“Late one night, when we were all in bed.
Mrs. O’Leary lit a lantern in her shed.
Her cow kicked it over,
Then winked her eye and said,
‘There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!’ “
– A popular song lyric
Legend has it that Mrs. Catherine O’Leary went out to her barn at about 8:45 p.m. on an unseasonably hot night – October 8, in 1871 to milk her cow. The cow, named “Daisy” kicked Mrs. O’Leary’s lantern which then started to burn Mrs. O’Leary’s barn. And thus began one of the greatest conflagrations in the history of the United States. The facts are that the resulting fire (depicted above by Harpers Weekly artist John R. Chapin) went on until the dawn hours of October 10. While the killed totaled a surprisingly small number (about 250 to 300), in a city of about 335,000, some 90,000 were left homeless, three and a third blocks had been wiped out, and over 200 million dollars in damage had been sustained.
Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow? Well, Maybe….
The fire did start in the vicinity of Mrs. O’Leary’s barn, in Chicago’s teeming West side. In an area filled with wooden homes and barns, Mrs. O’Leary’s barn housed not only the cow, but five of them; she had a business providing milk to the area. It also contained her milk wagon a horse to pull it and a calf. Mr. & Mrs. O’Leary had a brood of five children and they lived in a cottage in front of the barn. The cottage was a double-framed home and the O’Learys lived in the rear portion. The front was occupied by the family of
Patrick Mc Laughlin, who were having a party that night. The real culprit in this story was the very unseasonably high heat at the time, with very little rain relief. The milk for the Mc Laughlin’s Oyster Soup for their party had spoiled, so someone from their home may well have gone to the barn to get fresh milk. Then again, it may have been kids playing poker and smoking cigarettes. Mrs. O’Leary claimed ever after that she had retired early that night, with a sore foot at 8:30. In fact it has never been determined for sure whether Mrs. O’Leary and her cow, or something else actually started the fire. But unfortunately for Mrs. O’Leary, the rumor spread from witnesses to newspaper reporters and was soon all over the city and the country. It may be as the website about the fire maintained by the Chicago Historical Society (listed below in “Sources”) says, the O’Leary “Legend” is simply an easy way of making sense of the whole thing:
“The O’Leary story, true or not, has had such appeal because it offers a clear and specific cause for this enormous and complex event, an imaginative handle by which people can take hold of it. Regardless of the inconclusiveness of the official investigation, at the time of the fire the O’Leary story enabled people to blame someone in particular for what was a matter of collective responsibility and misfortune.”
The Fire Quickly Spreads
Regardless of how the fire started, it quickly spread. It was collective misfortune for everyone that the heat had dried out everything in this wooden town. especially the West Side, mostly inhabited by Bohemian and Irish poor living in tar paper shacks. This section was quickly engulfed. More misfortune that the Chicago Fire Department which was already severely short handed and ill-equipped was also over-worked from fighting
fires in the days right up to Sunday, Oct.8. Here, collective responsibility led to more controversy when the alarm was sent out. Mathias Schafer was the Fire Dept.’s night watchman. Stationed in the Courthouse Tower, his job from his high perch was to scan the city for fires and report them to the night watchman telling him which squad to send. Schafer did see the fire on the west side, and reported it. But he got the location wrong. He quickly realized this and sent the correction to the night watchman, one William Brown. But amazingly, Brown refused to send out the correction because he said, it might confuse the firemen. They would only be a short distance from the correct location; Brown was serenely certain that they would see the fire. Schafer argued with Brown telling him that the squads were being sent to the wrong location. But Brown refused. Thus the firemen who did respond went to the wrong place, when a re-direction of a mere few blocks would have enabled them to snuff out the fire quickly. Instead the blaze quickly spread to the South and North Sides.
Eyewitnesses to Chaos and Destruction
By 11:30 pm, the fire had reached the South Side, and by midnight it reached the Gasworks which exploded. In the wee hours of Monday the ninth it reached the Courthouse. The building was ordered evacuated, with some of the prisoners simply being released to flee for their lives, while the most dangerous were kept under guard. By @ 3:00 a.m. the Courthouse Bell came crashing through the last burning embers of the building and landed to earth with its final toll. Eyewitness Bessie Bradwell, the daughter of Judge James Bradwell was near this scene at the Courthouse:
“On the street it was confusion worse confounded with people crowding you on all sides. It was like a snow storm only the flakes were red instead of white. On one side I was jostled by a man shrieking, “Oh the poor prisoners, they will be burned alive, locked up in their cells.” On the other side I was hit by a burly negro carrying on top of his head a crate of live chickens. Never shall I forget the sight as I looked back on the burning City. On the bridge, a man hurrying along, said “This is the end of Chicago” but with all assurance the thirteen-year-old replied,
“No, no she will rise again.” My coat had been on fire two or three times. People would run up to me and smother the flames with their hands.”
Anna E. (Tyng) Higginson wrote in a letter in November of that very year:
“….no words can give an idea of the horrors of that night. The wind, blowing a hurricane, howling like myriads of evil spirits drove the flames before it with a force & fierceness which could never be described or imagined; it was not flame but a solid wall of fire which was hurled against the buildings & the houses did not burn, they were simply destroyed. The flames would dash themselves against the sides of a solid block, in one instant passing out through the other side & the whole just melted away & disappeared. The courthouse burned in twenty minutes, while that long block of forty houses on LaSalle St. opposite Lincoln Park burned in just seven. The air was full of cinders; pieces of blazing shingles & boards & great strips of tarred felt fell in every direction, now on the roofs of houses yet unburned & then on the
loads of furniture & bedding which people were trying to save & which they were continually obliged to abandon in the street in order to save themselves.”
Writing in 1910, A.S. Chapman recalled the utter chaos which he witnessed as a seven year old when his family attempted to flee the blaze:
“Lincoln avenue was a direct outlet from the city to the open country. How can I describe the flood of stricken humanity which flowed along that street? Without thinking, it was possessed by one thought –on, onward–away from the burning city to the green country beyond. Nobody might stop to rest; he was pressed on by others as tired as himself. Men pulled buggies loaded with all they had on earth; women carried burdens larger than themselves; children pushed baby carriages containing the little saved from their homes. On they went to Fullerton avenue to scatter over the prairie–to drop in their tracks and wait for they knew not what.”
The Fire Dies, But Guess What’s Left Standing…
The fire finally burnt itself out with the help of a cooling rain which came on Monday night and some diminished wind speeds. From its place of origin near the O’Leary property on DeKoven St. on the Weat Side the fire had cut a path of devastation to the city limits at Fullerton Ave. on the North Side, covering over 34 city blocks, and over 2,000 urban acres. As stated earlier, the damage was a cool 200 million, and nearly a full third of the population of Chicago had been left homeless. But not Mrs. O’Leary. The O’Learys and the McLaughlins together had kept their two frame cottage from being consumed by the blaze which took the barn and over 17, 450 buildings. It smoldered for three days after the fire, but it survived. The official commission investigating the fire cleared Mrs. O’Leary and her cow of responsibility for the fire. But because of all the false newspaper reports blaming her, ginned up to sell more papers, she and her family wound up being notorious characters, so they eventually moved from DeKoven Street. Mrs. O’Leary lived on as a recluse until her death in 1895, when she was described as being heart-broken over her undeserved infamy. In 1993 she was officially exonerated of any responsibility for the fire.
But the damned legend lives on to this day.
Top, J.R. Chapin = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chicago-fire1.jpg
Mrs. O’Leary’s cow = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mrs_OLeary%27s_cow.jpg
Map, State & Madison St. = http://blog.chicagohistory.org/index.php/2011/10/welcome-the-rain/
View from the Lake = http://www.instablogs.com/today-in-history-the-great-chicago-fire.html
“Darkest Hours” by Jay Robert Nash, Wallaby Books, New York, 1976
http://www.greatchicagofire.org/ – The website about the Great Fire maintained by the Chicago Historical Society