Did Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow REALLY Start the Great Chicago Fire?

Randolph Street BridgeExcellent question. In a word, NO.

It’s true the infamous fire started in the barn of Catherine and Patrick O’Leary on Sunday night, October 8th, 1871.  They lived at 137 DeKoven Street on Chicago’s West Side. But poor scapegoated Kate was not milking the cows at the time, as was later popularized by the relentless press looking for someone to blame.  She and her husband were instead fast asleep in their bedroom after a long day. They were morning laborers you see, up at the crack of dawn to milk their 5 cows and make deliveries to their neighbors. By 8:30 pm, after doing chores, feeding both their animals and 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 first to shout “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 bone-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 by a neighbor for winter.

Once the barn and shed began to burn, there would be no controlling the blaze with paltry bucket brigades.

Across Chicago, a fierce prairie wind blew from the southwest all night.  In between the tightly packed houses were lines of wooden fences and wooden sidewalks. By the time Patrick and Kate O’Leary emerged sleepily from their home, 2 of their neighbors’ houses were already ablaze. Chicago had been experiencing a hot drought that fall.  The winds would eagerly thrust the fire from house to house, and street to street all night long. 

Due to confusion that night, 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 back then, every structure, including the sidewalks, was made of wood, not brick or stone.  The winds freely tossed firebrands the size of bulls clear across the dark Chicago River to the South Side business district.  There the inferno consumed hotels, banks and even City Hall.

Within hours, it jumped the river again to the North Side residential area as well. All Chicagoans could do was watch in horror and dash away in panic ahead of the wall of flames.  Even ships in docked in the river and bridges that crossed it burned.

The Great Chicago Fire burned clear to Lake Michigan before rain finally extinguished the monster. 

What was left resembled Hiroshima after the atomic bomb.  So you see, Kate O’Leary and her cow were merely unfortunate scapegoats. The papers went so far as to publish a now infamous 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 with several young children.  She and her family eventually had to flee the city due to death threats.

So who Really started the famous fire that consumed a bustling American city? I spent 2 years researching the Great Chicago Fire for my novella, FIREBRANDS. The most likely, though never proven culprit, was one of the O’Leary’s neighbors, stealing milk under the cover of night, whose candle accidentally tipped over, started the barn’s straw blaze.  After that, it would indeed be a “hot time in the ole town tonight!

Click here for more on my Great Chicago Fire novel FIREBRANDS.  If you enjoyed this Blog Post please click a SHARE option below!

Similar themed posts: The 1889 Johnstown Pennsylvania Flood



Filed under Historical Disasters

2 responses to “Did Mrs. O’Leary’s 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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