Testimony

In November and December of 1871, the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners conducted an investigation in an attempt to determine the cause of the Great Chicago Fire. Mrs. O'Leary testified before the Board on November 24, 1871. This is her testimony.

Q. What do you know about this fire?

A. I was in bed myself and my husband and five children when this fire commenced. I was the owner of them five cows that was burnt and the horse, wagon, and harness. I had two tons of coal and two tons of hay. I had everything that I wanted in for the winter. I could not save five cents worth of anything out of the barn, only that Mr. Sullivan got out a little calf. The calf was worth eleven dollars on Saturday morning. Saturday morning I refused eleven dollars for the calf, and it was sold afterwards for eight dollars. I didn't save one five cents out of the fire.

Q. Do you know how the fire caught?

A. I could not tell anything of the fire, only that two men came by the door. I guess it was my husband got outside the door and he ran back to the bedroom and said, "Kate the barn is afire!" I ran out and the whole barn was on fire. Well, I went out to the barn and upon my word I could not tell anymore about the fire. I got just the way I could not tell anything about the fire.

Q. You got frightened?

A. I got frightened. I got the way I did not know when I saw everything burn up in the barn. I got so excited that I could not tell anything about the fire from that time.

Q. Do you know the parties who first gave you the alarm? Who told your husband that your house was on fire?

A. It was Mr. Sullivan gave the first alarm to me. The party were there. They were up but none of them didn't come and call for me. I was left in bed.

Q. Who is Mr. Sullivan?

A. He lives over there in DeKoven Street.

Q. Opposite you on DeKoven?

A. Yes sir, right across the road.

Q. What does he do?

A. He is a drayman. There was a party in the front of our place that night. I could not tell whether it was them made the fire or not. I didn't see it. I was in bed.

Q. When you first saw the fire, was there anyplace on fire but your own barn?

A. There was, sir. It was catched along down before me. Mrs. Murray and Dalton have places was afire going together. The other side on Taylor Street and the rear of the alley. Both fires were going together.

Q. How many houses were on fire or sheds or barns at the time you first saw it?

A. At the time I first saw it, my barn was and Mrs. Murray's barn was afire and Mr. Dalton's little shed. That is all that was afire I think when I first saw it. I thought there was no more fire, only them places. Then I catched one of the children and put him out on the sidewalk. I thought there was no more places on fire, only our places down there, and I saw Turner's big block on fire, and I thought there wasn't a touch on Turner's block until then. I saw the fire from the inside break out from Turner's block.

Q. Inside?

A. It was breaking out through the inside of Turner's block.

Q. Where was Turner's block located?

A. It was on Jefferson, a little west from us.

Q. (By Mr. Williams) A long row?

A. Yes sir.

Q. On the corner?

A. Yes sir. I thought there was not a touch of fire at all, only where we were and Mrs. Murray's barn and Mr. Dalton's barn. I thought there wasn't any fire any other place until I saw the fire in Turner's block. Over at least two story houses next to Mrs. Murray there wasn't but one window burning at that time. That catched from Mrs. Murray's house one window. When I saw Turner's block going, I gave up all hope.

Q. By Mr. Chadwick. You thought your house was to burn then?

A. Yes sir. Then the men went and fixed two washtubs at both hydrants. There is a hydrant in front of our place and a hydrant in front of Mrs. Murray's. They set two washtubs and then began to put water on the little house. And everything was gone, only the little house and they made for that and kept it wet all through until the fire was gone.

Q. Is that your house?

A. Yes sir. They kept water on it until the fire went out. We had plenty of water until the fire was done.

Q. Was there any other family living in your house?

A. Yes sir. There was Mrs. Laughlin.

Q. How many rooms did they occupy?

A. Two rooms.

Q. Front rooms?

A. Yes sir.

Q. Do you know whether they were in bed?

A. I knew they were not in bed.

Q. How did you know that?

A. Because I could hear from my own bedroom. Could hear them going on. There was a little music there.

Q. They had a little party there?

A. Yes sir. Her husband was a fiddler.

Q. They had dancing there?

A. They had.

Q. Some company?

A. Some company. I could not tell how many were there.

Q. That was going on at the time the fire broke out, that dance, was it?

A. I could not tell you, sir.

Q. Did you hear any of these people from the front part of the house passing to the back end of the dwelling, pass back and forth in the alley between the two houses?

A. I didn't indeed.

Q. You did not hear them at all passing that night?

A. No sir. I did not indeed.

Q. How many does your family consist of?

A. I have got five children and myself and my husband.

Q. Any grown-up children?

A. There is one of them fourteen years the oldest.

Q. A boy or girl?

A. A girl.

Q. About what time did this fire break out?

A. As near as I can guess, it was a little after nine o'clock.

Q. Were you and your family up when it broke out?

A. We were in bed.

Q. Were all the members of your family in bed?

A. All in bed.

Q. Had any of you been to this party in [the] front part of the house?

A. No sir.

Q. None of you?

A. No sir. We were not there.

Q. Had any of the people who were at the party been in your part of the house?

A. No sir. There was not any of them there.

Q. You could simply hear the music and they were having a jolly time?

A. I could hear anything from our own bed to their rooms because they pretty near joined together.

Q. Have you heard from any person who was there, anything in relation to anybody's going out to the barn with a light?

A. Yes sir. I have heard of it. I have heard from other folks.

Q. Who did you hear anything in regard to it from?

A. I heard from other folks. I could not tell whether it is true or not. There was one out of the party went in for to milk my cows.

Q. Who did you hear say that?

A. I heard it the next day from some of the neighbors.

Q. Do you remember who it was?

A. Yes sir.

Q. Who was it?

A. I heard it by a lady who lives up close by us.

Q. What was her name?

A. Mrs. White.

Q. Where does Mrs. White live?

A. Across the way from us.

Q. On DeKoven Street?

A. Yes.

Q. Nearly opposite your house?

A. Yes sir.

Q. Opposite to Sullivan's house does she live?

A. Well, the same way.

Q. Is it towards the lake?

A. Yes sir.

Q. Next to Sullivan's?

A. Yes sir.

Q. Next east to Sullivan's?

A. Yes sir.

Q. One story or two?

A. Two stories.

Q. There is two two-story houses there right together?

A. Yes sir.

Q. She lives in the east one?

A. Yes sir. She said--the first she told me she mentioned a man was in my barn milking my cows. I could not tell, for I didn't see it. The next morning I went over there. She told me it was too bad for Leary to have all what he was worth lost. We did not know who done it. Said she, some of the neighbors, there was someone from the party went and milked the cows.

Q. Did they state who the person was?

A. No sir. They did not.

Q. What did they want the milk for?

A. Some said it was for oysters. I could not tell anything, only what I heard from the outside.

Q. Had these persons in your house been in the habit of getting milk there before if they wanted it?

A. No sir. I never saw them in my barn to milk my cows.

Q. Have you heard from anybody who was at the party? Any statement of that kind?

A. I did not.

Q. You haven't heard from anybody a statement as to who did go to the barn, have you?

A. Someone they said was from the party went to the stable.

Q. Did they tell how?

A. I asked the lady myself and she said no. There was no one there.

Q. Did you have any talk with Mrs. Laughlin about it?

A. I did.

Q. What did she say about it?

A. She said she never was in the stable.

Q. Did she deny that anybody went from her house?

A. She did, sir. She said she had no supper that night. She said her man had supper to a relation and to her brother.

Q. Had no coffee or oysters?

A. Had no coffee or oysters.

Q. Was there any other party in the neighborhood that you know of?

A. No sir. Well, there was always music in saloons there Saturday night. I do not know of any other.

Q. This was Sunday night.

A. This was Sunday night.

Q. Is Mrs. Laughlin living in the house now?

A. No sir. She moved out of it.

Q. At the time you went outdoors, you say there were other buildings on fire beside your barn?

A. Yes sir. There was.

Q. From what direction was the wind blowing?

A. The wind blowed every way. You could not tell one way more than the other way. The fire went just the same as you would clap your two hands together.

Q. Did the fire go very fast?

A. Yes sir. You would hear the roar of the fire like cannon. The roar of the fire, you never heard such a thing.

Q. Do you think the wind blowed turned towards Turner's block?

A. It is not the way the wind blowed at all, sir.

Q. What was the character of the buildings about there?

A. All frame buildings, nothing there, only frame buildings.

Q. Had there been any rain of any account for a long time before that?

A. Not for a very long time before that, sir.

Q. Do you know whether the tenants of the houses about there were in the habit of getting shavings from the planing mills to burn?

A. There was shavings in every house there.

Q. Put them in the house?

A. Yes sir.

Q. Almost every house?

A. Yes sir.

Q. They got them because they were cheaper fuel than they could get anywhere else?

A. Yes, there were shavings in every house. That I can say.

Q. In some houses large quantities of them?

A. Yes sir.

Q. Did you have any packed in your barn?

A. Yes sir. I had some packed in my barn.

Q. How many, do you think?

A. When I used to clean out the barn, I used to throw in a little shavings.

Q. Did you use them for bedding?

A. Yes sir. Not so much for bedding. I used to clean out the places and take a dish full and throw it in along with the cows.

Q. (By Mr. Brown) After you discovered the fire, can you state whether there was any engine on the ground or how soon after did you discover one?

A. The first engine I seen playing, it was on Turner's block.

Q. How long after you got outdoors was it before you saw the engine there?

A. I could not tell you exactly.

Q. Was it a very long time or very quick?

A. It was not very quick at all.

Q. Can you give some idea about how soon it got there?

A. Before I seen any engine there, our barn was pretty near burned down. The engine might be there unknown to me.

Q. Did you see the engine or did you first see it when they began to play water?

A. I did see the first playing of water on Turner's block.

Q. That is the first you saw of the engine?

A. Yes.

Q. (By Mr. Williams) Is there a fire hydrant for an engine to take water in the corner of Jefferson and DeKoven?

A. Yes sir.

Q. Did you see any engines standing there?

A. I did, sir.

Q. How soon was that engine at that hydrant?

A. I could not tell.

Q. About five minutes after you got out of bed?

A. I do not know. I wasn't five minutes after I got out of bed. I didn't get out in front. I went to the rear to see if I could save anything, because there was a new wagon standing in the rear of the alley between our place and Taylor. I went out to see if we could save the wagon. The other side was going just as well as our place, and we could not save the wagon.

Q. Both sides of the alley were on fire?

A. Both sides of the alley were on fire.

Q. Can you give us an idea about how great a length of time passed from your first hearing of the fire until you first saw the engine?

A. I could not, sir. The engine might be there unknown to me--I got so excited. All I had was there in that barn. I did not know the fire was down until the next day.

Q. Had you any insurance upon your barn and stock?

A. Never had five cents insurance--I had these cows, one of them was not in the barn that night. It was out in the alley. That one went away. I could not get that one. My husband spent two weeks looking for it and could not find it anywhere in the world. I could not get five cents. I had six cows there. A good horse there. I had a wagon and harness and everything I was worth, I couldn't save that much out of it (snapping her finger), and upon my word I worked hard for them.