From the Left



Still We Ask, What cCaused the Great Chicago Fire? Not a Cow

Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

Congratulations, Chicago. The city is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, although “celebrate” is not the best verb to use.

“Commemorate” is better. After all, the fire killed about 300 people, destroyed more than 3.3 square miles of the city and left more than 100,000 residents homeless.

The city rebuilt and recovered. Still, after all these years, a lingering question remains: Who — or what — caused it?

One thing is certain: Mrs. O’Leary and her cow got a bum rap.

You know the story. As I was taught in grade school, O’Leary was in her barn around 9 p.m., milking her cow, when the cow kicked over a lantern and sparked the inferno.

O’Leary consistently denied this account, saying that she never milked after dark.


But, as a poor Irish immigrant, historians say, she made a convenient scapegoat. Reporters writing the first draft of history, as we do, seized on a supposed irony that the big blaze began in Mrs. O’s barn and decimated Chicago’s downtown, yet somehow spared the O’Learys’ little cottage.

Fortunately in 1997, the City Council let her off the hook. After hearing testimony of historians and Nancy Knight Connolly, the great-great-granddaughter of Mrs. O’Leary, the council officially declared that O’Leary and her cow, Daisy, had been unfairly maligned.

Instead, they decided, fingers of guilt point to Daniel “Peg Leg” Sullivan, who had implicated Mrs. O’Leary. Another man, long deceased, said that he, Mrs. O’Leary’s son, and several other boys were shooting dice in the hayloft when one of the boys accidentally overturned the infamous lantern, setting the barn afire.

Catherine O’Leary and Daisy were exonerated, but the mark against the family remains, illustrating how easily a lie can go around the world and into public folklore — as Mark Twain reportedly said — before the truth can pull its boots on.


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