WHO STARTED THE GREAT CHICAGO FIRE?
In October 1997, the City Council of Chicago passed a resolution stating that both Mrs. Catherine O'Leary and her cow, Naomi, were not responsible for the fire that destroyed Chicago during the last century. Many from the news media interviewed Mrs. O'Leary's relatives for their feelings in the wake of this declaration of her innocence. While the interviews were interesting, there were one-sided-only Mrs. O'Leary's relatives. The descendents of her cow were never asked about how they felt. After much research in the archives of the Holstein Association located in Brattleboro, VT, I was able to trace the relatives of Mrs. O'Leary's cow. Naomi's nearest relative lives on a small farm at the last turnoff of a county road in Northern Indiana. John Sanders, a dairy farmer, owns one of the descendents of the cleared cow.
John was gracious enough to allow me to talk
with his cow but was a little concerned about being beset by a
hoard of media types. He doesn't want all the commotion of
their trucks, cameras, and lights disrupting his quiet farm. He
would prefer that the media quote from this interview instead of
stopping by his homestead. The use of this interview would allow
his cows the peace and quiet necessary for good milk production.
I would ask that you honor his request. Anyone interested in the
cow's story may reproduce this interview with my permission.
Merely footnote where you obtained the material. Thank you.
Al: Well, now that you mentioned it, you do look like an Elvira: May I call you Elvira?
Al: I can call you, Elvira, and Elvira, when you call me, you can call me, Al.
Elvira: That has a nice sound to it.
Al: Elvira, you have probably heard that the City Council of Chicago exonerated Mrs. O'Leary and Naomi for the Great Chicago Fire. As one of the descendents of the absolved cow, what can you tell me about your feelings regarding the decision to clear your family's name?
Elvira: I certainly appreciate your
willingness to talk with me. All the other writers interview the
relatives of Mrs. O'Leary. However, my forebears were there
in the barn that night, and several of them were killed. We feel
like the press has ignored us. My relatives and I didn't
like being made scapegoats, as it were, for an accident committed
by humans late that night, the 8th of
October 1871. As far as I'm concerned, the City
Council's decision is long overdue. However, I guess that
it's better late than never.
Elvira: Family tradition has it that the fire started around 9pm Sunday night. The now debunked story of the origins of the fire was that it was started by one of my relatives. Naomi was supposed to have kicked-over a lantern while Mrs. O'Leary was milking her. Now, I ask you, have you ever been on a dairy farm?
Al: Yes, as a matter of fact, I spent many summers of my youth on a farm owned by my relatives in Oxford, PA. They milked about fifty head, and most were Holsteins.
Elvira: That's great. Then you will be able to answer this question. When did they milk the cows? 9pm?
Al: No, it was always late in the afternoon. We milked at 5am and then again in the evening about 5pm. Milking of the herd took place every twelve hours.
Elvira: That's right. Imagine what a cow would feel like after eating all day from early morning to 9pm! If you had an utter, you'd feel like you were going to explode. An hour past milking time, I get to feel downright uncomfortable-believe me.
Al: Elvira, believe me, I can only imagine. However, if it wasn't an accident while milking a relative of yours, how did the fire start from your historical perspective?
Elvira: While it is clear that those 126 years
have blurred the real truth, there are some things that we do
know. My relative wasn't being milked at 9pm, and she
didn't kick over the lantern in the barn at 137 Dekoven St.
That's for sure. However, there are several rather plausible
theories about the possible origins of the fire.
On the other hand, Peg Leg's story is
that he was sitting on his front porch and saw the fire just
after it started. That was impossible because, according to
documents of the time, existing buildings would have blocked his
vision. My relatives confirm this also; he couldn't have
seen the barn at all-they never saw him sitting on his porch
as he alleges. In addition, how could someone with a wooden leg
arrive upon the scene before anyone else was able to get there?
He had to have already been in the barn when the fire started.
Reports were that he rescued a cow. That cow, a relative of mine,
passed down her eyewitness report to her offspring and they in
turn to the next generation. In the process the story got
confused and altered over time.
An interesting aside to the Cohn story is that there is some evidence that suggests that James O'Leary, the youngest son of Catherine, was one of the boys gambling with Cohn on that infamous night. It's funny how Mrs. O'Leary and her cow get exonerated and in the process, her son gets implicated. If this story of the boys gambling in the hayloft is true, they were responsible of the destruction of over 18,000 buildings and leaving over 100,000 Chicagoans homeless. It shouldn't be a surprise that they would have wanted to implicate someone else or some cow for starting the fire.
James grew up to become Big Jim O'Leary, a notorious and successful gambler. He was a gambling entrepreneur. He started off-track gambling parlors and his casino on South Halsted was one of the première gambling houses in the Midwest. However, he never owned up to being there in the barn that night, but Louis Cohn did. It has taken 126 years to get my family's name cleared of that holocaust.
Al: Are there other theories that you have heard over the years from your relatives?
Elvira: Actually, yes. Another conjecture has
come down through the family that blamed a comet for that
cataclysmic fire. It had been a particularly dry
summer-everything was brown and just waiting for a spark.
This wasn't the only fire that night. In fact, some of my
Wisconsin relatives told me about a really bad fire at Peshtigo,
which allegedly was caused by a comet. Some have speculated that
a comet might have started both the Peshtigo and Chicago fires.
The resultant fire in Wisconsin caused many times more deaths
than the one in Illinois. They also told me about other fires
around the same time in several other places worldwide including
Siberia. I don't know about this theory-I'm not
into extraterrestrial theories-but who knows. Stranger
things have happened.
Al: Well, at least you and your relatives are off the hook for starting the fire.
Elvira: True. I have had a beef about this for a long time. My follow cows have been maligned for years in history books and by the media. Either we get bad press or no press. Sometimes, I wish that I lived in India.
Move a little closer, I want to tell you
something on the Q.T. This is just between you and me. John is a
good guy. He feeds and treats us well. However, I think that even
John buys that old lie about Naomi starting the fire. When you
get a chance, look in the barn. You won't see a lantern
anywhere. I think that he feels that he is playing it safe not
having a lantern around milk cows. Old myths die slowly.
Al: Well, Elvira, thank you for taking the time to give me your thoughts on the action of exonerating Naomi for causing the great fire. I don't want to cause you any discomfort by delaying your milking.
Elvira: I guess that John forgot to tell you. I'm expecting in less than three weeks. So, John hasn't been milking me for months.
Al: That's great. Can I come back after you deliver and see your baby?
Elvira: Of course, I'd want my offspring to know you. You're the first of your species to take time to talk with me about our side of this fire controversy. Humans often think they are at the center of the universe. We all share this planet, and our histories are linked together. We just want our views known.
Al: What do you think that you will have, a male or female?
Elvira: I don't know-just as long as it has four cloven hooves.
Al: Have you thought of possible names for your calf?
Elvira: I haven't given it much thought. I've been too busy getting ready for the delivery to come up with any names.
Al: I'll try to think of some names for your calf. Tell John to call me when you deliver.
Elvira: I'll look forward to hearing some
suggestions. John's a good farmer but when it comes to
naming us, he needs some help. He named some of our herd with
numbers-no names just numbers. Can you believe that?