Just Look At What the O’Leary Cow Did: The Great Chicago Fire

It had been a dry summer. In fact Chicago was experiencing its driest yet. Because of this fires were a constant threat. The city itself was a virtual fireplace. Most of the buildings, as well as the sidewalks and roads were wood. There were structures that were considered fireproof. But just how fireproof would they be if an out of control fire were to appear? On October 7, 1871 a fire started on Canal St., wrecking four blocks. Before it was finally extinguished, the fire had also damaged quite a bit of the fire departments supplies and injured 60 firemen. Now on the evening of the 8th, smoke in the distance was brought to the attention of a fire watchman by the name of Mathias Schaffer. Earlier the telegraphist, William Brown, had been finishing dinner when his sister pointed out what appeared to be a fire. Brown dismissed it, thinking it merely embers from the 7th’s fire. When Schaffer realized it was indeed a fire, he alerted Brown telling him of the fire’s location and to ring box 342. Ringing Box 342 would warn the fire station that was near the blaze as well as ring the Courthouse bell. Schaffer had miscalculated, though. The fire station was about a mile away from the true location. He called down to Brown, via voice tube, telling him to ring the nearer firehouse. Brown would not comply, reasoning it would only cause unnecessary confusion Besides the firemen sent out, would spot it and reroute.

Mrs. O’Leary Courtesy Wikipedia

By the time the firemen had arrived on the scene the fire had spread with the aid of a southwesterly wind. It appeared as if it was going to give them a run for their money. From an alarm box at a local drugstore, a call was sent out requesting reinforcements for the firemen. The message was sent incorrectly and thought to be someone reporting the already known fire. Irish immigrants from Conley’s Patch turned out to watch the spectacle. Firemen sprayed a few drunken rowdies with their hoses to keep them in order. By 10:30 PM Brown had issued tow more calls for help to Box 342. The fire was out of control and had reached the burnt out areas from the 7th’s fire. It was hoped that when the fire reached this area that the fire would be held in check. But the winds pushed it on.

According to tradition Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked a lamp over, which ignited. Catherine O’Leary would go on to become a convenient scapegoat. Neighbor Daniel Sullivan said he seen the flames shooting out of the barn and tried to save the animals, before going to sound the alarm. Dennis Regan, another neighbor, awoke the sleeping O’Leary family. From the O’Leary barn the fire continued to grow. Amazingly the O’Leary house would still stand when all was said and done.

At 11:30 PM the fire crossed the Chicago River venturing into the South Division. Half an hour later the Gasworks was hit, exploding.  At about 3:30 PM the Courthouse bell came crashing to the ground as the fire consumed the building. Before the Courthouse’s burning the prisoners were set free with the more dangerous criminals being transferred to another area. The fire was so tremendous that it dissolved the mortar from between bricks and easily melted iron. It lit the sky up with a brilliant hue.

Firemen Thomas Byrne: You couldn’t see anything over you but fire. No clouds, no stars. Nothing else but fire.

Chicago Evening Post: Everywhere, dust, smoke, flame, heat, thunder of falling walls, crackle of fire, hissing of water, panting of engines, shouts, braying of trumpets, roar of wind, tumult, and uproar.

Crowds raced to get away from the advancing fire. Amidst all of this, it was not uncommon for families to become separated. A number of people made attempts to salvage their belongings. One man who was unable to save his valued Shakespeare volumes gave them away to a stranger. Others were swindled or paid exorbitant prices to get their valuables away to a safe place, much of the time unsuccessfully.  Wealthy and poor alike ran, their goal survival.

Poor women with mattresses on their heads, or weighted down with furniture, tottered with weary steps up the crowded street. Nearly everyone wore a stern expression.

D. L. Moody Courtesy Wikipedia

Looters were also about, stealing what they could. Chicagoans headed for the Sands, others for the prairies outside of Chicago. The great evangelist D.L. Moody had ended a meeting early, when he became aware of the fire. Along with his wife he headed home to salvage a few things, before heading for ‘shelter’. One of the mementos that his wife wanted to save was Moody’s portrait. Moody objected.

D. L. Moody: Suppose I met on the street my friends in the same plight as ourselves, and they say:

‘Hello, Moody, glad you have escaped; what’s that you have saved and cling to so affectionately?’

Wouldn’t it sound well to reply  ‘Oh, I’ve got my own portrait?’

Nevertheless, the portrait survived.

The fire burned well into Monday, the 9th. At 11 AM it began to drizzle and by 3 PM it was a steady rain. In its wake it left 17,000 buildings destroyed and 100,000 homeless. It  claimed about 250 lives. The corpses that were found were kept at a morgue awaiting identification, although many were beyond that.

The city’s mayor, Roswell Mason, soon put the town under martial law. Former Civil War general, Philip Sheridan served as the enforcer. His troops were stationed around the burned out city, challenging passer-bys. Sometimes it would seem that sentries were over zealous. A sentry shot a man by the name of Thomas Grosvenor when he failed to provide a countersign. Instead Grosvenor told the sentry he was heading home to his house in the area and continued walking. The sentry shot him, killing Grosvenor.

Ruins Courtesy Library of Congress

Many were homeless and left with absolutely nothing except the clothes on their back. Fortunately, Americans from all over the US rallied for those who had lost everything. Supplies poured into the devastated city. The Relief and Aid Society began building housing for the homeless, helping families get back on their feet again. And as winter closed in, housing would be needed. Then came the blame game. Everyone was blaming each other, but then it finally came down to Mrs. O’Leary. She was ridiculed, her reputation dragged through the dirt by the press. They portrayed her as an ugly old miser who sought revenge on Chicago after she wasn’t granted aid by the city. Adults and children alike were profiting from the souvenir business, as they gathered objects from the ashes and sold them. Others sought to profit from the disaster by jacking prices up on bread, were in for a disappointment when the Mayor put a fixed price on it.  On Oct. 29, Sunday, Mason declared a “special day of humiliation”.

In view of the recent appalling public calamity, the undersigned, Mayor of Chicago, hereby earnestly commands that all the inhabitants of this city do observe Sunday, October 29, as a special day of humiliation and prayer; of humiliation for those past offenses against Almighty God, to which these severe afflictions were doubtless intended to lead our minds ; of prayer for the relief and comfort of the suffering thousands in our midst; for the restoration of our material prosperity, especially for our lasting improvement as a people in reverence and obedience to God. Nor should we even, amidst our losses and sorrows, forget to render thanks to Him for the arrest of the devouring fires in time to save so many homes, and for the unexampled sympathy and aid which has flowed in upon us from every quarter of our land, and even from beyond the seas.


8 thoughts on “Just Look At What the O’Leary Cow Did: The Great Chicago Fire

  1. I think it’s easy to overlook, but just think how many lives our modern, working telephone system has saved. Not to mention, firefighters who actually make it to the fire. I feel fortunate to live in an age where a tragedy like this can be prevented. (We still have other tragedies we are intent to bring on ourselves, but not ones like this, thankfully.)


    • Indeed, we have a lot to be grateful for. The damage revealed in the photos of the aftermath of the fire was horrendous.

      Somewhat off topic, but to put my two cents in: I don’t think Mrs. O’Leary deserved all the ridicule she got. She was, in my opinion, a scapegoat. Thank for your comment!


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