10 Scapegoats Still in the Crosshairs


Mrs. O'Leary's Cow

Read my lips: I didn't start that fire! iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Read my lips: I didn't start that fire! iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Late one night, when we were all in bed,
Mrs. O'Leary left a lantern in the shed.
Her cow kicked it over
Then winked her eye and said,
"There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight!"

In 1871, a great fire engulfed Chicago killing nearly 300 people and destroying 17,450 buildings. For more than a century, Catherine O'Leary's cow has gotten the blame for the Great Chicago Fire. At the time, Mrs. O'Leary was a small dairy farmer who provided milk to her working-class neighborhood. According to legend, Mrs. O'Leary was late milking the cows that day. One of the cows responded by kicking over a lighted lantern. The fire quickly spread from building to building.

A reporter who was first on the scene reported the supposedly true tale of Mrs. O'Leary's cow, and a scapegoat (scapecow?) was born. Mrs. O'Leary went to her grave in 1895 bitter that most people believed that she had something to do with the conflagration. Apparently, her bitterness was grounded in reality. In 1997, a Chicago insurance investigator exonerated Mrs. O'Leary cow. While the fire did start in Mrs. O'Leary's DeKoven Street barn, the bovine wasn't the culprit. It was a careless pipe smoker — a neighbor of Mrs. O'Leary's — who discarded a match in the barn and set the city ablaze [source: McNamee].