100 Years Ago

Reporter Confesses to Writing Fake News About the Great Chicago Fire

How a rumor ruined the reputations of Mrs. O’Leary and her cow

Front page of the Chicago Tribune on October 9, 1921

On October 9, 1921, the Chicago Tribune published a confession from the last surviving reporter who covered the Chicago Fire of 1871.

Michael Ahern, a former police reporter, admitted that he had fabricated a key detail in his original account of the devastating blaze — that of Mrs. O’Leary and her cow being to blame.

As part of the Tribune’s 50th anniversary tribute to the disaster, Ahern offered this indirect apology:

“I wish to state that the fire was not started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lamp. Nothing of the kind occurred. That version of the origin of the fire was a concoction which the writer of these reminiscences confesses to a guilty part. In justice to the maligned animal and to Mrs. O’Leary, who died many years ago, I make this belated reparation.”

Illustration from Harper’s Magazine, 1871, depicting Mrs O’Leary with her cow.
Illustration from Harper’s Magazine, 1871, depicting Mrs O’Leary with her cow.

When the fire began on October 8, 1871, Ahern was one of three night reporters on the scene. The Great Chicago Fire raged on for more than a day, killing an estimated 300 people and leaving over 100,000 others homeless.

In 1895, the disaster was said to have cost an estimated $190 million (equivalent to about $6.1 billion today) in damages.

The origin of the fire was traced to a barn on DeKoven Street, but the exact cause was still undetermined. So when Ahern and two other reporters decided to concoct their own explanation, embellishing their stories with the rumor of a woman at her milking chores and her cow kicking over a lantern.

Although it was unsubstantiated and unlikely, the public latched onto the narrative. The woman was later identified as Mrs. Catherine O’Leary, an Irish immigrant with a small dairy business and owner of the barn in question.

As the news circulated, the legend of Mrs. O’Leary and her trouble-making cow, Daisy, became entrenched in the minds of the nation.

A print of the Great fire at Chicago on October 9th, 1871. View from the west side by Gibson & Co.’s Steam Press.
Source: Library of Congress

A convenient scape(cow)

The idea of a cow igniting a barn fire that torches the city might now seem far-fetched, but without an official cause declared, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow quickly became a scapegoat for the catastrophe.

The cow, however, was dead; it was Mrs. O’Leary herself who bore the brunt of the blame. Despite the investigation confirming that she had not been in the barn when the fire began, the press was relentless. Rumors spread that she deliberately set the fire out of spite. (Coincidentally, the O’Leary’s house, which was in front of the barn, had managed to escape incineration.)

The anti-Irish sentiments of the period only fueled the falsehood. Newspapers would feature inaccurate, unflattering caricatures depicting Mrs. O’Leary as a vengeful, haggard old woman or a dim-witted servant stereotype.

Reporters hounded the family for years on end. When they couldn’t get an interview, they made up new details, going so far as to invent quotes from Mrs. O’Leary, which the reporters would only admit to long after the damage was done.

“Kicked the bucket — not the lamp:” From the Chicago Sunday Tribune on October 9, 1921
Clipped from the Chicago Tribune (October 9, 1921)

Grief and indignation

Although Mrs. O’Leary refused to talk with reporters, her longtime doctor was not as opposed. During an interview with The Tribune in 1894, Dr. Swayne Wickersham referred to his famous patient as a “strictly honest woman” with “a remarkable character.” He also gave this statement:

“It would be impossible for me to describe to you the grief and indignation with which Mrs. O’Leary views the place that has been assigned her in history. That she is regarded as the cause, even accidentally, of the Great Chicago Fire is the grief of her life. She is shocked at the levity with which the subject is treated and at the satirical use of her name in connection with it… She admits no reporters to her presence, and she is determined that whatever ridicule history may heap on her it will have to do it without the aid of her likeness.”

By that time, reconstruction efforts in Chicago had spurred on economic development and population growth. The story became a charming anecdote, but for Mrs. O’Leary, the damage to her reputation was a source of bitterness. She never cashed in on her newfound fame and instead lived as a virtual recluse for the remainder of her life.

Belated reparations

Within the above newspaper issue from October 9, 1921, the Chicago Historical Society asserted that the cause of the fire had actually been from a late night party. Apparently, a group of men were drinking beer in the rear of the barn and inadvertently set off sparks from their pipes.

After the story was published, however, others came forward with different accounts of how the fire began. Then, over 100 years later, another theory for the cause of the fire was put forth: a neighbor of the O’Leary’s, and a key witness back in 1871, made up the story to cover up the fact that he himself was the culprit. This theory could not be definitively proven, but one thing was clear — the story of Mrs. O’Leary and her cow should finally be put to rest.

In 1997, with the testimony of historians and O’Leary’s great-great-granddaughter, Chicago’s Committee on Police and Fire voted to officially exonerate Mrs. Catherine O’Leary of any wrongdoing.

Bronze sculpture “Pillar of Fire” commemorating the origin site of the Great Fire, designated a Chicago landmark in 1971.
Site of the origin of the fire (O’Leary’s barn), now a training facility for Chicago firefighters. Photo by Stephen Hogan on Flickr.

A legacy from the ashes

The overall consensus on the Great Chicago Fire is that a number of factors contributed to the extent of the damage: a city built almost entirely of wood structures, loosely enforced fire codes, severe drought conditions, strong winds, and miscommunications to the fire department.

The site of the O’Leary barn was designated a Chicago Landmark in 1971. On the commemorative plaque, the O’Learys are mentioned only in connection with the initial location, not the cause.

Unfortunately, Mrs. O’Leary didn’t live to see her reputation restored. When she died in 1895, the top headline was “MRS. O’LEARY’S COW.”

As for the reporters who helped to perpetuate the libelous story? They went unpunished; in fact, Ahern was further publicized and commended for coming forward.

For better or for worse, Mrs. O’Leary and her cow will continue to be inextricably linked with the history of the Great Chicago Fire.

Further reading:

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