150 Years Later, Debate Still Rages Over Cause of Great Chicago Fire

For a century and a half, Chicagoans have argued over the cause of a devastating fire that destroyed the city in 1871 that legend would pin on a woman named Catherine O'Leary and her cow.

Most have heard the story of Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicking over a lantern 150 years ago, igniting the Great Chicago Fire that would reduce much of city to ash and displace a third of its residents. But neither historians nor officials put much stock in that account as the cause of the fire, which is still unconfirmed to this day.

"The family is still mad about how she was treated," Peggy Knight, O'Leary's great-great-granddaughter, told the Associated Press on Thursday ahead of the fire's 150th anniversary. "She did not deserve that."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Great Chicago Fire
For a century and a half, Chicagoans have argued over the cause of a devastating fire that destroyed the city in 1871. This general view shows the Chicago Court house and downtown area in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire. AP did not have photographers at the time of the fire but has since added photos like this one in the public domain to its photo archive. AP Photo/AP Photo

In 1997, the Chicago City Council went so far as exonerating the cow and its owner.

How the immigrant from Ireland came to be blamed is a familiar story: She was a victim of prejudice and circumstance.

The fire started in or near her home and her family's barn. And while it destroyed much of the city, it miraculously spared her own house.

More importantly, O'Leary was easy to blame because of who she was and what she represented.

"Irish immigrants were often considered as the dregs of American society in the 1870s. They were easy targets," said John Russick, senior vice president of the Chicago History Museum. The museum recently put on its website an interactive exhibit in which visitors can maneuver around a painting of the fire to, among other things, follow its path.

"In the mainstream Yankee press, she fit into a whole set of existing prejudices," said Carl Smith, author of Chicago's Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City. "She was poor, an immigrant from Ireland, Catholic and a female."

"The cartoons in the papers made her out to be an Irish drunk," said Knight.

The shabby treatment made life so unbearable that the family moved to the far southern edge of the city, where they lived under the name of Walsh, Knight said.

The blame continued for years, even though the Chicago Fire Department held a hearing within weeks of the blaze in which it concluded the cause could not be determined.

"She was exonerated and the whole thing kept going," Knight said.

It picked up speed when, in the 1890s, someone added lyrics to the song "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" that implicated O'Leary and her cow.

"I call her in my book the fire's most enduring victim," said Smith.

So how did the fire start?

Smith said that may never be known.

Others, including Knight and Richard Bales, author of The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O' Leary's Cow, blame a man named Daniel Sullivan, who was the first to sound the alarm about the blaze.

Knight believes the one-legged horse-cart driver, known by everyone at the time as "Peg Leg" Sullivan, had been drinking when he accidentally dropped his cigar in the barn.

Bales has researched property records and read transcripts of the Chicago Fire Department's hearing in which Sullivan and O'Leary testified. Sullivan said he saw the fire from in front of a neighbor's house, but Bales says photographs and housing tract records show his view would have been blocked.

"I am 100 percent convinced Daniel Sullivan started the fire," he said.

But a mock trial at John Marshall Law School held not long after the City Council's exoneration of O'Leary ended with a jury just as convinced that Sullivan hadn't lied about the events of that night.

It all leads Russick to wonder if the choice of the cow as the culprit has, all along, been the city's way of admitting it doesn't know what happened.

"To some degree, blaming the cow is a way to say it was an accident, that in some ways it was a benign way to say nobody was responsible," Russick said.

Then again, he added, "We don't know it was an accident."

Mrs. O'Leary
Illustration of the Great Chicago Fire: How it started. Did Mrs. O'Leary's cow upset an oil lamp? Undated Illustration/Getty Images