Catherine O'Leary

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Catherine O'Leary
Born Catherine Donegan
c. 1827
Died July 3, 1895(1895-07-03) (aged 68)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Other names Cate
Spouse(s) Patrick O'Leary
Children 3

Catherine O'Leary (also known as Cate O'Leary; ca. 1827 – 3 July 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. Catherine 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 Tribune reporter Michael Ahern published a report that the fire had started when a cow kicked over a lantern while it was being milked. The woman was not named, but Catherine O'Leary was soon identified, as the fire had begun in her barn. Illustrations and caricatures soon appeared depicting Mrs. O'Leary with the cow. The idea took the popular imagination and is still widely circulated.[2]

In 1893, however, Ahern admitted he had made the story up.[3] The official report at the time stated: "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".[2] Mrs. O'Leary herself stated that she had been in bed when the fire started, and she had no idea what set it off. Daniel "Pegleg" Sullivan, the first person to raise the alarm, reported that on seeing a fire in the barn, he ran across the street to free the animals, which included a cow owned by Sullivan's mother. He then informed the O'Learys, who were at home.

Anti-Irish attitudes at the time encouraged scapegoating the O'Leary family. It was claimed that the supposed accident happened because she was drunk, or that she hid the evidence to avoid being blamed. Neighbors later claimed to have seen shards from the broken lamp, but none of these stories could be verified. One person stated that he had found the lamp, but it had been stolen by an Irishman to protect the O'Learys.[2]

Other theories suggest that Daniel "Pegleg" Sullivan himself may have started the fire, or possibly Louis M. Cohn, who later claimed to have been gambling in the barn with the O'Learys' son and several others.

Death and aftermath[edit]

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 was constantly blamed for starting the fire. Overcome with much sadness and regret, she "died heartbroken".[4]

The last living relative of Catherine O'Leary's died in 1936.[5] Amateur historian Richard Bales was able to gather enough evidence on Sullivan to convince the Chicago City Council to exonerate Mrs. O'Leary of any guilt in 1997.[6]

Cultural references[edit]

The story of Mrs. O'Leary's Cow has attracted the attention and imagination of generations as the cause of the fire. Numerous references have been made in popular culture, in a variety of works, with the expectation that the populace will understand the reference, as:

The titles or plotlines of some other works are devoted to the subject, for example:

  • In television:
    • The 13th episode of Medium's first season is titled Being Mrs. O'Leary's Cow (2005).
  • In films:
    • The Terrytoons animated short Mrs. O'Leary's Cow (1938) depicts the bovine being brought to the witness stand in court to explain her actions.
    • Popular 1930s character actress Alice Brady won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Mrs. O'Leary in the film In Old Chicago (1938), in which she is portrayed as a heroic figure. The film dramatizes a variant of the traditional story: she is helping her cow to suckle a new calf, but accidentally leaves the lantern behind when she departs in a hurry, after being told that one of her sons has been injured in a fight.
  • In music:
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."
    • Welcome to Ashley's song, "Madame O'Leary", from The Catbird Seat EP[8] and Thursday Afternoon (Eponymous LP 2006)[9]
    • Brian Wilson's song "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" (recorded 1966-1967, released 2004)


  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. ^ a b c Owens, L.L. The Great Chicago Fire. ABDO. p. 7. 
  3. ^ "The O'Leary Legend". Chicago History Museum. Archived from the original on 2011-01-10. Retrieved 2007-03-18. 
  4. ^ "Obituary". Chicago Tribune. July 4, 1895. p. 1. 
  5. ^ "Last of O'Leary Family". Harrisburg Telegraph. 26 December 1936. p. 1. Retrieved 13 September 2015 – via  open access publication – free to read
  6. ^ Edmonds, Molly. "Did the Great Chicago Fire really start with Mrs. O'Leary's cow?". HowStuffWorks. Retrieved 2011-10-07. 
  7. ^ "Lyrics: "Old Mother Leary"". 
  8. ^ Welcome to Ashley. "Madam O'Leary" (Lyrics to "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow"). 
  9. ^ Welcome to Ashley (2006). "The Catbird Seat EP". ReverbNation. 

External links[edit]