Did the Great Chicago Fire really start with Mrs. O'Leary's cow?

Pinning it on Peg Leg Sullivan

Richard Bales' map shows that Peg Leg Sullivan's view of the fire was blocked.
Richard Bales' map shows that Peg Leg Sullivan's view of the fire was blocked.

Daniel "Peg Leg" Sullivan was a neighbor to the O'Learys. As you might guess, he had one wooden leg. When Sullivan testified in front of the inquiry board, he said that he had gone to visit the O'Learys around 8 p.m. and that Mrs. O'Leary was in bed. After his visit, Sullivan started for home. On the way, he paused at the curb in front of William White's home to enjoy his pipe. It was at that moment that he spotted the fire at the O'Learys and ran for help, crying "Fire!"

Richard Bales, a lawyer for a title insurance company in Chicago, published an article in 1997 that explores Mr. Sullivan's testimony. Bales had access to the property records kept by his company and with those records he was able to determine the layout of the houses, barns and fences in 1871. What he found cast doubt on Sullivan's story.

After mapping the properties, Bales determined that Sullivan would not have been able to see the fire in the barn because his view would have been blocked by another home. Additionally, Sullivan, given his peg leg, could not run very fast. Yet, he claimed that he ran 193 feet (about half the length of a football field) to try to extinguish the fire and then was able to escape the burning barn. Sullivan simply couldn't have done all this without being injured by the fire, Bales argues.

Sullivan also claimed he walked past his own house to smoke a pipe in front of William White's home. But why did he walk so far? Bales thinks this was his alibi; it put him close enough to the fire to see it, yet no one at the McLaughlins' party, who would have seen him standing in front of his own home, could challenge him.

Bales argues that Sullivan was in the barn that night. Perhaps he was smoking, or perhaps he knocked over a lantern. But he started the fire. When he realized it could not be extinguished, he ran to the O'Learys to alert them. When Sullivan's fire burned down much of Chicago, he was probably more than happy to allow Mrs. O'Leary to take the fall.

Questionable testimony from another neighbor leads Bales to believe that Sullivan might not have been alone. Dennis Regan lived about a block away but was at the scene. He testified that he heard someone yelling that there was a fire, and he jumped out of bed to help. It seems unlikely that a neighbor a block away would know about the fire before even the O'Learys did. So Bales thinks he might have been in the barn as well.

In 1997, convinced by Bales' work, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance exonerating Mrs. O'Leary of all guilt in the fire.

We'll probably never know for sure what happened on the night of Oct. 8, 1871, and the legend of the O'Leary cow will likely live on. For more information on the Chicago fire, view the links below.

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  • Bales, Richard F. "Did the Cow Do It? A New Look at the Cause of the Great Chicago Fire." (Feb. 11, 2008)http://www.thechicagofire.com
  • Belluck, Pam. "Barn Door Reopened on Fire After Legend Has Escaped." The New York Times, Aug. 17, 1997. (Feb. 11, 2008)http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B03E5DD103FF934A2575BC0A961958260
  • DeBartolo, Anthony. "Who Caused the Great Chicago Fire? A Possible Deathbed Confession." The Chicago Tribune. Oct. 8, 1997, and "Odds Improve that a Hot Game of Craps in Mrs. O'Leary's Barn Touched Off Chicago Fire." The Chicago Tribune, March 3, 1998. (Feb. 11, 2008)http://www.hydeparkmedia.com/cohn.html
  • Fedler, Fred. "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow and Other Newspaper Tales about the Chicago Fire of 1871." Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. August 1985. (Feb. 11, 2008)http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=ED257108
  • Gove, Samuel K. "Chicago Fire." Encyclopedia Americana. 2008. Grolier Online. (Feb. 11, 2008)http://ea.grolier.com/cgi-bin/article?assetid=0090470-00
  • Kane, Judith. "Did a Comet Cause the 1871 Great Chicago Fire?" Mysteries Magazine. April 2005. (Feb. 11, 2008) http://www.mysteriesmagazine.com/articles/issue9.html
  • Smith, Carl. "The O'Leary Legend." Chicago Historical Society. (Feb. 11, 2008)http://www.chicagohistory.org/fire/oleary/index.html