Milking A Tall Tale: Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow and the Great Chicago Fire

I feel sorry for Mrs. O’Leary’s much-maligned cow. For 136 years, she’s been blamed for the Great Chicago Fire, despite Alderman Burke’s 1997 resolution to clear the Irish lass and her bovine of any wrongdoing. She certainly wasn’t responsible for the extent of the damage. The fire actually did start in the poor woman’s barn on this day in 1871. But there are many, many reasons it just wasn’t her, or her cow’s, fault. In fact, Michael Ahern of the Chicago Republican admitted (over a decade later) that he just made it up.

(Side note: For some reason we didn’t learn this story in my Ethics in Journalism class. It would have been a perfect anecdote to illustrate the power the press wields and the responsibilities associated with it.)

That admission gets lost in the ditties and rhymes the legend has spawned. What also gets lost are the many contributing factors to the city’s destruction. First of all, there was a fire the night before, just a few blocks from the O’Leary’s. The city’s fire department was already strapped for men and equipment, and after fighting that blaze they were both worn out. Then there was the alarm system. Watchmen kept an eye out for fires and then gave the location to a telegraph operator, who would send a signal to the alarm box closest to the fire. On this particular night, the watchman at first thought the glow was left over from the night before. Once he realized there was a new blaze he told the operator which box to strike – the wrong box. He tried to correct his mistake immediately, but the operator refused to redirect the firefighters! He thought they’d pass the fire on the way to the incorrect address and he didn’t want to confuse them.

By the time Chicago Engine No. 5 got to the O’Leary barn, it was a nasty fire but it probably could have been stopped. Except that Engine No. 5 broke down, and by the time it was repaired and others arrived the flames had already crossed over Taylor Street and headed northeast. Add shoddy construction to the human and equipment failures and the city was a bonfire waiting to ignite. After it consumed the water works just north of the river all efforts to contain it ceased. There just wasn’t anything they could do. It raged over 2000 acres until dying out on October 10. In its wake five buildings were left standing, including the famous Water Tower. Ironically, the O’Leary home itself was spared until 1956, when the Chicago Fire Academy erected a training facility on the site.

How the fire actually started is still up for debate. Some believe Daniel “Peg Leg” Sullivan was feeding his mother’s cow, stabled with the O’Leary’s, and dropped an ember from his pipe or a lantern. Another theory is that a comet set the Great Chicago Fire as well as three simultaneous fires in the region. Most recently Louis M. Cohn’s name’s been thrown into the frying pan, for confessing in his will that he knocked over a lantern while playing craps in the O’Leary barn. Entertaining as it may be, it’s time to let the story of poor Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kick the bucket.






Leave a Reply