Fact or fiction: Was the ‘Great Chicago Fire’ started by a cow?
Myths can often be misconceived as facts, especially if they’ve been around for long enough, or seem the slightest bit believable. An urban legend surrounding the real cause of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 has been all but accepted as truth. A classic rumor suggests that a cow caused the infamous fire, but is that actually true?
The story behind the fire
For three days in 1871, Chicago was completely engulfed in flames. The infamous Great Chicago Fire caused over $200 million in damages, and it destroyed more than three square miles of the then-industrious city. In addition, 300 people died in the flames.
History fans are fascinated by the story behind the fire, but a rumor has spread that the fire was actually caused by an Irish woman named Mrs. O’Leary and her cow. The story suggests that the cow knocked over a lantern while O’Leary was milking it, starting a fire that couldn’t be tamed.
Is this true?
Actually, the cow was not to blame at all. Perhaps people love the idea of a silly cow tipping over a lantern and causing the biggest fire in American history, but it’s not true. The cow had nothing to do with the fire. So, who started the rumor?
Shortly after the fire, Chicago Tribune reporter Michael Ahern published the story about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. Years later, in 1893, Ahern retracted his statements. He invented the rumor to write an exciting story. But the damage was already done.
An innocent bystander
Chicago was home to many anti-Irish sentiments in the late 1800s, like many other cities. Because Mrs. O’Leary was Irish, everyone turned on her after the fire—believing every word in Ahern’s original news story. O’Leary became a scapegoat, and few believed her story that she was asleep at the time the fire started. She lived with the pain of her neighbors’ suspicion until her death in 1894.
So, who actually started the fire? No one really knows for sure, but we now know that it definitely wasn’t O’Leary’s cow. This is one rumor you can ignore.