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Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow Probably Didn’t Start the Chicago Fire


Historians point to a number of obvious problems with the cow story: If a cow had, in fact, kicked over a lantern while Mrs. O’Leary was milking it, why would she leave the barn and go back inside after the fire broke out? Why wouldn’t she scream for help? Why wouldn’t she try to save her cows or the barn?

So where did the cow story come from?

Ann Durkin Keating, a history professor at North Central College in Naperville, Ill., who specializes in Chicago history, said the cow story caught on because of anti-Irish and anti-immigrant sentiment — and it all started with a rogue reporter.

More than 20 years after the fire, Michael Ahern, who at the time was a reporter for The Chicago Republican, admitted that he had concocted the cow tale because it made for a better story. His story had not implicated Mrs. O’Leary by name, but Ms. Keating said Catherine O’Leary — an Irish immigrant — was an all-too-convenient scapegoat.

“Within 48 hours, they’re blaming the O’Learys for this,” Ms. Keating said. “Mrs. O’Leary in particular. They were looking for a scapegoat, and she was Irish and a woman.”

Newspapers published caricatures depicting Mrs. O’Leary as bumbling, ignorant and, in one case, a “drunken old hag.” They leaned on ethnic stereotypes as they lampooned the stupidity of the “old Irish woman” who “swore she would be revenged on a city that would deny her a bit of wood or a pound of bacon.”

(And that the O’Leary home survived the fire while much of the rest of the neighborhood burned didn’t exactly help matters, Ms. Keating said.)

In 1997, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution that exonerated Mrs. O’Leary and her cow. But it was far too late for Catherine, who never allowed herself to be photographed and who, according to her physician, bore the weight of blame and notoriety until she died in 1895.

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