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Transcript of Chicago Fire
of 1871 Mrs. O'leary's Cow Fire Fighters City Ruins Peg Leg O'Sullivan News This drawing by artist Marshall Philyaw shows how the fire might have started in the O'Leary barn. It is based on the inquiry testimony of Daniel Sullivan and Dennis Regan. Both men testified that they were in the O'Leary home on the evening of October 8, but before the fire started. Sullivan told the fire officials that he had been to the barn "hundreds of times." He also testified that the barn had a wooden floor and that the boards were wet. Perhaps the men left the O'Leary house together and walked to the barn to relax for a few minutes before going home. Did Sullivan's peg leg slip on the wet wood, causing him to stumble and drop his pipe into some hay or wood shavings? Or did he trip over Dennis Regan's feet? Perhaps Regan, relaxing against the wall of the barn, suddenly stretched out his legs as Sullivan hobbled by, causing him to lose his balance and fall. No one knows what really happened in the barn on October 8, 1871, but the evidence seems clear that the fire was not caused by Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicking over a lantern.
The evidence that most exonerates Mrs. O'Leary is, in the final analysis, the most damaging to Sullivan and Regan. At the time the fire broke out, there was no reason for anyone to believe that it would be of any great consequence. Therefore, the person responsible for the fire would most likely, upon its inception, attempt to extinguish the fire and save the O'Leary animals and property--this Sullivan and Regan did. Failing that, this person would next alert the O'Learys--this Sullivan and Regan did. Because of their incriminating behavior, and because of their equally incriminating testimony, it seems reasonable to theorize that Daniel "Peg Leg" Sullivan and Dennis Regan--and not Mrs. O'Leary and her cow--may have been responsible for the Great Chicago Fire.
The firemen were exhausted from fighting a fire the night before at the Lull & Holmes planing mill, located on Canal Street on the city's West Side. The fire had started at about 11:00 on Saturday evening and firemen fought the fire all night and through Sunday afternoon. Many of them had not eaten and had virtually no sleep before being called out to the O'Leary barn. Chicago Engine No. 5 was one of the first engines to appear at the scene of the fire, having responded to the call for box 342. Shortly after arriving at the fire, however, the engine broke down. Even though it was repaired minutes later, albeit temporarily, the damage was done. In that short interim, the fire crossed Taylor Street, and as the flames traveled northeast, many believed that the fire was already out of control. Historians agree that on Sunday evening, October 8, 1871, the Chicago Fire did indeed start in the barn of Mr. and Mrs. Patrick and Catherine O'Leary. While the blaze ironically spared the O'Leary home, located on the city's West Side at 137 De Koven Street, much of the rest of Chicago was not so fortunate. Before the fire died out in the early morning of Tuesday, October 10, it had cut a swath through Chicago approximately three and one-third square miles in size. Property valued at $192,000,000 was destroyed, 100,000 people were left homeless, and 300 people lost their lives. The O'Learys sold their property in 1879 to Anton Kolar and his wife. They tore down these buildings and built a two-story house on the land. The house was eventually demolished in 1955. Fire Academy now stands on the O'Leary property. On the first floor of this academy, down a hallway, a maltese cross is painted on the floor. It is said that this cross marks the actual location of the O'Leary barn.