Women’s History Month: Mrs. Catherine O’Leary

1871 illustration from Harper's Magazine depicting a shocked Mrs O'Leary seeing her cow kicking over the lantern while she is milking.
1871 illustration from Harper's Magazine depicting a shocked Mrs O'Leary seeing her cow kicking over the lantern while she is milking.

FORT WORTH, Texas, March 18, 2014 — In March, we are all a bit Irish today as St. Patrick’s Day celebrations take place. Unfortunately attitudes towards the Irish were not always so friendly.

The potato famine of 1848 brought millions of Irish immigrants to our shores. Catherine and Patrick O’Leary migrated to America from Ireland looking for a better life.  It is not known if the potato famine is what drove the O’Learys to migrate, but it is known that they resided at 137 De Koven Street on Chicago’s west side.

Many Americans at that time did not want the Irish here. It wasn’t uncommon to see “Irish Need Not Apply” and “No Irish” signs in store windows throughout the US. Many Americans considered them ignorant, drunken, Papist fools.

Like many other groups from across the sea they made easy scapegoats when things went wrong.

There was little rain in Chicago from July through October in 1871. Most structures were made of wood parched from the draught. Poor construction was common in areas with large immigrant populations. Waves of them made inroads to Chicago and lived in simple shacks hastily built in order to house them. Landlords ignored city fire codes. The area was a disaster waiting to happen.

To this day no one knows exactly what or who ignited the fire on October 8, 1871 sparking The Great Chicago Fire. Gossip pointing to Mrs. O’Leary began while the fire still raged through the city. It started around 9:00pm in the O’Leary’s barn. What else would anyone think? It didn’t help that the O’Learys just laid up coal, wood shavings and hay for the winter in that barn and one adjoining it.

Chicago after the fire
Chicago after the fire

High winds carried the fire from structure to structure. Pretty soon the fire made its own wind. When the blaze reached the Chicago River moored boats ignited and became floating infernos. The wind, sailed them across the river and spread the fire to the opposite shore.

The next day reporter Michael Ahern of the Chicago Republican reported that the O’Leary’s cow kicked the lantern over igniting the fire. Word spread as fast as the conflagration itself. In 1893 Ahern admitted he made up the story because it made good copy.

The inferno raged for two days. In the end over 300 people died and more than 17,000 buildings destroyed leaving more than 100,000 people homeless. Three and one-third square miles of the city were charred. Property damage stood at $192,000,000 or $3,692,307,692 by 21st Century standards.

In the end the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners  found Catherine O’Leary not guilty of starting the fire. They are also quoted as saying,

“….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.”

Modern lawyer for the Chicago Title Insurance Company, Richard F. Bales sifted through forensics and the 1,000 page report issued by the Chicago Fire Department when the investigation concluded. He learned that one of the firefighters on the scene said,

“…[at first it] was a nasty fire, but not a particularly bad one, and with the help of two more engines we could have knocked it cold.”

In addition, several improbable circumstances happened all at once to enable the small fire to become a conflagration. In addition to the draught and parched wood buildings there was confusion as to where the fire was exactly located when spotted by the fire department watchman. He also had the wrong fire station alerted. Bales explains on his website Did the Cow Do It? There were also a couple of other suspects that were more likely to have started the inferno than Mrs. O’Leary.

Ron Grossman of the Chicago Tribune wrote an article, The Legend of Mrs. O’Leary on October 11, 2011. In it he names other suspects in the case:

“Daniel “Peg Leg” Sullivan: He was a neighbor who brought suspicion on himself by claiming to be first on the scene. More than one would-be Sherlock Homes noted that a wooden leg would have prevented Sullivan from sprinting the distance from where he said he first saw the conflagration to the O’Leary property.

French sympathizer: The Chicago Times newspaper on Oct. 23, 1871, printed an alleged confession by a self-proclaimed revolutionary who said the fire was his revenge for the suppression of the Paris Commune, a popular uprising earlier that year.

Boys shooting dice: In 1944, Northwestern University claimed a wealthy benefactor, Louis Cohn, asserted the fire was started by an accidentally overturned lantern as he, O’Leary’s son and “other boys were shooting dice in the (barn’s) hayloft.”

The cow: On Dec. 17, 1871, the Tribune offered a tongue-in-cheek theory. The cow was being milked by someone from the party at the tenants’ house and, resenting being an accomplice in that crime, kicked the lantern over on purpose.”

Catherine O'Leary's grave
Catherine O’Leary’s grave

Still yet others say the fires started as a result of a comet breaking up in the atmosphere, its flaming fragments falling to the earth and igniting the fires. Supporters of this theory cite the fact that several other conflagrations occurred the same day as The Great Chicago Fire. One in Wisconsin and several in Michigan.

For the rest of her life poor Mrs. O’Leary lived in seclusion. Some say she only came out of her house to attend daily Mass.

She died, heartbroken on July 3, 1895. Her husband Patrick died earlier year. People harassed and blamed her for the rest of her life in spite of the investigation results. Every October the press hounded her. She even chased away an emissary for P.T. Barnum with a broom.

Peace eluded Mrs. O’Leary in this life, hopefully she’s resting in it now.

On a final note, because of Richard F. Bales’ investigation Catherine O’Leary was formally exonerated of all guilt by the City of Chicago in 1997.



Read more of Claire’s work at Feed the Mind, Nourish the Soul in the Communities Digital News and Greater Fort Worth Writers.

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  • Julia G

    The need to rebuild in the years after the fire made Chicago the perfect playground for architects Daniel Burnham, Adler & Sullivan, and a young Frank Lloyd Wright.
    Chicago is never boring.