A Mansion Sale Built on the Myth of a Notorious CowHistorians in the News
tags: myths, Chicago, urban history, real estate, Chicago Fire
Daisy the cow almost certainly did not start the Great Chicago Fire.
But that has not stopped as many as 50 people per week from calling a Chicago real estate agent — they’re curious about a mansion he is selling that he says was built for Catherine O’Leary, the troublemaking cow’s owner.
The language in the listing for the 6,270-square-foot, four-story Englewood mansion at 726 W. Garfield Boulevard does not exactly lend itself to myth debunking: “THE FAMOUS O’LEARY MANSION!” the description of the $535,770 property proclaims. “JAMES O’LEARY HAD THIS MANSION BUILT FOR HIS MOTHER CATHERINE O’LEARY WHOSE COW ALLEGEDLY STARTED THE CHICAGO FIRE.”
The 12-bed, five-and-a-half-bath property has original woodwork and coffered ceilings, though the agent, Jose Villaseñor, told Block Club Chicago that the interior would need considerable upgrades. And, in a strange twist given the family’s history, the mansion has what may be the city’s only fire hydrant dedicated to a single home, Mr. Villaseñor told realtor.com.
But did Mrs. O’Leary actually live there?
Experts say that, much like the myth of her cow’s fateful lantern kick, her connection to the home is also dubious.
Carl Smith, the author of “Chicago’s Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City,” said it was “virtually positive” that the fire that destroyed more than 2,000 acres of Chicago started in or around the O’Leary barn on the night of Oct. 8, 1871. The blaze killed approximately 300 people, left 100,000 people — one-third of the city’s population — homeless and caused $200 million worth of property damage.
But, he said, all indications are that Mrs. O’Leary and her family were in bed when the fire broke out. Experts agree that the legend of a cow kicking over a lantern mid-milking and setting an entire city ablaze is almost certainly fiction, though no one can say as much with any definitiveness because the official inquiry into the fire was never able to determine the cause.
Historians point to a number of obvious problems with the cow story: If a cow had, in fact, kicked over a lantern while Mrs. O’Leary was milking it, why would she leave the barn and go back inside after the fire broke out? Why wouldn’t she scream for help? Why wouldn’t she try to save her cows or the barn?
So where did the cow story come from?
Ann Durkin Keating, a history professor at North Central College in Naperville, Ill., who specializes in Chicago history, said the cow story caught on because of anti-Irish and anti-immigrant sentiment — and it all started with a rogue reporter.
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