We “officially” stopped blaming Mrs. O’Leary for the Great Chicago Fire in 1997, but, in reality, it’s been well known since day one that she didn’t start the fire. Plenty of stories go around as to who really started it – most of them revolve around people breaking into the barn to get milk for a party or to play a prank; Mrs. O’Leary’s son claimed that it was started by – and I’m not making this up – ‘spontaneously combusting green hay. But the story that it was Mrs. O’Leary came from, in my friend and former driver Hector’s words, “an anti-Irish newspaper called The Chicago Tribune.”
And he’s spot-on – Trib articles from 1871-72 about her and her neighbors are awash with lines about “typical Irish knownothingness” and stuff like that. No wonder Mrs. O’Leary ended up so bitter and unwilling to talk to the press.
But here’s something I hadn’t heard. From the Tribune, barely six weeks after the fire:
“A long and weary search by Messrs. Garrick and Cather, who enter for the public at the Royal Palm, No. 56 West Randolph Street, has resulted in the discovery of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. With true Irish inconsistency, they secured her tail, intending to serve it up on Thanksgiving Dar as ox-tail soup. With such an introduction to dinner, the other rare delicacies will, doubtless, not fail to be appreciated.”