October 8, 1871: The Cow was Framed!

It was a dark tinder-dry Sunday night in Chicago,  having  seen no rain for many weeks. A brisk southwest wind was blowing.

olearys_cowThere was this cow in the barn at 137 DeKoven (later renumbered to 558 DeKoven). She was blamed for starting the Great Chicago Fire.




The Chicago Evening Journal reported that the fire began about 9 PM when the cow allegedly kicked over her lantern as she was milking. The conflagration, some 3.3 square miles,  catapulted across the Chicago river, first east into the business district, then north to almost Fullerton Avenue,  killing some 300 souls. city-cem-firetumblr_mblv0cXg6n1rodbnso1_1280Many others survived by fleeing into City Cemetery in Lincoln Park. 17,451 buildings lost, 90,000 lost their homes including my great grandfather Albert Gustav Fleig. His burned on Monday at 37 Hein, renamed and renumbered to 430 Goethe.

.But Patrick O’Leary’s wife,  Catherine Donegan (1827-1895) claimed that she and the cow had absolutely nothing to do with any of this.  oct 8 1933We don’t know the name of the cow,  one of her five whose milk was sold in the immigrant neighborhood. Accounts vary between Madeline, Daisy and Gwendolyn. We are told that the cow might have been owned by Daniel “Pegleg” Sullivan’s mother.

So what really caused the great Chicago Fire?

Was it the cow, Cate, Pegleg’s smoking pipe, a dropped a match in hay or wood shavings  or something else? ae49c224-f148-4ee4-8971-200fc842f63bMrs. O’Leary said she was in bed at the time nursing a sore foot. Her children were in bed about 8 PM, Patrick about 8:30 PM . Catherine later testified to the the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners that “I always milked my cows by daylight.” 2932_112314481065Official investigations speculated that could have been a spark from a chimney.  Daniel “Pegleg” Sullivan, the neighbor and cart driver, testified  that he had spotted the flames while smoking his pipe outside, that Mrs. O’Leary had been in her home,  that he saw the fire and sounded the alarm. Sullivan, who also testified that he went to the O’Leary barn every evening to feed the cow that his mother kept there. Sullivan claimed he passed the O’Leary house and claimed that no  lights were on in the house. He said he ran to the barn, saved one calf in the barn occupied also by five cows a wagon and a horse.

kin oct 8 1933The first instance of the cow being fingered supposedly appeared in a story by Michael Ahern in the Chicago Republican. In a 1921 article in the Chicago Tribune, Ahern later admitted to concocting the cow story. John Kelly, another reporter, reportedly told Catherine O’Leary’s grandson he made up the cow story and filed it under Ahern’s name.

Or how about you and I start a wild conspiracy theory of our own? Let’s imagine the hapless cow had been out on the town, drinking a bit too much beer at the rowdy “Bovine” singles bar on Halsted, where she was looking for some much needed male companionship. In the wee hours, she staggered back alone to her barn (on all fours of course) and accidently kicked over an electric space heater.

Well,  whatever really happened, the cow is no longer with us. Patrick and Catherine O’Leary sold their cottage on DeKoven Street in 1879 and moved many times, eventually settling in at 5133 S. Halsted Street. Catherine led the rest of her life as a recluse, shooing off reporters every October.jul 6 funeral Her husband Patrick died September 15, 1894 and Catherine Donegan O’Leary died on July 3, 1895 of acute pneumonia, at her home on Halsted, and was then buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery.

She left behind three children, one of which was James Patrick O’Leary born about 1869, who went on to run a well-known Chicago saloon and gambling hall. “Big Jim” married Annie McLaughlin, whose family lived next to the O’Learys at the time of the fire. They had  two sons and three daughters . James died January 21 1925 and is buried with his parents and wife in Mt Olivet. The last surviving child of Catherine and Patrick was Catherine T. “Katie” O’Leary born 1867 and died December 25, 1936.

movieAlice Brady won an Oscar for her portrayal of O’Leary in the 1938 movie ”In Old Chicago,” starred Tyrone Power and Don Ameche.  In 1997 City of Chicago Alderman Edward Burke,  in his infinite wisdom,  officially exonerated Mrs. O’Leary and the cow of any wrongdoing.


And so it goes.

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