Don’t Blame Mrs. O’Leary!

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The Great Chicago Fire burned Sunday, October 8, 1871, through Tuesday, October 10. 3.3 square miles burned and estimated 250-300 people died. We can stop blaming Mrs. O’Leary and her cow.

In the Chicago Republican, Michael Ahern reported that a cow in the barn of Mrs. Catherine O’Leary knocked over a lantern that started the blaze. In 1893 he admitted to making up the story for colorful copy. Daniel “Pegleg” Sullivan was the first to sound the alarm for the fire. He too would find himself an object of blame, it being theorized that he was a drunken gambler who started it. There was high resentment toward Chicago’s Irish immigrant community.

Drought, strong winds and an overuse of wood as building material contributed to the fire. The drought seems to have contributed to several other fires in the area. The Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin also occurred on October 8, 1871. 1.2 million acres burned and an estimated 1500 lives were lost. The Great Michigan Fire of October 8, 1871, ravaged more than 3,900 square miles and took the towns of Holland and Manistee.

One theory holds that fragments of Beila’s Comet rained down and ignited these fires. To this day, we can not say what truly started the fire.

In remembrance of Chicago’s blaze, The Pillar of Fire, a sculpture by Egon Weiner, stands at the Robert J. Quinn Fire Academy at 558 W De Koven Street, the site of Mrs. O’Leary’s barn.

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