Don’t Butcher the Scapecow

By Tara Beecham Premium

You can stop blaming Mrs. O’Leary and her cow for the Great Chicago Fire, which burned residents’ pre-1871 viral records along with a third of the city.

Irish immigrant Catherine O’Leary did run a dairy business from the barn where the blaze began, behind her home at 137 DeKoven St. Richard F. Bales, author of The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow (McFarland & Co.) says the Oct. 9, 1871, Chicago Evening Journal first reported the spark as “a cow kicking over a lamp in a stable in which a woman was milking.”

O’Leary claimed she was in bed at the time, but the press spread the tale. The Chicago Times even suggested she intentionally set the fire because her public aid was cut off. An inquest exonerated her, and years later, reporter Michael Ahern recanted, declaring the real culprits were a couple of neighborhood party guests getting milk for punch.

Others disagree. Journalist Anthony DeBartolo says Louis M. Cohn and an O’Leary son were shooting dice with other boys in the hayloft when one bumped a lantern. Supposedly Cohn fessed up to friends and in a postscript to his 1942 will. But Bales points to Daniel “Peg Leg” Sullivan. After examining property records, he concluded Sullivan lied when testifying he saw flames from down the street and ran to free the animals in the barn.

Ironically, a shift in winds saved the O’Leary house. Public opinion was less kind. In 1997, more than a century after Mrs. O’Leary died a recluse, Chicago’s city council officially absolved her of wrongdoing.

From the March 2008 issue of Family Tree Magazine.