Did a Cow REALLY Start the Great Chicago Fire?

Randolph Street BridgeExcellent question. In one word, NO.

It’s true the fire started in the barn of Catherine and Patrick O’Leary on Sunday, October 8th. They lived at 137 DeKoven St. on Chicago’s West Side. But poor scapegoat Kate was not milking the cows at the time, as was later popularized by the relentless press. She and her husband were instead fast asleep in their bedroom. They were morning laborers you see, up at the crack of dawn to milk their 5 cows and make deliveries. By 8:30 pm, after doing chores, feeding their children and putting them to bed, they were legitimately exhausted.

Some also blamed Daniel “Peg Leg” Sullivan for starting the blaze. He’s the one who first shouted “FIRE! FIRE!” that fateful night. But no, Daniel was simple strolling by the O’Leary place, listening to fiddle music drifting from a neighbor’s house, who were hosting a party. He noticed the first lick of flames shooting out of the barn roof. The loft was packed with 3 tons of hay for the winter and went up like a dry tinder box. Peg Leg Sullivan in fact risked his life to free the terrified animals.A shed next door unfortunately held 2 tons of coal, also stockpiled for winter.

Once it too began to burn, there would be no controlling the blaze with paltry bucket brigades.

In between the tightly packed houses were lines of wooden fences and wooden sidewalks. By the time Patrick and Kate O’Leary emerged from their home, 2 of their neighbors’ houses were already ablaze. Across Chicago, a fierce prairie wind blew from the southwest all night. It would thrust the fire from house to house, and street to street.  The first firehouse steamers would not arrive for OVER AN HOUR!  Even when a dozen more arrived, it was too late to contain it to the rural West Side.  You see, every structure back then was made of wood, including the sidewalks!  The winds freely tossed firebrands clear across the Chicago River to the South Side business district.  Within hours it jumped the river again to the North Side residential area as well. All Chicagoans could do was watch in horror and run away ahead of the wall of flames. 

The great fire burned clear to Lake Michigan before rain finally killed the monster. 

So you see, Kate O’Leary and her cow were merely unfortunate scapegoats. The papers went so far as to publish a now famous sketch of her milking a cow that kicks a lantern into the straw. They drew her as an old, witch-like hag when in fact she was only thirty-five. So who Really started the famous fire that would consume the bustling city?

I spent over a year researching the Great Chicago Fire for my novella, FIREBRANDS. The most likely, though never proven culprit, was someone from the O’Leary’s neighbor next door, stealing milk under the cover of night, whose candle accidentally started the barn’s straw blaze.  After that, it would be a hot time in the ole town tonight.

Click here for more on my Great Chicago Fire novel FIREBRANDS and please SHARE this post.


Filed under Historical Disasters

2 responses to “Did a Cow REALLY Start the Great Chicago Fire?

  1. Hi, I just found you on about.me and I was hooked by your story of the Great Chicago Fire. I’m writing a story set in Chicago too. It is set in the Twenties, but backstory starts in the very early days of Chicago, so I also research the Great Fire, though certainly not as thoroughly as you did. 🙂


    • Thanks, glad you liked Firebrands. I too love the research as much as the writing. Good luck with yours. Please leave a review at whatever source you bought if from. Indie authors need all the reviews we can get.



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