Chicago ready to clear O'Leary's cow Culprit in 1871 fire was man who sounded alarm, research shows

CHICAGO — CHICAGO -- The story of Chicago's most famous bovine may be a bum steer after all.

For more than a century, Kate O'Leary's cow has gotten the rap for kicking over a lantern in 1871 -- while O'Leary milked it -- and igniting the Great Chicago Fire, which consumed more than three square miles of the city, destroyed $192 million in property, killed 300 people and left 100,000 people homeless.


Now, an amateur historian says he has cleared O'Leary and her cow. And a Chicago City Council committee has approved a resolution absolving O'Leary and her cow. The full council may take it up later this month.

It marks a rewriting of one of America's most enduring urban legends. The story of O'Leary and her cow -- which over the years has been identified as Daisy, Madeline and Gwendolyn -- has been spun into songs, poetry, movies and the nation's folklore.


After more than two years of research, attorney and amateur historian Richard Bales said he can show the woman was home in bed when the fire started and a neighbor who claims he first saw the fire and cried out a warning is the likely culprit.

Bales has published his findings -- which professional historians say are meticulously researched -- in the Illinois Historical Journal. They are based on his review of previously unstudied land records from the 1870s at his employer, Chicago Title Insurance Co., and of more than 1,100 pages of transcripts of a city inquiry into the fire in the months after it occurred.

"Nobody has ever analyzed the fire from the land records and a close study of the inquiry transcripts," Bales said. Other historians concur that he is the first to use the newly available materials, although they are less sure of his conclusions.

The fire raged for three days, burning out 126 years ago last Friday and leaving a third of the city in ashes.

The first person believed to have seen the flames was a one-legged horse-cart driver named Daniel "Peg Leg" Sullivan, who was O'Leary's neighbor.

But Bales said Sullivan could not have seen the fire from where he said he did because a house owned by a man named Jim Dalton, perhaps another house as well and an eight-foot-high fence would have blocked his view.

Sullivan claimed to have rushed to the burning barn, where O'Leary ran a milk business with five cows, to rescue the animals and shout a warning to the neighborhood. Bales' research showed Sullivan would have had to run 193 feet on his peg leg, which the historian views as implausible. He also discovered that no one recalled hearing Sullivan's cries.

And Sullivan himself told the inquiry board he awoke O'Leary and her family the night of the fire.


Bales said he thinks Sullivan -- whose mother kept a cow in O'Leary's barn -- started the fire by accidentally knocking over a lantern or dropping a match or pipe. Faced with the enormity of the fire, he lied, Bales contends.

Even before the fire burned out, the Chicago Evening Journal reported it was "caused by a cow kicking over a lamp in a stable in which a woman was milking." That started the legend, though the inquiry board never determined a cause.

While praising Bales' work, Carl Smith, a Northwestern University professor of English and American studies who has written extensively about the fire, is cautious in drawing a firm conclusion now.

"I don't think we have any irrefutable, positive evidence that tells us absolutely for sure what started the Chicago Fire," he said.

He can understand the desire to pursue the story even today and why O'Leary was an easy scapegoat in an era of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiments.

"As a poor, clumsy Irishwoman she was a powerless comic stereotype," Smith has written in his own essay on the fire. "The O'Leary story, true or not, has had such appeal because it offers a clear and specific cause for this otherwise overwhelming event, an imaginative handle by which people can take hold of it."


The tale destroyed O'Leary's life. She eventually moved to Michigan to escape the reporters who hounded her.

The Chicago Fire Department's training academy now sits where O'Leary's barn once stood. It was the site of the council hearing Monday in which O'Leary's great-great granddaughter, Nancy Knight Connolly, testified: "We always knew that she was innocent."

Meanwhile, a new bar has recently opened here. It is called Peg Leg Sullivan's, and Wednesday night, the 126th anniversary of the first night of the fire, it held its first "Don't Blame the Cow Party."

Pub Date: 10/12/97