The Exoneration of Mrs. O'Leary

Even as the fire raged, Mrs. O'Leary and her bovine companion were being blamed for causing the fire that destroyed the heart of Chicago. This theory appears to have had its origin in the October 9 issue of the Chicago Evening Journal, which reported that "the fire broke out on the corner of DeKoven and Twelfth streets, at about 9 o'clock on Sunday evening, being caused by a cow kicking over a lamp in a stable in which a woman was milking."

Mrs. O'Leary steadfastly denied causing the fire. Both she and her husband stated at the inquiry investigation that they were in bed at the time the fire broke out. Nonetheless, the story of the cow and the lantern spread with the intensity of the fire itself. Countless books and articles have been written since 1871, with many of them placing blame for the Great Chicago Fire on the weary shoulders of Mrs. Catherine O'Leary.

But those writers who maintain that she started the fire but then later lied about it during the inquiry fail to take into account the fact that under ordinary circumstances the blaze initially could have been extinguished relatively easily and quickly. Unfortunately, because of an unlikely series of events, an ordinary barn fire was transformed into what Fire Marshall Robert A. Williams called a "hurricane of fire and cinders." These seven factors were:

  1. The firemen were exhausted from fighting a fire the night before at the Lull & Holmes planing mill, located on Canal Street on the city's West Side. The fire had started at about 11:00 on Saturday evening and firemen fought the fire all night and through Sunday afternoon. Many of them had not eaten and had virtually no sleep before being called out to the O'Leary barn.
  2. As a result of this Saturday night fire, the firemen's equipment, including the fire hose, was not in the best of condition. Furthermore, the hose that was available was in short supply.
  3. Mathias Schafer was the fire department watchman stationed in the cupola in the courthouse tower. His job was to scan the city for fires; upon sighting one, he would, via a voice tube, give the location of the fire to a telegraph operator in the third floor central fire alarm telegraph office. The operator would then strike the appropriate fire alarm box, which would ring the courthouse bell and bells in the various fire department company houses located throughout the city. On the evening of October 8 Schafer noticed a light in the southwest. He called down to William J. Brown, the night operator, and told him to strike box 342, which was located on the corner of Canalport Avenue and Halsted Street, about one mile southwest of the O'Leary barn. Immediately thereafter, as Schafer examined the growing blaze from his location in the courthouse tower, he realized that he had made a mistake. He called back down to Brown and asked him to strike box 319, which was located at Johnson and Twelfth streets, closer to the fire, but still seven and one-half blocks away. Brown, though, refused to do so, stating that he "could not alter it now." He believed that since box 342 was in the line of the fire, the approaching firemen would see the flames anyway, and he did not want to confuse the firemen by striking a different alarm box. As a result, engine companies that would otherwise have immediately answered the alarm were delayed. Many of the firemen later maintained that had the alarm been given correctly, the fire could have been extinguished relatively quickly.
  4. Brown may have seen the fire as much as one-half hour before Schafer called down to him. Brown, however, inexplicably failed to sound the alarm, choosing instead to wait for Schafer to confirm the fire's existence. This also caused a delay in the fire department's arrival at the scene of the fire.
  5. William Lee lived two houses east of the O'Leary home at 133 De Koven Street, a house owned by Walter Forbes. Upon seeing the fire, Lee ran southeast approximately three and a half blocks to Bruno Goll's drug store, located at the northwest corner of Canal and Twelfth Streets. Fire alarm box number 296 was located at the store. Lee later claimed that not only did Goll refuse to turn in an alarm, he also prevented Lee from doing so. Goll, on the other hand, stated in an affidavit that upon the requests of two men he turned in not one but two alarms. This may or may not have been the case; regardless, neither alarm registered at the central office in the courthouse. As a result, the firemen were delayed in arriving at the O'Leary barn.
  6. Fire alarm box number 295 was located only about two and a half blocks northwest of the O'Leary barn, at the corner of Des Plaines Street and Taylor Street. Thus, this alarm box was even closer to the fire than the alarm at Goll's drug store. Despite its close proximity, the O'Learys and their neighbors apparently did not attempt to turn in an alarm at this location. Consequently, firemen were delayed again in responding to the fire.
  7. Chicago Engine No. 5 was one of the first engines to appear at the scene of the fire, having responded to the call for box 342. Shortly after arriving at the fire, however, the engine broke down. Even though it was repaired minutes later, albeit temporarily, the damage was done. In that short interim, the fire crossed Taylor Street, and as the flames traveled northeast, many believed that the fire was already out of control.

One fireman stated that at first the blaze "was a nasty fire, but not a particularly bad one, and with the help of two more engines we could have knocked it cold." Thus, when fire broke out in Mrs. O'Leary's barn, there would have been no reason for her to think that this fire would be of any great consequence. But as another fireman unfortunately noted, "From the beginning of that fatal fire everything went wrong," and the above factors melded together to become a seven-act comedy of errors.

It is these seven factors that exonerate Mrs. O'Leary. When fire broke out in her barn, there would have been no reason for her to think that this fire would eventually destroy Chicago. Mrs. O'Leary ran a milk business in her neighborhood; in her barn were five cows, a calf, and a horse. The barn also contained at least two tons of hay, and there were two tons of coal in an adjoining shed, south of the barn. A new wagon stood nearby in the alley. The O'Leary property was not insured. Had she been in the barn when the fire broke out, it seems unlikely that she would have run back into her home and allow her property to both literally and figuratively go up in smoke. 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.