The Great Chicago Fire: Mrs. O'Leary Exonerated?

Late one night

When we were all in bed

Old Mother Leary

Left a lantern in the shed


And when the cow kicked it over,

She winked her eye and said,

"There’ll be a hot time

In the old town, tonight."


Catherine O'Leary was an Irish immigrant living in Chicago.  It was said that an accident involving her cow had started the Great Chicago Fire on 8 October 1871.  Chicago Tribune reporter Michael Ahern published the story that the fire started when a cow kicked over a lantern while a woman was milking it. (Mrs. O'Leary was soon identified, since her barn had been the source). 

On the 40th anniversary of the fire, Michael Ahern stated in the Tribune that he and two cronies made the whole thing up. The O'Learys, he said, lived in the rear part of the cottage, renting the front to a family named McLaughlin, who was hosting a party that evening. He suggested that one of the revelers went out to get milk and ended up starting the fire.  The official report stated "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". Mrs. O’Leary testified both that she never milked the cows in the evening and that she was asleep in bed when the fire started, having gone to bed early complaining of a sore foot, and had no knowledge of what set it off. 

Richard Bales presented enough evidence to convince the Chicago City Council to exonerate O'Leary in 1997, but the Chicago Public Library staff criticized his account in their web page. Bales suggested that the fire started when a neighbor, Daniel "Pegleg" Sullivan, ignited hay in the barn while trying to steal milk.

Among other theories: A meteorite shower, Spontaneous combustion and some boys sneaking a smoke.

Catherine O'Leary died on July 3, 1895.  She spent the rest of her life being blamed for starting the fire. She died heartbroken.

Read more from Richard F Bales

Views: 1162

Tags: America, Chicago, History

Comment by Paul Grajciar on October 8, 2013 at 10:08pm
The prairie is very dry in the late summer and into early Icyober before the Autumn rains come. I lived on a triangular block bordered by Milwaukee, Campbell, and Charleston Avenues. In the center was an open prairie which was called "The Prairie".
My cousin and I were "camping"
there on day in August I thinks. The wild grasses were dry as a bone.
We set up a small fire to cook some beans and it got out of control very quickly. It threatens businesses along Milwaukee Ave. and the fire dept had to come to put it out.
So I can see if an accidental fire was struck in an area that was semi rural with open patches of prairie, how quickly it could spread.
No matter what the cause was it was probably a tinder box at that time of year.


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