Fake News from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871

Fake News from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871
Harper's Magazine, 1871

On the evening of October 08, 1871, the city of Chicago burned.  It was at the time the worst fire to strike a city.  Today, it still holds that ranking.  If this were January 12, 1871, Chicago would be on its way to a recovery nobody thought possible on that horrible night in October.  Over 20,000 temporary housing units were hurriedly constructed and provided immediate shelter for those who survived and stayed the terrible Chicago burn.  Mrs. O’Leary, an Irish immigrant, was accused of having started the fire due to the actions of one of her cows.  She lived and died with that lie, even though the reporter who made it up went unpunished and was even heralded.


In 1871, there was no such thing as “fake news”, only lies.

And Michael Ahern, of the Chicago Republican newspaper, created a whopper.  He also picked on a subject that could not defend itself: a cow.  Mrs. Catherine O’ Leary’s cow, to be exact.  Ahern lied about the cow’s activities of the evening of October 08, 1871, the date the Great Chicago Fire started.


According to Ahern, said cow kicked over a lantern that burned a third of Chicago to the ground and left 100,000 people homeless.   Mrs. O’Leary, 137 DeKoven St, who  had a milk run, defended her cow, but the damage was done.  Her name was toast.  She was the reason for the Chicago Burn, she and her cow.  It was only in 1893, that Ahern confessed that he had made up the story from thin ash.  However, Mrs. O’Leary’s name and her cow were not able to sue for libel and the story lived on.  Today, the Chicago Fire Academy is located on the site of her former home, which, thanks to the luck of the Irish and strong winds out of the west, did not burn.

In 1997, the Chicago city council exonerated Catherine and her cow, according to the Chicago Tribune.

“We always knew that she was innocent,” said Nancy Knight Connolly, the great-great-granddaughter of Mrs. O’Leary. “But everybody else thought they did it. So now we’ll be exonerated.”

Mrs. O’Leary went to her grave in 1895 denying her guilt, but the milk was spilt.

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