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Forget the cow - blame Chicago fire on Peg Leg Title insurance lawyer researches 1871 records


CHICAGO -- Mrs. O'Leary and her cow have gotten a bum rap. Somebody else might have started the Great Chicago Fire.

So, at least, says a title insurance company lawyer who has spent every other Saturday for the past two years burrowing into the underbelly of Chicago's most grievous disaster and most popular legend -- indeed, one of the most notorious yarns of urban American folklore.

Richard F. Bales, a 45-year-old employee of Chicago Title Insurance Co., contends that his research throws water on the O'Leary cow-conflagration theory.

He says evidence suggests Mrs. O'Leary was not in the barn milking her cow that night 126 years ago but was at home in bed.

And he says there is another likely culprit: a relatively unknown fellow named Daniel "Peg Leg" Sullivan, a one-legged horse-cart driver who was a neighbor of Mrs. O'Leary's and who might have been in her barn, lighting a lantern or smoking a pipe on Oct. 8, 1871, when one-third of Chicago burned down, 300 people were killed and 100,000 were left homeless.

Bales is not the first person with a hunch that Mrs. O'Leary might be innocent. But he realized a couple of years ago that no one had ever looked in depth at some crucial pieces of evidence.

Bales had access to the property records kept by Chicago Title. He figured out which houses and barns stood where, how the doors were positioned and where the fences stood.

Then he sat down in the Chicago Historical Society archives with his laptop computer and began to transcribe the 1,000 pages of the official inquiry conducted by the Chicago Fire Department.

Peg Leg Sullivan said he had been in front of another neighbor's house and had seen the fire break out in the O'Leary barn. But Bales discovered that the title records showed that at least one house, maybe two, as well as an 8-foot-high fence, would have blocked Sullivan's view.

Bales thinks Sullivan, who also testified that he went to the O'Leary barn every evening to feed the cow that his mother kept there, might have been in the barn and inadvertently caused the fire himself.

"There's no smoking gun, but I think I have enough ancillary smoke," Bales said last week.

"A third of Chicago burned down. You can't blame him for being afraid to tell."

Pub Date: 8/17/97

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