Catherine O'Leary

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Catherine O'Leary
Catherine Donegan

c. March 1827
DiedJuly 3, 1895(1895-07-03) (aged 68)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Burial placeMount Olivet Cemetery
Other namesCate
SpousePatrick O'Leary

Catherine "Cate" O'Leary (née Donegan; March 1827 – July 3, 1895) was an Irish immigrant living in Chicago, Illinois, who became famous when it was alleged that an accident involving her cow had started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Born Catherine Donegan, she and her husband, Patrick O'Leary, had three children, one of whom, James Patrick O'Leary, ran a well-known Chicago saloon and gambling hall.

Great Chicago Fire[edit]

1871 illustration from Harper's Magazine depicting a shocked Mrs. O'Leary seeing her cow kicking over the lantern while she is milking.

On the evening of October 8, 1871, a fire consumed the O'Leary family's barn at 137 DeKoven Street.[1] Due to a high wind and dry conditions, it spread to burn a large percentage of the city, an event known as the Great Chicago Fire.

After the Great Fire, Chicago Republican (now defunct) reporter Michael Ahern published a claim that the fire had started when a cow kicked over a lantern while it was being milked. The owner was not named, but Catherine O'Leary soon was identified because the fire had begun in her family's barn.[2] Illustrations and caricatures soon appeared depicting Mrs. O'Leary with her cow. The idea captured the popular imagination and still is circulated widely today.[3] However, in 1893 Ahern finally admitted he had made the story up.[4]

The official report simply states: "Whether it originated from a spark blown from a chimney on that windy night, or was set on fire by human agency, we are unable to determine".[3]

Mrs. O'Leary testified that she had been in bed when the fire began, and she had no idea what caused it. Daniel "Pegleg" Sullivan, the first person to raise the alarm, said that on seeing the barn on fire, he ran to free the animals, which included a cow owned by Sullivan's mother. He then informed the O'Learys, who were in their home and were unaware of the fire.

Anti-Irish attitudes at the time encouraged making scapegoats of the O'Leary family. It was claimed that the alleged accident happened because she was drunk or that she had hidden the evidence of her guilt. Neighbors were reported to have claimed that they saw broken glass from the lamp, though all these "reports" were unverified. One man claimed he had found the damaged lamp, but it had been stolen by another Irishman to protect the O'Learys.[3]

Other rumors insisted that Daniel Sullivan had started the fire, or perhaps it was Louis M. Cohn, who claimed to have been gambling in the barn with the O'Learys' son and others. One of the O'Leary's sons, James Patrick O'Leary, who was only 2 years old at the time of the fire, did go on to become a well-known gambling boss and saloon owner in Chicago.

Death and aftermath[edit]

O'Leary's grave at Mount Olivet Cemetery

Catherine O'Leary died on July 3, 1895, of acute pneumonia at her home at 5133 Halsted Street, and was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery. In the PBS documentary Chicago: City of the Century, a descendant of O'Leary's stated that she spent the rest of her life in the public eye, and she constantly was blamed for starting the fire. Overcome with much sadness and regret, she "died heartbroken."[5]

The last remaining relative of Catherine O'Leary died in 1936.[6] Amateur historian Richard Bales gathered sufficient evidence on Sullivan to convince the Chicago City Council to exonerate Mrs. O'Leary of any guilt in 1997.[7]

Cultural references[edit]

Popular songs[edit]

  • "Old Mother Leary," a parody of the minstrel song "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" (1896):[8]

    Late one night, when we were all in bed,
    Old Mother Leary left a lantern in the shed;
    And when the cow kicked it over, she winked her eye and said,
    There'll be a hot time in the old town, tonight.

  • Brian Wilson's song "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow", released on the 2004 album Brian Wilson Presents Smile
  • Chicago band Welcome to Ashley's song "Madame O'Leary", released on their 2007 EP The Catbird Seat
  • O'Leary's Cow by Johnny Horton
  • Cate O'Leary, We're Sorry by The Entire City Of Chicago, a piece composed by YouTuber Rob Scallon and his team as part of an Instrument Roulette challenge[9]

Literary fiction[edit]

  • A fictional interpretation of the story behind O'Leary's cow is central to the plot in Ilona Andrews' book Burn for Me.


  1. ^ Pierce, Bessie Louise (1957). A History of Chicago: Volume III: The Rise of a Modern City, 1871–1893 (2007 rep. ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-226-66842-0.
  2. ^ "5 Things You Probably Didn't Know about the Great Chicago Fire". DNAINFO. Archived from the original on August 29, 2019. Retrieved August 29, 2019.
  3. ^ a b c Owens, L.L. The Great Chicago Fire. ABDO. p. 7.
  4. ^ "The O'Leary Legend". Chicago History Museum. Archived from the original on January 10, 2011. Retrieved March 18, 2007.
  5. ^ "Obituary". Chicago Tribune. July 4, 1895. p. 1.
  6. ^ "Last of O'Leary Family". Harrisburg Telegraph. December 26, 1936. p. 1. Retrieved September 13, 2015 – via open access
  7. ^ Edmonds, Molly (March 14, 2008). "Did the Great Chicago Fire really start with Mrs. O'Leary's cow?". HowStuffWorks. Retrieved October 7, 2011.
  8. ^ "Lyrics: "Old Mother Leary"".
  9. ^ "Instrument Roulette". YouTube.

External links[edit]