Study Guide

Old Mother Leary Meaning

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A Moo Point

In 1871, a fire ripped through the city of Chicago, burning everything in its path, and as the song tells us, a clumsy cow started it all:

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.'

"Old Mother Leary" is one of those sing-along classics that have been sung by generations of American children at school and summer camp. Sometimes sung as a round, sometimes beefed up with additional lyrics, the song has been entertaining folks for a century. But beneath all the musical fun is a sad story. The Great Chicago Fire killed more than 300 people and left one-third of the city's 300,000 residents homeless. Among the more than 17,000 buildings destroyed were most of the businesses downtown. All told, the fire did an estimated $200 million worth of damage (close to $4 billion in today's dollars).

Among the casualties was Catherine O'Leary's cow, named "Daisy" by the press. Mrs. O'Leary also suffered greatly from the tragedy; she survived, and her house was one of the few spared, but her reputation was destroyed. She and her dearly departed Daisy were vilified in the press and scorned by the public as the perpetrators of the conflagration. Mrs. O'Leary was portrayed as a "drunken old hag" (source), and according to her family, she was a woman broken by the abuse heaped on her when she died in 1895. 

Yet about the same time, doubts began to multiply concerning the guilt of Mother O'Leary's cow. Catherine always maintained Daisy's innocence throughout her life, and it now seems the persecuted bovine may have been framed. It may be too late for Mrs. O'Leary (and certainly too late for Daisy), but it's never too late for justice.

What We Know

Let's start with the facts. On October 8th, 1871, a fire broke out in or around the O'Leary's' barn on DeKoven Street. Patrick O'Leary was an Irish immigrant who worked as a laborer. He, his wife Catherine (Kate), and their five children lived in the small house he had purchased in 1864. To supplement the family's income, the O'Learys rented the front of their house to another family, the McLaughlins, and Kate O'Leary operated a small business. She owned five cows and sold milk to her neighbors in the Irish part of town.

According to Kate's testimony before the fire commission, she was in bed (just as the song says) around nine o'clock when neighbors shouting "fire" woke her up. She rushed outside, but her entire barn was already in flames. The fire department was alerted, but the dispatcher sent the firemen to the wrong location. By the time they arrived, the fire had spread to the surrounding homes, and fanned by a strong wind from the southwest, it was heading toward the heart of the city.

Almost all of the structures in the fire's path were made of wood, and they quickly went up in flames. The firefighters prayed that the Chicago River, lying just east of the downtown, would stop the blaze, but the coal and timber yards near the docks provided extra fuel, and Chicago's famous winds carried the embers across the river, setting the opposite bank ablaze. When the waterworks caught fire, cutting off the firefighters' water supply, the fight became hopeless. Chicago's 300,000 people could only wait for the fire to burn itself out.

On October 10th, a light rain helped bring the fire to an end, but the devastation was already enormous; an area almost one mile by four miles in size had been destroyed. Immediately people started pointing fingers—at the confused dispatcher who had misdirected the firefighters, at the city officials who had ignored all the warnings that the wood-built town was ripe for a fiery disaster, at a cow. The commission charged with investigating the fire denied reports that the firefighters were all drunk and had accepted bribes to protect some buildings and not others, but the commission did admit that the crews were exhausted from fighting another fire the previous day.

While the commission spent most of its energies studying why the fire could not be contained, it also tried to determine the fire's immediate cause. Kate O'Leary testified that her tenants, the McLaughlins, had had a party. She could hear a fiddle and the sounds of people dancing, and she added that a neighbor later told her that one of the partiers went out to her barn and milked her cows.

No one else stepped forward to corroborate this account, but it's easy to understand why Mrs. O'Leary would have been anxious to place somebody in her barn before the start of the fire. Rumors had begun to spread that her cow had started the conflagration. On October 9th, with the fire still raging out of control, the Chicago Evening Journal had reported that the cause was "a cow kicking over a lamp in a stable in which a woman was milking" (source). 

Chicago's other papers quickly adopted the explanation, and soon the allegation was accepted as fact. Over time, others came forward with supporting evidence: a boy claimed to have found the shattered lantern in the ruins of the O'Leary barn (although he also claimed that it was subsequently stolen when pressed to produce the item); neighbors said that Kate made incriminating statements, perhaps in an effort to relieve her guilt; some claimed that Kate had been drunk at the time and attempted to hide evidence of her association with the cause of the fire.

With all of these various reports flying around, Kate O'Leary quickly became an explanation and scapegoat for the catastrophic fire. All of the other factors—the slow-responding fire department, the negligence of city officials, and the uncontrollable winds—became relatively unimportant alongside the "fact" that Mrs. O'Leary had a clumsy cow.

But Did the Cow Do It?

In the decades since the Great Fire, a number of people have stepped forward to suggest that Daisy may have been framed. In fact, a reporter for the Chicago Republican, Michael Ahern, confessed decades later that he had made up the whole cow-tale in 1871 because it sounded like a good story. Looking for sensational copy, he and some reporter buddies had fingered O'Leary's cow.

Ahern may have been coming clean, but it's also possible that he may have been looking for notoriety, his place in the history books. That's how some have responded to the confession of a second would-be culprit. In 1944, prominent Chicago businessman Louis Cohn died, leaving a will that admitted his responsibility for the Chicago fire. He explained that, on that fateful night, he was in the O'Leary's barn shooting craps with a group of teens, including the O'Leary's son. In the excitement of winning, he knocked over a lantern, starting the fire. According to his deathbed account, he fled with the rest of the boys, hesitating just long enough to scoop up the money.

Cohn was never known as attention-seeker, so many were willing to buy his story, yet others found it suspicious and embraced other theories of the fire's origins. One historian, Richard Bales, places the blame on Daniel "Peg Leg" Sullivan, the O'Leary's' neighbor and the man who first shouted, "Fire." Sullivan claimed to have seen smoke spewing from the O'Leary's' barn from across the street, and good citizen that he was, he began to alert the neighborhood of the fire. Bales argues that the sight lines just don't add up, though; Sullivan could not have seen the barn from where he claimed to have been sitting. Bales speculates instead that Sullivan may have started the fire himself while feeding the cow that his mother kept in the O'Leary barn and then dashed across the street before sounding the alarm.

Another theory focuses the blame more on comets than cows or craps. Just as Chicago's fire was breaking out, another fire broke out in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, a town about 250 miles north of Chicago. Far more deadly than the Chicago fire, the Peshtigo blaze killed perhaps as many as 2,000 people. Across Lake Michigan, a third fire erupted that would eventually destroy two million acres and claim 200 lives. 

The simultaneous ignition of three deadly fires has led some to believe that a disintegrating comet was responsible. Supporters of this theory argue that this is why the fire spread quickly and easily jumped the Chicago River—all of the destruction did not stem from a single source; instead, burning-hot space debris was swept north and east by the howling winds.

We'll probably never know exactly what caused the Great Chicago Fire. The forensic tools just aren't available to answer this century old mystery (that and we don't have time machines yet). But perhaps that's for the best. A definitive answer would take all of the fun out of it, and now that hoaxers have stepped forward to claim the Loch Ness Monster and Big Foot, there aren't many good mysteries left. Of course, Daisy may continue to shoulder more than her fair share of the blame, but even that may be all right as well. She is now a Chicago legend, part of the folklore that enriches one of America's great cities. 

Bovine re-enactors audition annually to play her part in parades and civic events. Even Norman Rockwell, the artist famous for his paintings of American life, included her among his subjects. Daisy may be unjustly blamed for one the great disasters in American history, but she is also immortal, and there aren't many cows that can make that claim.

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