Great Fire of 1871 - WAS IT REALLY THE COW?

WAS IT REALLY THE COW? (Illustration) American History Awesome Radio - Narrated Stories Famous Historical Events Famous People Social Studies STEM Nineteenth Century Life Ethics Disasters

C.C. Hine authored Mrs. Leary's Cow A Legend of Chicago in 1872. Published in Watertown, New York, by The Black River Insurance Company, the work contains this image of Catherine O’Leary and her cow, Daisy. The drawing is accompanied by this description: “THIS is the Cow, at the Leary back gate, Where she stood on the night of October the 8.” Illustration online via The Project Gutenberg.


Patrick and Catherine O’Leary, with their five children, lived at 137 DeKoven Street (on the southwest side, near today's location of the Chicago Fire Academy). Mrs. O’Leary’s five cows - which she used for her neighborhood milk business - were kept in the barn behind the O’Leary home.

Literally overnight, Cate and her cow Daisy became infamous as the ignition source for Chicago’s business-leveling disaster.

Unlike decades later - when Daisy became the source of newspaper humor - contemporary writers weren’t kind to Cate or her cow. Most folks thought the cow did it. Even in the last half of the 20th century, people still associated the Chicago fire with a kicked-over lantern in the O’Leary barn.

But ... consider these facts:

  • In 1871, the Midwest had experienced a particularly dry summer and early fall. With drought conditions prevailing throughout the region, brush fires had been the norm not the exception.

  • Peshtigo - a Wisconsin town 260 miles north of Chicago - began to burn at precisely the same time (around 9 p.m.) as fire started to ravage Chicago. Twelve hundred people died and 1.2 million acres were incinerated.

  • Across Lake Michigan - on the same day - Holland was destroyed in two hours.

  • Hungry flames also overwhelmed Manistee, about 115 miles north of Holland.

  • Portions of the entire central section of Michigan, from the shore of Lake Huron to the shore of Lake Michigan, were ablaze. About 200 people died there and 2 million acres were laid waste.

  • All of these fires happened at about the same time.

Could it be that Daisy really didn’t do it?

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Sep 01, 2002

Updated Last Revision: Jun 29, 2019

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"WAS IT REALLY THE COW?" AwesomeStories.com. Sep 01, 2002. Feb 29, 2020.
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