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Did a Cow Really Cause the Great Chicago Fire?

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1871 illustration from Harper's Magazine. Wikimedia Commons

Around 9 pm on Sunday, October 8, 1871, a fire started in a barn in the alley behind 137 DeKoven Street in Chicago. Two days later the blaze died out, after burning nearly three and a third square miles of the city. The Great Chicago Fire killed 300 people, left some 100,000 homeless, and destroyed $200 million worth of property.

In all of American, and even world, history, no bovine is more infamous than a cow, belonging to Patrick and Catharine O’Leary, that was accused of starting what Fire Marshall Robert A. Williams called a "hurricane of fire and cinders.” Even as the fire cut a swath through the city, neighbors and newspaper reporters quickly placed the blame on the O’Learys and their cow. In the early hours of October 9, newspapers first reported that the blaze started when the cow, as Catharine milked it, kicked over a kerosene lantern.

After the fire was put out, the story evolved and more blame fell on the O’Learys. Some papers reported that Mrs. O'Leary had been on welfare, and that when city officials discovered that she’d been selling her cows’ milk on the side, they cut her off. The fire, it was implied, was an act of revenge.

Other newspapers maintained that the fire was an accident, and that a lantern had simply been knocked over, either by the cow or by Mrs. O’Leary.

That November, the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners started an inquiry into the cause of, and response to, the fire. In interviews with the board, Mrs. O’Leary testified both that she never milked the cows in the evening and that she was asleep in bed when the fire started, having gone to bed early complaining of a sore foot. Daniel "Pegleg" Sullivan, a neighbor who was the first person to raise the alarm about the fire, also testified and confirmed Catharine’s alibi. After two months and 1100 pages of handwritten testimony, the board members couldn’t say much about the origin of the fire, except that it started in the barn. “Whether it originated from a spark blown from a chimney on that windy night or was set on fire by human agency,” they said, “we are unable to determine."

Despite the board’s conclusions, or lack thereof, the damage to Catharine O’Leary and her cow were done. The story of the cow and the lantern circulated quickly and widely and took hold in the public imagination and the history books. Mrs. O'Leary lived out the rest of her life as a virtual recluse, reportedly only leaving her home to attend mass. Every October, reporters came to her looking for a quote for their fire anniversary stories and she shooed them away, invoking the name of her son James, who grew up to be a gambling boss known as “Big Jim” O'Leary. "I know bad people,” she’d say, as she showed the men the door. She died in 1895. Her obituary and death certificate listed the cause as acute pneumonia, but neighbors and friends said the real cause was a “broken heart” from the unfounded blame she received.

Tall Tales

A century after her death, Catharine and her cow were cleared of any wrongdoing, and another suspect was discovered. Richard Bales, an Assistant Regional Counsel with the Chicago Title Insurance Company, became interested in the fire when he wrote a paper about it for a college course. His company maintains the only set of land records that survived the blaze of 1871, and he used them to dig further into the legend of the O’Learys’ cow and the cause of the fire. In 1997, he published an article, and later a book, on his research.

One thing he found was that the fire probably wasn’t intentionally set. The O’Learys' barn was full of animals, some of them belonging to neighbors and some used for Catharine’s milk business. There were five cows, a calf, and a horse. There was also a new wagon nearby in the alley, and none of the property or real estate was insured. “Had [Catharine] been in the barn when the fire broke out, it seems unlikely that she would have run back into her home and allowed her property to both literally and figuratively go up in smoke,” Bales wrote. “Instead, she would have cried for help and attempted to extinguish what was then just a minor barn fire and save the building and its contents.”

The cow also appears to be blameless, and several reporters came forward decades after the fire to admit that the story of the cow kicking the lantern was a fabrication, or at least came from unreliable sources. Reporter Michael Ahern, who was working for the Chicago Republican at the time of the fire, admitted in a 1921 column in the Chicago Tribune that he and two colleagues made the cow story up to add some color to their copy. After that, another reporter, John Kelley, wrote to the O’Learys' grandson saying that he was the one that wrote the first instance of the cow story under Ahern's byline, since his colleague’s drinking habit prevented him from writing and filing the story.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Daily Journal explained that on the night of the fire, one of their reporters had gone to the O’Learys' neighborhood and heard the cow story from some neighbors there, and the paper ran with it without looking into it further. Recollections of the fire published by one of the O’Learys’ neighbors say that the story started with some neighborhood kids who hadn’t been in the barn or near it, but spent the night telling anyone who would listen about a cow kicking a lantern anyway.

The Real Culprit

The most significant thing Bales found in his research was reason to suspect that the fire was started by "Peg Leg" Sullivan, the man who first noticed it. When he testified before the investigative board, Sullivan said that he visited the O’Leary house around 8 pm and found Catharine in bed and Patrick ready to join her. He headed home, but then kept going past his house and stopped in front of a neighbor’s house to smoke a pipe. He looked up and saw fire coming from the O’Learys' barn and ran into it to try to extinguish the flames and free the animals before seeking help.

After mapping out the various homes and properties, Bales doubts Sullivan’s version of the events. First, the buildings were arranged in such a way that, from where he stood to smoke his pipe, Sullivan would not have been able to see the barn because another home would have blocked his view. What’s more, as one might guess from his nickname, Sullivan had a wooden leg, and couldn’t move very fast. Yet he claimed that he ran from his smoking spot to the barn—a distance about half the length of a football field—and escaped the barn before the fire consumed it, then ran to alert the O’Learys and the authorities. Given his condition, the distances involved, and the speed with which the fire spread, Bales argues, Sullivan could not have done what he claimed to without being injured by the fire.

There’s also the matter of why Sullivan walked past his own house to smoke his pipe in front of his neighbor’s house. Bales thinks that was part of an alibi. Claiming to smoke his pipe where he did put him outside and close enough to the barn that he could claim to have seen the fire, but out of view of his neighbors, the McLaughlins, who were having a party that night and would have been able to see him if he was standing in front of his own house.

Bales argues that Sullivan was in or around the barn that night—his mother kept one of her cows there and he may have gone to feed it—and, by accident with a careless flick of a match or a stray ember from his pipe or by bumping a lantern, started the fire. When he realized he couldn’t put the fire out on his own, he ran for help and came up with a cover story to escape blame.

In 1997, convinced by Bales' argument and evidence, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance exonerating Mrs. O'Leary and her cow.

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Big Questions
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Who Was Heisman and Why Does He Have a Trophy?
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On Saturday night, one of three finalists will be named this year's Heisman Trophy winner. But before anyone brings home the hardware, let’s answer a few questions about John Heisman and his famous award.

Who Exactly Was John Heisman?

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His name is mostly associated with the trophy now, but Heisman (right) was a player, coach, and hugely successful innovator in the early days of football. After playing for Brown and then Penn as a collegian from 1887 to 1891, Heisman became a coach at a series of schools that included Oberlin, Buchtel, Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and, most notably, Georgia Tech.

For What Football Innovations Does Heisman Get Credit?

Just some little trivial stuff like snapping the ball. Centers originally placed the ball on the ground and rolled it back to their quarterbacks, who would scoop it up and make plays. When Heisman was coaching at Buchtel (which later became the University of Akron), though, he had a 6’4” QB named Harry Clark. Clark was so tall that picking the ball up off the ground was wildly inefficient, so Heisman invented the center snap as an easy way to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Heisman also innovated the use of pulling guards for running plays and the infamous hidden-ball trick.

Any Other Shenanigans on Heisman’s Resume?

You bet. When Heisman found a way to gain an edge, he jumped on it no matter how ridiculous it seemed. When Heisman was coaching at Clemson in 1902, his team traveled to Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech. Although Heisman was known for being a rather gruff disciplinarian, the Clemson team immediately started partying upon their arrival.

When Georgia Tech’s players and fans heard that the entire Clemson squad had spent the night before the game carousing, they prepared to coast to an easy win. When the game started, though, Clemson roared out of the gate en route to a 44-5 stomping.

How did Clemson crush Tech when by all rights they should have been ridiculously hungover? The “team” that everyone had seen partying the night before wasn’t really Heisman’s Clemson squad at all. He had sent his junior varsity players to Atlanta the night before to serve as drunken decoys, then quietly slipped his varsity team in on a morning train right before the game.

What Kind of Coach Was He?

Heisman worked as an actor in community stock theater during the summer – he consistently received rotten reviews – and allegedly spoke in a brusque, yet bizarrely ostentatious manner. Georgia Tech’s website relates a story of one of Heisman’s speeches he would break out on the first day of practice while describing a football: "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere - in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

How Did His Name Get on the Trophy?

After leaving his head-coaching job at Rice in 1927, Heisman became the athletic director at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. In 1935 the club began awarding the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy to the nation’s top college football star. (Chicago’s Jay Berwanger won the first trophy.) Heisman died of pneumonia the following fall before the second trophy could be awarded, and the club voted to rename the prize the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

Did He Ever Really Throw that Iconic Stiff Arm?

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Possibly, but Heisman didn’t have the ball in his hands all that much. Even though he was a fairly small guy at just 5’8” and 158 pounds, he played as a lineman throughout his college career.

The famous “Heisman pose” is actually based on Ed Smith, a former NYU running back who modeled for the trophy’s sculptor in 1934. Interestingly, Smith went years without knowing that he’d modeled for the famous trophy. His sculptor buddy Frank Eliscu had just needed a football player to model for a project, and Smith volunteered.

Smith figured Eliscu was just doing some little personal sculpture and remained totally oblivious to his spot in football history for the next 48 years until a documentary filmmaker called Smith to interview him about the Heisman in 1982. Smith initially had no idea what the guy was talking about, but he eventually remembered his modeling days. In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club gave Smith his own copy of the Heisman, and in 1986 he even received recognition on the televised ceremony. He looked at the four finalists – Vinny Testaverde won that year – and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time." [Pictured Above: Auburn's Bo Jackson in 1985.]

What’s a Heisman Trophy Worth on the Open Market?

Quite a bit. A number of Heisman winners have eventually sold their hardware, and the trophies fetch quite a bit of loot. O.J. Simpson got $230,000 for his, and several others have gone for six-figure prices. The most expensive trophy that’s changed hands was Minnesota back Bruce Smith’s 1941 award; it fetched $395,240.

How Did Steve Spurrier Change the Process?

SEC fans are going to be floored by this one, but the Ol’ Ball Coach did something really classy when he won the Heisman in 1966. Instead of taking the trophy for himself, Spurrier gave it to the University of Florida so the school could display it and let the student body enjoy it. Florida’s student government thought Spurrier’s generosity was so classy that they paid for a replica for Spurrier so he’d get to have his own trophy, too. Since then both the school and the player have received copies of the trophy.

So Heisman Must Have Been the World’s Greatest Sportsman, Right?

Well, not really. Heisman was on the victorious side of possibly the most gratuitously run-up score in sports history. In 1916 tiny Cumberland College canceled its football program and disbanded its squad, but it had previously signed a contract to travel to Atlanta to play Heisman’s Georgia Tech team. If Cumberland didn’t show up, they had to pay Georgia Tech a $3,000 penalty, which was quite a bit of cash in 1916.

Rather than forfeiting the money, Cumberland scraped together a team of 16 scrubs and went to take their walloping from Heisman’s boys. For reasons that still aren’t totally clear – some say it was to avenge an earlier baseball loss to Cumberland, while others claim Heisman wanted to make a statement about the absurdity of the old system of using total points scored to determine the national champion – the legendary coach showed Cumberland’s ragtag band no mercy. Tech went up 63-0 in the first quarter, but Heisman kept attacking until the final score was 222-0. There are tons of hilarious stats from the game, but the funniest is Georgia Tech rushing for 1,620 yards while Cumberland only squeaked out negative-96 yards on 27 carries.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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