The sacred cow of myths

An 1871 illustration from Harper’s Magazine depicts a shocked Catherine O’Leary seeing her cow kicking over the lantern while she is milking, rumored to have started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Public domain

WATERTOWN — Enough already. Stop blaming the cow!

For 150 years, Catherine O’Leary and her bovine have been shouldered the burden of suspicion of causing one of the nation’s epic tragedies. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which lasted from Oct. 8 to Oct. 10, led Americans to rethink how to develop cities and prevent such incidents. It resulted in more than 300 deaths.

It’s true that the fire began at about 8:30 p.m. in the barn of the O’Leary family. It had been very dry that summer, so much of the city was vulnerable to a blaze.

Many of the buildings were made from wood — as were the sidewalks. Wind quickly spread the fire to numerous other structures in Chicago’s business district. It devastated much of the city, although it left the O’Leary home intact.

“As the last of the flames die out, Chicagoans survey their wrecked city. Seventy-three miles of streets and 17,450 buildings have been destroyed,” according to an article titled “Chicago on Fire” on the website for the “American Experience” program on PBS. “A third of the population is homeless. Some struggle to comprehend the tragedy; others immediately set to the work of rescue and repair. An official inquiry determines that shoddy construction, lax building inspection and a poorly equipped fire department are to blame.”

Catherine O’Leary and her cow would take the fall. The story holds that the cow kicked over a lantern while O’Leary was milking it.

But this rumor was crafted by Michael Ahern, a reporter with the Chicago Republican. In 1893, he admitted in a Chicago Tribune article that he and two of his associates made the whole thing up.

Other hypotheses have circulated about what occurred. One common hunch is that someone snuck into the O’Leary barn to pilfer some milk and, in the process, knocked over a lantern.

Members of the O’Leary family denied the cow story. They said they were asleep when the fire broke out.

But while the Great Chicago Fire was eventually extinguished, the myth of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow continued to smolder. It’s likely that most Americans familiar with the event still attribute the cause to this beleaguered animal.

It hit Catherine O’Leary particularly hard. She was viewed with skepticism for the rest of her life.

She was a poor Irish immigrant and devout Roman Catholic. The luck of the Irish didn’t run as deeply in Chicago in the latter half of the 19th century that it would in ensuing years — no one suggested dyeing the Chicago River green in those days!

Bigotry against Irish Catholics was rampant. O’Leary was subjected to undeserved scorn for many years and was forced to live as a recluse.

No one in the O’Leary family was charged with starting the fire. And in 1997, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution absolving them of any blame.

However, myths are hard to shake. Sometimes it’s easier to cling to long-held beliefs despite their lack of evidence.

“Chicago seems to like to pin the blame for its misfortune on farm animals,” according to an Associated Press story by Don Babwin published Thursday. “For decades, the Cubs’ failure to get to the World Series was the fault of a goat that was once kicked out of Wrigley Field. And for well over a century, a cow belonging to Mrs. O’Leary caused the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. But just as baseball fans know the Cubs’ pre-2016 shortcomings had nothing to do with a curse put on the team by a goat’s angry owner, historians say there is no evidence that the massive blaze that destroyed a huge swath of Chicago and displaced about a third of its residents began when Catherine O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern.”

Urban planners revised their method of designing buildings, and firefighting became a science. The Chicago Fire Academy was constructed in 1956 at the site where the O’Leary home once stood. And the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 inspired the creation of Fire Prevention Week, which concluded Saturday.

Chicago literally rose from the ashes as its structures were rebuilt or replaced. So life went on for the city’s residents.

But what sticks to me about this event is the idea that legends retain a strong grip on our imaginations. Even when we see that they have no foundation, compelling stories survive.

This isn’t always a good development. We can resurrect cities after horrible tragedies, but we can’t replace truth no matter how tempting it may be.

Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to jmoore@wdt.net. They also may follow him on Twitter: @WDT_OpEd.

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