Cover image for The Great Chicago Fire and the myth of Mrs. O'Leary's cow
The Great Chicago Fire and the myth of Mrs. O'Leary's cow
Bales, Richard F., 1951-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland, [2002]

Physical Description:
xii, 338 pages : illustrations, maps ; 27 cm
A city on fire -- The exoneration of Mrs. O'Leary -- Debunking other myths -- The real cause -- The inquiry--charade or coverup? -- Mrs. O'Leary's legacy -- Afterword -- Questions, mysteries, and controversies -- Behind the conclusions -- "How it originated"--the McDermott letter and the O'Leary and Sullivan affidavits -- Selections from the transcript of the inquiry into the cause of the Chicago Fire and actions of the fire department -- "After the inquiry"--The December 12, 1871, Report of the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners -- Sources consulted for photographs, drawings, and diagrams.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
F548.42 .B23 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 swallowed up more than three square miles in two days, leaving thousands homeless and 300 dead. Throughout history, the fire has been attributed to Mrs. O'Leary, an immigrant Irish milkmaid, and her cow. On one level, the tale of Mrs. O'Leary's cow is merely the quintessential urban legend. But the story also represents a means by which the upper classes of Chicago could blame the fire's chaos on a member of the working poor.Although that fire destroyed the official county documents, some land tract records were saved. Using this and other primary source information, Richard F. Bales created a scale drawing that reconstructed the O'Leary neighborhood. Next he turned to the transcripts--more than 1,100 handwritten pages--from an investigation conducted by the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners, which interviewed 50 people over the course of 12 days. The board's final report, published in the Chicago newspapers on December 12, 1871, indicates that commissioners were unable to determine the cause of the fire. And yet, by analyzing the 50 witnesses' testimonies, the author concludes that the commissioners could have determined the cause of the fire had they desired to do so. Being more concerned with saving their own reputation from post-fire reports of incompetence, drunkenness and bribery, the commissioners failed to press forward for an answer. The author has uncovered solid evidence as to what really caused the Great Chicago Fire.

Author Notes

Richard F. Bales is Assistant Regional Counsel for the Wheaton, Illinois, office of Chicago Title Insurance Company.

Table of Contents

Thomas F. Schwartz
Acknowledgmentsp. vii
Forewordp. 1
Prefacep. 3
Chapter 1 A City on Firep. 9
Chapter 2 The Exoneration of Mrs. O'Learyp. 51
Chapter 3 Debunking Other Mythsp. 85
Chapter 4 The Real Causep. 112
Chapter 5 The Inquiry--Charade or Coverup?p. 139
Epilogue: Mrs. O'Leary's Legacyp. 165
Afterwordp. 176
Appendix A Questions, Mysteries, and Controversiesp. 179
Appendix B Behind the Conclusionsp. 195
Appendix C "How It Originated"--The McDermott Letter and the O'Leary and Sullivan Affidavitsp. 201
Appendix D Selections from the Transcript of the Inquiry into the Cause of the Chicago Fire and Actions of the Fire Departmentp. 204
William J. Brownp. 213
Mathias Schaeferp. 215
Catherine O'Learyp. 217
Catherine Sullivanp. 224
Dennis Reganp. 226
Catharine McLaughlinp. 228
Patrick O'Learyp. 234
Daniel Sullivanp. 236
Michael C. Hickeyp. 242
John Tollandp. 253
James H. Hildrethp. 254
Robert A. Williamsp. 271
Appendix E "After the Inquiry"--The December 12, 1871, Report of the Board of Police and Fire Commissionersp. 294
Appendix F Sources Consulted for Photographs, Drawings, and Diagramsp. 302
Annotated Bibliographyp. 309
Indexp. 335