighborhood children and never checked it. So no matter how you slice it, the cow story was made of whole cloth.

Bales also found that as well as the barn being full of animals, some of which belonged to the O’Learys, there was a brand new wagon outside. None of the animals, the wagon or the barn had been insured. Common sense says if Catherine O’Leary had accidentally set the fire, she would have immediately called for help to save her property. Why would she go back in the house only to come back out to be seen by Daniel “ Pegleg” Sullivan?

Most tellingly, Bales found that Sullivan could not have seen the fire from where he said he had been smoking because of the placement of the buildings. Sullivan also claimed in testimony he ran to the barn from where he was smoking, escaped the barn before it was incinerated and the ran to sound the alarm. From the land records, Bales found this would have been a distance of about half the length of a football field. The man’s nickname was pegleg. He wasn’t moving very fast. With the speed of the fire and the distances involved, Bales believes this would have been impossible.

Bales theorizes Sullivan must have been in or around the barn that night. His mother owned a cow kept in the O’Leary’s barn. He could have been feeding it and had an accident or he could have been smoking and been careless with matches. We will never know for sure.

However, Bales evidence was enough for the Chicago City Council. In 1997, they passed an ordinance exonerating Mrs. O’Leary and her cow.

And that, dear reader, is justice served.

ER