Goodness, Gracious, Great Chicago Fire!!


[photo courtesy of]

A few days ago I was sitting outside on a small bench thoroughly enjoying a sunny, breezy Chicago Autumn afternoon.  I felt something moving across the back of my hand.  It was a ladybug; I watched her in pure delight as she hurried across my fingers, exploring her newly found territory, while I smiled at her curiosity.  I suddenly recalled a song I had learned as a child:

“Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home;

Your house is on fire, your children are at home!”

Repeat 🙂

 I have absolutely no idea where this little refrain comes from; certainly it is not the happiest of children’s rhymes.  But it got me thinking about the “Great Chicago Fire”.  Upon further investigation, didn’t it turn out to be the very same day 143 years earlier; October 8th, 1871.  The fire lasted for two days.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871; clearly, it was a real “barn burner” at that!  Now, I need to clear something up straight away.  We’ll start with another little ditty of yesteryear:

“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 on the old town tonight.


[photo courtesy of]

As the fiery legend goes, Catherine O’Leary’s barn caught on fire when a cow kicked over a lantern, thus igniting the beginning of a fire that obliterated over 17,000 buildings, killed approximately 300 people, and covered four square miles of destruction.

Let’s be the proverbial “fly on the wall” and take a peek at some of the monumental wreckage in the aftermath of the flames:

Chicago Fire 1

State and Madison Streets (which, by the way, I happen to walk around quite frequently; I cannot even imagine what it must have been like during the Great Fire);

Chicago Fire 2

(Courthouse and City Hall); and

Chicago Fire 3

(The Chicago Tribune Newspaper Building at the corner of Dearborn and Madison; another area I frequent quite often.)

[photos courtesy of]

Now, where was I? Oh yes, Mrs. O’Leary and her bovine scapegoat.  Shortly after the Great Fire was a charred memory,  Chicago Tribune reporter Michael Ahern wrote a story noting that the initial spark had begun when a cow kicked over a lantern whilst a woman was milking it.  Despite not being named in the story, Mrs. O’Leary shouldered the blame for the Chicago inferno, as her barn was the origin of the blaze.  Mrs. O’Leary declared that she was in bed when the barn fire started.  A rather colorful character named, “Daniel ‘Pegleg’ Sullivan” stated that he witnessed flames arising from the O’Leary barn, which prompted him to try and free the animals.

Now, here’s where things become a bit on the sketchy side.  There was speculation that ‘ol “Pegleg” himself had started the fire, clearly pointing a scorched, guilty finger in the direction of poor, innocent Mrs. O’Leary.

A rather spark-laden theory gives rise to Pegleg himself causing the fire by dropping a pipe or knocking over a lantern in the O’Leary barn.  It was known that he often took hay from the barn to feed one of his own cows.

Ah, just when you thought Mrs. O’Leary was going down in a blaze of anything but glory, enter City of Chicago Alderman Edward Burke.  In 1997, Alderman Burke officially exonerated Mrs. O’Leary and Daisy (the cow, who else?) of any wrongdoing in the largest fire Chicago has ever seen.

You are going to love this!  Would you believe Mrs. O’Leary’s house was untouched by the runaway flames?  It is true; due to the direction of the wind, the O’Leary home was untouched:

Chicago Fire 5[photo courtesy of]

The O’Leary house may have remained intact after the Great Chicago Fire, but Mrs. O’Leary’s spirit did not.  She was devastated by the accusations of responsibility for the fire; consequently, Mrs. O’Leary lived the rest of her life in despair and sadness.

The irony of life; take a look at the following photo, and I’ll be back to let you in on a smoldering secret:

Chicago Fire 6

[photo courtesy of]

This is a flame sculpture in front of the Chicago Fire Academy where our extraordinarily brave firefighters commence their training.  Would you care to take a wild guess as to what structure stood in this very spot prior to 1956?

Now the Chicago Fire Academy stands on the ground of your land, Mrs. O’Leary, reminding those who walk through its halls of the imperative, demanding nature of their work.  Perhaps Mrs. O’Leary is smiling at the sentiment.  Rest in peace, Mrs. O’Leary; the flames of the accusatory fire have long been extinguished.

  30 comments for “Goodness, Gracious, Great Chicago Fire!!

  1. October 11, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    Our cow kicking off a lantern to create. disaster of a century :O


    • October 11, 2014 at 8:39 pm

      Alo Andy! Good evening! *LOL* 😉 Cher xo


      • October 11, 2014 at 9:24 pm

        Elo!! 😀😀


      • October 11, 2014 at 9:59 pm

        I hope you have a great long weekend! Happy Thanksgiving! Cher xo


  2. October 11, 2014 at 8:40 pm

    What a great, informative post! So sad, the city so destroyed. everything was made of wood I suppose. That would be a horrible burden for anyone to shoulder.


    • October 11, 2014 at 8:42 pm

      Thank you so much, John! Yes, I am afraid this dear woman became the brunt of blame when the real culprit(s) were too afraid to own up to what they had done. Cher xo


  3. October 11, 2014 at 8:52 pm

    Fantastic post!


    • October 11, 2014 at 9:58 pm

      Why thank you so much! You have made my entire week!! Cher xo


  4. October 11, 2014 at 8:57 pm

    Late last night when we were all in bed…….I’m singing it now!


    • October 11, 2014 at 9:59 pm

      *LOL* Oh Cindy, I kept singing it the entire time I was writing the post! It was very distracting *but in a fun way*! Cher xo


  5. Don
    October 11, 2014 at 11:25 pm

    Cher, this is brilliant. You have such a writing gift. I loved the post – what a story. I’ll never forget Mrs. O’ Leary, and by the way I remember that little Ladybug song so well – I’d forgotten it and your reminder has brought back so many memories and other little songs we used to sing. Tonight I’m going to drink a toast to Mrs. O’ Leary. 🙂


    • October 12, 2014 at 10:34 am

      Oh dear Don! You have no idea what a positive impact your words have had on me. I cannot thank you enough! And yes, I too had forgotten the Ladybug song until the dear little spotted bug landed on my hand! And yes, Mrs. O’Leary! Thank you for toasting this tortured soul who did nothing wrong but to have a barn that was accessible to others (unbeknownst to her). Thank you, Don!! Hugs, Cher xo


  6. October 12, 2014 at 4:51 pm

    Informative, entertaining story. I remember both those ditties well.


    • October 12, 2014 at 5:05 pm

      Thank you so much! I must say that I cannot get either one of those ditties out of my head! Cher xo


  7. mk
    October 12, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    Great story! No such thing as coincidence!


    • October 12, 2014 at 5:41 pm

      Oh, thank you so much! And to your sentiment: I agree wholeheartedly!! Cher xo


  8. October 12, 2014 at 10:02 pm

    Absolutely love this story. I always thought it was Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. That’s all I ever heard. What a lovely story and so beautifully told. Also, love the sculpture at the Fire Academy.


    • October 13, 2014 at 7:06 am

      Thank you so much, dear Carol! It must have been horrible for poor Mrs. O’Leary to be blamed for such a tragedy, when there was never any concrete proof that she had anything do to with the fire. Isn’t that sculpture beautiful! Thank you, Carol! Cher xo


  9. October 13, 2014 at 9:45 am

    Another lovely informative post, Cher. I’m sure it’s all been forgiven now!


    • October 13, 2014 at 10:41 am

      Thank you so much, Veronica! Yes, I think so too!! 😉


  10. October 13, 2014 at 2:32 pm

    That’s a more interesting version than we got on our river trip a few years ago.


    • October 13, 2014 at 2:36 pm

      Oh, what did your docent tell the people on your tour, Hilary?


  11. November 7, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    We have a local saying: It is better that one’s house be ransacked by robbers than be burned to the ground. (Translation is mine.) Unfortunately, I know the feeling. Our house burned. Not once. Twice. 😦


    • November 7, 2014 at 1:36 pm

      Oh dear, no! I am so sorry to hear this! I’m sending you extra protective energy, Cher xo

      Liked by 1 person

      • November 7, 2014 at 1:41 pm

        That was a long time ago, That’s the reason I have less photos to show. Most of our possessions went up in smoke. It was sad but a part of life.
        We have moved on. 🙂


      • November 7, 2014 at 1:47 pm

        Well your phenomenal spirit was not affected by one single smoke-filled space; a true testament to your internal fortitude (I know that’s a lot of words and it might not make sense the way I wrote it!) *laughs at self* xo

        Liked by 1 person

      • November 7, 2014 at 2:01 pm

        I do appreciate them. Thank you. 🙂


      • November 7, 2014 at 2:03 pm

        🙂 xo


  12. April 4, 2015 at 1:34 pm

    What a fab post….interesting story.. one I’d not heard before. Poor Mrs O’Leary!


    • April 4, 2015 at 2:33 pm

      Why thank you so much! Yes, bless her, poor Mrs. O’Leary! Innocent and yet lambasted for a horrible fire. Cher xo


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