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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 Do Cats 'Blep'?
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As pet owners are well aware, cats are inscrutable creatures. They hiss at bare walls. They invite petting and then answer with scratching ingratitude. Their eyes are wandering globes of murky motivations.

Sometimes, you may catch your cat staring off into the abyss with his or her tongue lolling out of their mouth. This cartoonish expression, which is atypical of a cat’s normally regal air, has been identified as a “blep” by internet cat photo connoisseurs. An example:

Cunning as they are, cats probably don’t have the self-awareness to realize how charming this is. So why do cats really blep?

In a piece for Inverse, cat consultant Amy Shojai expressed the belief that a blep could be associated with the Flehmen response, which describes the act of a cat “smelling” their environment with their tongue. As a cat pants with his or her mouth open, pheromones are collected and passed along to the vomeronasal organ on the roof of their mouth. This typically happens when cats want to learn more about other cats or intriguing scents, like your dirty socks.

While the Flehmen response might precede a blep, it is not precisely a blep. That involves the cat’s mouth being closed while the tongue hangs out listlessly.

Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavior consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the owner of Fundamentally Feline, tells Mental Floss that cat bleps may have several other plausible explanations. “It’s likely they don’t feel it or even realize they’re doing it,” she says. “One reason for that might be that they’re on medication that causes relaxation. Something for anxiety or stress or a muscle relaxer would do it.”

A photo of a cat sticking its tongue out
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If the cat isn’t sedated and unfurling their tongue because they’re high, then it’s possible that an anatomic cause is behind a blep: Johnson says she’s seen several cats display their tongues after having teeth extracted for health reasons. “Canine teeth help keep the tongue in place, so this would be a more common behavior for cats missing teeth, particularly on the bottom.”

A blep might even be breed-specific. Persians, which have been bred to have flat faces, might dangle their tongues because they lack the real estate to store it. “I see it a lot with Persians because there’s just no room to tuck it back in,” Johnson says. A cat may also simply have a Gene Simmons-sized tongue that gets caught on their incisors during a grooming session, leading to repeated bleps.

Whatever the origin, bleps are generally no cause for concern unless they’re doing it on a regular basis. That could be sign of an oral problem with their gums or teeth, prompting an evaluation by a veterinarian. Otherwise, a blep can either be admired—or retracted with a gentle prod of the tongue (provided your cat puts up with that kind of nonsense). “They might put up with touching their tongue, or they may bite or swipe at you,” Johnson says. “It depends on the temperament of the cat.” Considering the possible wrath involved, it may be best to let them blep in peace.

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
What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
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One night in 2016, Michelle Myers—an Arizona mom with a history of migraines—went to sleep with a splitting headache. When she awoke, her speech was marked with what sounded like an British accent, despite having never left the U.S. Myers is one of about 100 people worldwide who have been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a condition in which people spontaneously speak with a non-native accent.

In most cases, FAS occurs following a head injury or stroke that damages parts of the brain associated with speech. A number of recent incidences of FAS have been well documented: A Tasmanian woman named Leanne Rowe began speaking with a French-sounding accent after recovering from a serious car accident, while Kath Lockett, a British woman, underwent treatment for a brain tumor and ended up speaking with an accent that sounds somewhere between French and Italian.

The first case of the then-unnamed syndrome was reported in 1907 when a Paris-born-and-raised man who suffered a brain hemorrhage woke up speaking with an Alsatian accent. During World War II, neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn compiled the first comprehensive case study of the syndrome in a Norwegian woman named Astrid L., who had been hit on the head with shrapnel and subsequently spoke with a pronounced German-sounding accent. Monrad-Krohn called her speech disorder dysprosody: her choice of words and sentence construction, and even her singing ability, were all normal, but her intonation, pronunciation, and stress on syllables (known as prosody) had changed.

In a 1982 paper, neurolinguist Harry Whitaker coined the term "foreign accent syndrome" for acquired accent deviation after a brain injury. Based on Monrad-Kohn's and other case studies, Whitaker suggested four criteria for diagnosing FAS [PDF]:

"The accent is considered by the patient, by acquaintances, and by the investigator to sound foreign.
It is unlike the patient’s native dialect before the cerebral insult.
It is clearly related to central nervous system damage (as opposed to a hysteric reaction, if such exist).
There is no evidence in the patient’s background of being a speaker of a foreign language (i.e., this is not like cases of polyglot aphasia)."

Not every person with FAS meets all four criteria. In the last decade, researchers have also found patients with psychogenic FAS, which likely stems from psychological conditions such as schizophrenia rather than a physical brain injury. This form comprises fewer than 10 percent of known FAS cases and is usually temporary, whereas neurogenic FAS is typically permanent.

WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING?

While scientists are not sure why certain brain injuries or psychiatric problems give rise to FAS, they believe that people with FAS are not actually speaking in a foreign accent. Instead, their neurological damage impairs their ability to make subtle muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx, which results in pronunciation that mimics the sound of a recognizable accent.

"Vowels are particularly susceptible: Which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth," Lyndsey Nickels, a professor of cognitive science at Australia's Macquarie University, wrote in The Conversation. "There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may 'undershoot' or 'overshoot' their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent."

In Foreign Accent Syndromes: The Stories People Have to Tell, authors Nick Miller and Jack Ryalls suggest that FAS could be one stage in a multi-phase recovery from a more severe speech disorder, such as aphasia—an inability to speak or understand speech that results from brain damage.

People with FAS also show wide variability in their ability to pronounce sounds, choose words, or stress the right syllables. The accent can be strong or mild. Different listeners may hear different accents from the speaker with FAS (Lockett has said people have asked her if she's Polish, Russian, or French).

According to Miller and Ryalls, few studies have been published about speech therapy for treating FAS, and there's no real evidence that speech therapy makes a difference for people with the syndrome. More research is needed to determine if advanced techniques like electromagnetic articulography—visual feedback showing tiny movements of the tongue—could help those with FAS regain their original speaking manner.

Today, one of the pressing questions for neurologists is understanding how the brain recovers after injury. For that purpose, Miller and Ryalls write that "FAS offers a fascinating and potentially fruitful forum for gaining greater insights into understanding the human brain and the speech processes that define our species."

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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