Was Daniel "Peg Leg" Sullivan the Real Culprit?

Daniel "Peg Leg" Sullivan--so nicknamed because he had a wooden leg--lived across the street and east of the O'Learys, but in the same block. He testified before the inquiry board on November 25, 1871. He stated that on the evening of October 8, he visited with the O'Learys and then walked across the street, past his own house, and sat in front of William White's home. While there, he saw the fire break out in the barn. He ran across the street and attempted to rescue the animals and warn the O'Learys.

There are several inconsistencies in Sullivan's testimony. First of all, why would Sullivan leave the O'Leary home, walk across the street, walk past his own home, and sit down? The McLaughlins, who lived directly in front of the O'Learys, were having a party that evening. Perhaps Sullivan wanted to enjoy the sounds of the festivities--but if that were the case, he would have sat either in front of the McLaughlin home or his own home, not in front of a home even farther away.

Also, as shown in the diagram of the O'Leary area, Sullivan could not have seen the fire break out in the barn, as his view would have been completely blocked by the home of James Dalton.

Third, it is unlikely that Sullivan, in his attempt to extinguish the fire and rescue the animals, would have had the time to run across the street to the barn without being injured by the flames. The distance from where Sullivan sat to the barn was approximately 193 feet. That is more than one-half the length of a football field. Sullivan even testified at the inquiry that he could not run very fast. How could Sullivan hobble 193 feet into a burning barn that was full of hay and wood shavings, struggle with animals, and eventually leave, without being injured?

Fourth, while Sullivan testified that he yelled "fire" as he ran, it seems doubtful that this was the case. No one who testified ever said anything about hearing his cries as he allegedly ran to the barn. October 8 was an unseasonably warm day--by 4:00 p.m. the temperature had climbed to 79 degrees. Surely, then, the windows of the homes along De Koven Street would have been open that evening. Consequently, one would think that if Sullivan had cried out, someone would have heard him.

Consider, then, a possible explanation for all of these inconsistencies. Sullivan stated at the inquiry that since his mother kept a cow in the O'Leary barn, he used to go there to bring it feed. Perhaps he went there that evening to bring feed to the cow, relax and enjoy the night air, maybe even to listen to the sounds of the McLaughlin party. While there, he dropped a match, a pipe, or possibly even a lantern in some hay or wood shavings. He immediately attempted to extinguish the blaze. The fire spread quickly, though, and Sullivan, realizing that his efforts were to no avail, abandoned these measures and turned instead to rescuing the trapped animals. The flames quickly forced him to flee to safety. After leaving the barn, he ran to the O'Learys' house in order to warn them of the fire. The neighborhood began to stir, even though only a few moments had passed since the fire started. This shorter and more realistic elapsed time is a distinct difference between Sullivan's testimony and this theory.

Two days later the fire was extinguished, but Sullivan needed only a fraction of that time to realize that he was responsible for leveling much of Chicago. For obvious reasons he was reluctant to admit his culpability. Therefore, he needed an alibi as to where he was from the time he left the O'Leary home to the time the fire broke out in their barn.

Claiming that he was sitting in front of White's house at the time the fire started was that perfect explanation. As Sullivan lived nearby, the fact that he was in the immediate vicinity would arouse no suspicion. He could not state that he was closer, in front of his own home or the McLaughlin home, as anyone present at the McLaughlin party could contradict him, stating that he was never seen in the area that evening. Mrs. McLaughlin's front porch overlooked De Koven Street; it would not be unreasonable, during the course of the festivities, for someone to step outside onto the porch for some fresh air, perhaps even walk onto the sidewalk or street. Indeed, it appears from Mrs. McLaughlin's testimony that at least three men left her home that evening. Sullivan could not risk one of these men challenging his alibi.

Sullivan claimed that he was sitting against White's fence. People living along the south side of De Koven Street would not be able to question this, as they would not be able to see him-- sitting in front of the fence, he would be hidden from view. Finally, since he was outside, in close proximity to the O'Leary barn, he would be able to claim that he noticed the fire from its inception.

Sullivan's statements at the inquiry must have somehow been convincing, as he was never charged with causing the fire. Unfortunately, the commissioners in charge of the investigation never asked him to explain the many inconsistencies in his testimony.