January 01, 2004

Title Insurance Records and The Great Chicago Fire (2004, 18:01)

Title Insurance Records and The Great Chicago Fire

Probate and Property, January/February 2004, Volume 18, Number 1

By Richard F. Bales
Richard F. Bales is an assistant regional counsel in the Wheaton, Illinois office of the Chicago Title Insurance Company.

On Sunday evening, October 8, 1871, fire broke out in the barn of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary, who lived in a tiny cottage at 137 DeKoven Street on Chicago’s West Side. The flames spread quickly through the shacks and shanties of this working class neighborhood. Burning brands soon jumped the Chicago River, first to the city’s South Side, then to the North Side. Before burning itself out in the early morning of Tuesday, October 10, the fire had cauterized the heart of Chicago, ravaging a swath approximately three-and-one-third square miles in size. Property valued at $192 million was destroyed, and about 300 people lost their lives.


The blame for the Chicago Fire has traditionally fallen on Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, which supposedly kicked over a lantern while she was attempting to milk the animal. The story first appeared in print in the October 9, 1871, issue of the Chicago Evening Journal, which reported (while Chicago still burned) that “the fire broke out on the corner of DeKoven and Twelfth streets, at about 9 o’clock on Sunday evening, being caused by a cow kicking over a lamp in a stable in which a woman was milking.”

Although the fire died out on the following day, the story of Mrs. O’Leary and her cow did not. An article in the October 8, 1921, Chicago Evening Post mentioned the tale, but it had evolved into a rhyme that people today still recognize. (The verse follows; note that “Mrs. O’Leary” is called “Mrs. ’Leary.” This is because the prefixes “O” and “Mc” on Irish names were often dropped during this time period.)

One dark night, when people were in bed, Old Mrs. ’Leary lit a lantern in her shed. The cow kicked it over, and winked its eye, and said, “There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight.”

But have Mrs. O’Leary and her cow been unjustly maligned all these years? Is there any truth to this story, or is the saga of the cow and lantern just one of Chicago’s first urban legends?

I became interested in the cause of the fire in 1974, when I wrote a term paper on the subject for a college course in historiography. My research disclosed that shortly after the fire, Chicago’s Board of Police and Fire Commissioners had conducted an investigation to determine the fire’s cause. The board had interviewed 50 people over 12 days. A transcript of this testimony is still preserved at the Chicago Historical Society; it consists of more than 1,100 pages in four volumes.

I also knew that the fire had destroyed the Cook County Courthouse and with it the official land records. But Chicago’s fledgling real estate community was not destined for destruction. Several private abstract companies had established and maintained their own histories of real estate transactions in what were called “tract books.” During the height of the fire, several abstract company employees hurriedly piled these books into some horse drawn carts and drove them to safety.

My employer, Chicago Title Insurance Company, now owned these tract books, giving me one of the tools I needed to write a book on the cause of the fire. I had always been interested in legal descriptions. All I had to do, I thought, was examine these pre-fire books and plats, determine who owned what in 1871, draw a map of the O’Leary neighborhood, transcribe the report of the investigation, and then reexamine the witnesses’ testimony through the lens of this drawing. What could be simpler?

In retrospect, I am astounded at my naïveté. Going through the tract books, I identified the owners of every lot in the block that the O’Learys lived on and also the owners of several additional parcels on the opposite side of DeKoven Street. Using other primary and also some secondary sources, I was able to determine where certain improvements were on the O’Leary property and on the adjoining lots. I obtained a microfilmed copy of the plat of subdivision. Using a triangular engineer’s scale, I carefully mapped out the subdivided lots onto a large sheet of paper. I added the various improvements—houses and a shed, a fence, and, of course, the famous barn. My title search revealed that DeKoven Street was widened several years after the subdivision was platted. An alley was also dedicated, bisecting the middle of the block in an east-west direction and running past the rear of the O’Leary property. I widened the road and drew in the alley. When I was finished, I had an exact scale drawing of Mr. and Mrs. O’Leary’s neighborhood as it existed on October 8, 1871.

I began working at the Chicago Historical Society every other Saturday. I discovered that the handwriting of what I called the inquiry transcript ranged from easily readable to almost illegible. I originally thought that completing this transcription might take only a few months. Instead, I spent two years at the historical society, carefully transcribing the testimony of every single witness into a notebook computer. At times the handwriting was so bad that I was forced to examine individual words with a magnifying glass to decipher these faded crabbed scratchings.

I also began reading everything I could find on the fire. Besides various books and pamphlets, I read the many letters written shortly after the fire that the historical society had amassed. I looked through microfilmed copies of all the available Chicago newspapers dating from October 8, 1871, through the end of the year. The photocopies of newspaper articles that I purchased eventually filled seven large three-ring binders. I began taking notes and making computer files. I transferred my notes onto large (5” x 8”) index cards—ultimately, about 2,000 cards.

About four years later, when my research was fairly complete, I began to write. I attempted to verify the accuracy of key statements made during the inquiry by analyzing them in conjunction with the scale drawing I had made of the O’Leary property and surrounding area. When I did so, numerous inconsistencies became apparent. These are inconsistencies that have never before been fully reported and discussed by fire historians. Because of this research, I concluded that Mrs. O’Leary and her cow did not cause the Great Chicago Fire. Furthermore, I uncovered circumstantial but solid evidence that identifies who I believe really did start the fire. I am completely convinced that a one-legged cart driver named Daniel “Peg Leg” Sullivan was the culprit. The various reasons are outlined in my book, The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow, recently published by McFarland & Company, Inc. Here is the condensed version:

Sullivan told the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners that on the night of October 8, he visited with the O’Learys until about 9 p.m. He then walked across the street, walked past his own house, and sat down against a fence in front of William White’s house. At about 9:20 p.m., he saw fire break out through the east end of the O’Leary barn. Sullivan began yelling “fire, fire,” as he hobbled across the street toward the barn. After he entered, he attempted to rescue the animals inside. Although the barn contained five cows, a calf, and a horse, he was able to rescue only the calf before he was beaten back by the smoke and flames. Exiting the barn, he ran to the O’Leary home and pounded on the door to warn them.

My research, however, suggests several inconsistencies in Sullivan’s testimony. For example, Sullivan would not have been able to see the fire from where he allegedly sat in front of White’s house; my diagram indicates that the home of James Dalton (and very likely the home of Walter Forbes) would have blocked his view of the barn.

Could Sullivan have seen the bright glow of the flames against the night sky? This also is doubtful. In August 2003, Termite Art Productions, a Studio City, California production company, filmed an episode of the Discovery Channel’s Unsolved History television program based on the theories and conclusions outlined in my book. The company constructed an exact replica of the O’Leary barn and filled it with two tons of hay, the same amount that was in the barn on October 8, 1871. It trucked in a giant fan to reproduce the wind conditions of that time. The company then set the interior of the barn on fire. Before even a hint of fire appeared on the outside of the barn, its inside was filled with thick black smoke.

The real barn was less than 50 feet from the south side of the O’Leary home. Post-fire photographs of the house (ironically, it survived the fire) indicate that a window was in this south wall. The summer of 1871 had been unusually hot and dry, and on the day of the fire, the temperature had climbed to 79 degrees by 4:00 p.m. Surely this window would have been open that evening. And just as surely the frightened cries of the animals—especially the horse, an animal with an extreme fear of fire—would have warned the O’Learys of the smoke and flames long before Sullivan’s pounding at their door.

Could Sullivan have seen the smoke of the fire? This is also doubtful. First of all, Sullivan specifically testified that he saw fire, not smoke. But even assuming that Sullivan was referring to the smoke of the burning O’Leary barn, it is still unlikely that Sullivan could have seen this smoke from where he allegedly sat across the street. Meteorological records for 1871 show that the sun had set that evening several hours before the fire broke out. These records indicate that the moon had not yet risen. There were no street lights on DeKoven Street. Because the evening of October 8 was dark, with no light, natural or otherwise, to illuminate the inky recesses of the O’Leary neighborhood, it seems clear that Sullivan would have been unable to see the black smoke of the burning barn from his spot in front of William White’s house. In fact, it is doubtful that Sullivan could have even smelled the smoke. These same meteorological records reveal that the wind was blowing from the southwest to the northeast, which meant that Sullivan was upwind from the barn.

Sullivan testified during the investigation that he could not run very fast. Using my diagram of the O’Leary neighborhood, I was able to determine that the distance Sullivan allegedly ran from in front of William White’s house to the O’Leary barn was approximately 193 feet, which is more than one-half the length of a football field. DeKoven Street was an unpaved roadway with raised dirt embankments on either side. For Sullivan to see the flames on the outside of the barn, the fire would have had to have been burning for quite some time on the inside of the barn. It seems very unlikely that Sullivan could see the flames from where he sat, run across the street hampered by his wooden leg, enter the barn, and attempt to rescue the animals without being injured by the flames or smoke.

Sullivan also testified that he could yell “loud enough” and that he shouted “fire, fire,” as he ran to the barn. But Mr. and Mrs. O’Leary and several neighbors also testified, and no one said anything about hearing his cries. The O’Learys rented a small cottage toward the front of their property to Mr. and Mrs. Patrick McLaughlin. The front (and only) door overlooked DeKoven Street. The McLaughlins were having a party that evening for Mrs. McLaughlin’s brother, who had just come to America from Ireland. Because of the hot weather, the door of the home surely was open that evening. Why didn’t Sullivan simply go up to the doorway and call for help?

And why did Sullivan sit in front of William White’s house? My diagram indicates that Sullivan would have had to walk past his own house to reach White’s home. Some historians have suggested that Sullivan sat there to enjoy the sounds of Mr. McLaughlin’s fiddle playing. But Mrs. McLaughlin testified that her husband stopped playing his fiddle a half-hour before the fire began. Did Sullivan want to simply enjoy the sounds of the McLaughlin party? If so, he probably would have sat directly in front of the McLaughlin home or in front of his own house. He would not have walked across the street, walked past his own home, and sat down in front of a neighbor’s house.

So what, then, really happened? Sullivan testified that he used to go in the O’Leary barn every evening, because at one time his mother kept her cow there. I am convinced that after Sullivan left the O’Leary home, he never went across the street to sit in front of White’s house. Instead, he went to the barn, where he somehow started the fire, most likely by accident—perhaps by dropping a match or a pipe. Sullivan immediately tried to rescue the animals. The fire spread quickly, though, and after realizing that his efforts were futile, he ran to warn the O’Learys.

Two days later, the fire was extinguished, but Sullivan needed only a fraction of that time to realize that he was responsible for leveling much of Chicago. For obvious reasons he was reluctant to admit his culpability, and so he needed an alibi. “Sitting across the street in front of William White’s house” provided him with a perfect one. He could not state that he was closer (for example, in front of his own home). Sullivan was the 14th of 50 people to testify at the inquiry. He would have had no way of knowing whom the commissioners were planning to call during the remainder of the investigation. He could not risk someone from the McLaughlin party later contradicting his testimony, stating, for example, that he or she was on the McLaughlin porch and never saw him sitting in front of his house.

The Board of Police and Fire Commissioners’ investigation has never before been fully researched by fire historians. The board’s final report, published in the Chicago newspapers on December 12, 1871, indicates that the commissioners were unable to determine how the fire started. But was this really the case?

By poring over hundreds of pages of microfilmed newspapers, I was able to reconstruct the events that led up to these hearings. For months I scrutinized the testimony of all 50 witnesses, comparing each person’s statements with other testimony and with information gleaned from real estate records, contemporary newspaper articles, and other primary and secondary sources. I eventually concluded that, contrary to their report, the commissioners could have determined the cause of the fire had they really wanted to do so. For example, these men could have vigorously questioned Daniel Sullivan and other important witnesses. Instead, it appears that the board was willing to let Mrs. O’Leary and her cow take the blame for starting the fire. It seems clear that the board was more concerned about mending the fire department’s tattered reputation—a reputation that was ravaged by post-fire stories of incompetence, drunkenness, and bribery—than it was in learning how the fire started.

The board’s final report could have had the significance of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, with board President Thomas B. Brown nailing copies to firehouse doors throughout the city. Instead, Chicagoans had to settle for the Warren Report, for in presenting their findings, the commissioners ignored key evidence, such as obvious inconsistencies in Daniel Sullivan’s testimony. It also neglected to interview several important witnesses to the fire at its early stages.

Although the Great Chicago Fire irrevocably altered the landscape of nineteenth-century Chicago, it had a profound effect on Mrs. O’Leary as well. In the days and weeks after the fire, the Chicago press continued to blame O’Leary and her cow for starting the fire. As weeks became years, she was hounded by newspaper reporters seeking interviews on every fire anniversary date. The O’Leary family moved to a series of homes, eventually settling in what was then the city’s far South Side. They tried to live as quietly as they could, refusing to talk about the fire, even with their friends, and also refusing to capitalize on their unwanted notoriety. For example, P.T. Barnum supposedly wanted Mrs. O’Leary to tour with his circus. When his agent stopped by to discuss the details, however, she reportedly chased him away with a broomstick.

On September 15, 1894, Patrick collapsed suddenly on his front stoop and died. Less than a year later, on July 3, 1895, his wife passed away, also at home. Her obituary and death certificate stated that she died of “acute pneumonia,” but her neighbors knew the real cause of death—they claimed that she died of a broken heart, so upset she was at having been blamed for the cause of Chicago’s conflagration.

On October 21, 1871, less than two weeks after the fire, a reporter for the Chicago Evening Journal presciently described Mrs. O’Leary’s place in the mythology of Chicago: “Even if it were an absurd rumor, forty miles wide of the truth, it would be useless to attempt to alter the verdict of history. Mrs. Leary has made a sworn statement in refutation of the charge, and it is backed by other affidavits; but to little purpose. She is in for it, and no mistake. Fame has seized her and appropriated her, name, barn, cows and all.” More than 130 years later, I am hopeful that my research—based to a large degree on heretofore untapped nineteenth century title insurance records—will finally prove that reporter wrong.