Mrs. O’Leary would have denied the accuracy of most of the lyrics, but this line was drawn from her own testimony.
Catherine O’Leary spent the rest of her life rebutting charges that she and/or her cow started the Great Chicago Fire, but she would have conceded the accuracy of the information presented in this opening line, as it was drawn from her own testimony before the commission charged with investigating the 1871 fire. “I was in bed myself and my husband and five children when this fire commenced,” she told the three-member Board of Police and Fire Commissioners.
If O’Leary’s testimony was truthful, the O’Learys were clearly not a family of night owls, as witnesses and fire reports suggest the fire started shortly after 9:00 p.m. An early bedtime was certainly believable for this family, though. Kate O’Leary kept five cows and operated a small milk business, and it’s not uncommon for dairy farmers to begin milking around 5 a.m. It’s not essential that the cows be milked this early, but it is essential that they be milked twice a day, about twelve hours apart. If they are not, the cows will become uncomfortable. In addition, an erratic milking schedule will lead to reduced milk production.
If a toppled lantern started the Chicago Fire, it was probably a kerosene lantern.
Amazingly absent from most accounts of the Great Chicago Fire is the exact type of lantern supposedly responsible for the conflagration, although a reasonable guess can be ventured. During the first half of the 19th century, a variety of fuels were used in lanterns, including fish oil, whale oil, sesame oil, olive oil, and even beeswax. After 1860, though, with the expansion of oil production, kerosene (which is made from petroleum) became the most common type of lantern fuel.
In fact, one famous lithographer, Kellogg & Bulkeley, took advantage of the fire to preach against the dangers of kerosene lamps. Under their print of Mrs. O’Leary and her cow, they placed a caption that read "A Warning to All Who Use Kerosene Lamps: Never forget that more lives have been lost, and more comfortable homes burned up by a Careless Use of this light than any other ever introduced into common use." We wonder how K&B would feel about the amount of oil we use on a regular basis these days.
This line raises a couple of questions. Who is winking—the cow or Mother Leary? And if the cow: can cows even wink?
It’s not all that clear who is doing the winking in this song. This rendition has Mother O’Leary leaving a lantern in the shed, which would make the guilty cow the winker, but another version of the song says that O’Leary “lit” the lantern rather than “left” the lantern, which allows for the possibility that O’Leary, in some sort of pyromaniac excitement, winked and uttered the famous line: "There’ll be a hot time in the old town, tonight."
It wouldn’t have taken much to convince Chicagoans of the late 19th century that Mrs. O’Leary had set the fire on purpose, though. Despite being a nation founded on immigration—particularly from England, Spain, and the Netherlands—, over the years Americans have built up an unfortunate reputation for being less than welcoming to new immigrants. During the 1800s, Irish Americans in particular were treated horribly in many cities. They were considered to be beneath those who were born in the United States, and many faced job discrimination based on their heritage alone. Whether or not Catherine O’Leary had anything to do with setting the Great Chicago Fire, locals would have been quick to believe that a mischievous Irish woman not only started the blaze, but also winked as the flames began to rise.
But maybe it was the cow winking. We don’t need to get into whether or not cows can wink, since it's pretty clearly using that image figuratively, to be kind of silly (for the record: they can). The song seems to be portraying the cow (if it is winking) as mischievous, lending credence to the idea that Catherin O’Leary might not have been responsible in any way after all.
The tune for “Old Mother Leary” was taken from a slightly older ragtime song. These are the only lyrics that were retained from the older piece.
“Old Mother Leary” was based on a ragtime song written by Theodore August Metz and Joe Hayden. Entitled "A Hot Time in the Old Town," the song was written, according to Metz, while traveling with a minstrel show in 1886. As their troupe passed through a village named Old Town, they saw a cabin on fire. One of the players turned to Metz and said, “There'll be a hot time in Old Town tonight,” and the song was born.
"A Hot Time in the Old Town" quickly became a minstrel show standard. It was a favorite among US soldiers during the Spanish-American war, and several universities adopted it as a fight song. No one knows who plugged Mother Leary and her cow into the older ragtime song or when exactly they did the plugging, though.