The Great Chicago Fire was a devastating disaster that destroyed a great deal of the city of Chicago. According to legend, the whole affair was started when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow tipped over a lantern, catching fire to their barn. However, the truth may be more complicated than that, and regardless of the outcome, her name and reputation have gone down in the annals of history as synonymous with foolish manmade disasters. Mrs. O’Leary is unfairly blamed for the Chicago fire of 1871.
According to a police report at the time, Mrs. O’Leary states that she was in bed at the time of the fire. “I was in bed myself and my husband and five children when this fire commenced.” Her testimony states that she got up when her husband woke up and saw that the barn was on fire. Once this was noticed, the whole community gathered around to put out the fire, but it spread quickly. The circumstances leading up to the fire itself were somewhat suspect; according to Catherine O’Leary, there was a party going on in front of and around her house. It had been theorized by Mrs. O’Leary that someone had gone into the barn with a light, which had then dropped and started the fire. However, there was Mrs. Laughlin, another family living in her house, who said she saw someone going in to milk her cows in the middle of the night.
Despite the fact that, at best, one of the cows or another party entirely dropped the light in the barn leading to the fire, popular culture has given Mrs. O’Leary the blame for this gigantic fire. Satire from the day characterized O’Leary as really being the cow that “kicked over the lamp that set fire to the barn / That caused the Great Fire in Chicago!” Even advertisements to this day blame O’Leary for the fire, such as the Sidney Wanzer advertisement stating that the Chicago Fire “probably never would have happenedif only Mrs. O’Leary had switched to the country milk Sidney Wanzer introduced!”