Catherine O'Leary

Catherine "Cate" O'Leary (née Donegan; March 1827 – 3 July 1895) was an Irish immigrant living in Chicago, Illinois who became famous when it was alleged that an accident involving her cow had started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Born Catherine Donegan, she and her husband Patrick O'Leary had three children, one of whom, James Patrick O'Leary, ran a well-known Chicago saloon and gambling hall.

Catherine O'Leary
Catherine Donegan

c. March 1827
DiedJuly 3, 1895(1895-07-03) (aged 68)
Other namesCate
Spouse(s)Patrick O'Leary

Great Chicago FireEdit

1871 illustration from Harper's Magazine depicting a shocked Mrs. O'Leary seeing her cow kicking over the lantern while she is milking.

On the evening of October 8, 1871, a fire consumed the O'Leary family's barn at 137 DeKoven Street.[1] Due to a high wind and dry conditions, it spread to burn a large percentage of the city, an event known as the Great Chicago Fire.

After the Great Fire, Chicago Republican (now defunct) reporter Michael Ahern published a claim that the fire had started when a cow kicked over a lantern while it was being milked. The owner was not named, but Catherine O'Leary soon was identified because the fire had begun in her family's barn.[2] Illustrations and caricatures soon appeared depicting Mrs. O'Leary with her cow. The idea captured the popular imagination and still is circulated widely today.[3] However, in 1893 Ahern finally admitted he had made the story up.[4]

The official report simply states: "Whether it originated from a spark blown from a chimney on that windy night, or was set on fire by human agency, we are unable to determine".[3]

Mrs. O'Leary testified that she had been in bed when the fire began, and she had no idea what caused it. Daniel "Pegleg" Sullivan, the first person to raise the alarm, said that on seeing the barn on fire, he ran to free the animals, which included a cow owned by Sullivan's mother. He then informed the O'Learys, who were in their home and were unaware of the fire.

Anti-Irish attitudes at the time encouraged making scapegoats of the O'Leary family. It was claimed that the alleged accident happened because she was drunk or that she had hidden the evidence of her guilt. Neighbors were reported to have claimed that they saw broken glass from the lamp, though all these "reports" were unverified. One man claimed he had found the damaged lamp, but it had been stolen by another Irishman to protect the O'Learys.[3]

Other rumors insisted that Daniel Sullivan had started the fire, or perhaps it was Louis M. Cohn, who claimed to have been gambling in the barn with the O'Learys' son and others.

Death and aftermathEdit

Catherine O'Leary died on July 3, 1895, of acute pneumonia at her home at 5133 Halsted Street, and was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery. In the PBS documentary Chicago: City of the Century, a descendant of O'Leary's stated that she spent the rest of her life in the public eye, and she constantly was blamed for starting the fire. Overcome with much sadness and regret, she "died heartbroken."[5]

The last living relative of Catherine O'Leary died in 1936.[6] Amateur historian Richard Bales gathered sufficient evidence on Sullivan to convince the Chicago City Council to exonerate Mrs. O'Leary of any guilt in 1997.[7]

Cultural referencesEdit

"Mrs. O'Leary's cow" has attracted the attention and imagination of generations as the cause of the fire. Numerous references, in a variety of media, have been made in American popular culture, including:


  • In the 1938 film, The Mad Miss Manton, assistant Jim tells newspaper editor Peter Ames (Henry Fonda) "That editorial really started something!" Ames replies with "So did Mrs. O'Leary's cow!"
  • The Terrytoons animated short Mrs. O'Leary's Cow (1938) depicts the cow being brought to the witness stand in court to explain her actions.
  • Character actress Alice Brady won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Mrs. O'Leary in the film In Old Chicago (1938), in which she is portrayed as a heroic figure. The film dramatizes a variant of the traditional story: She is helping her cow to suckle a new calf, but accidentally leaves the lantern behind when she departs in a hurry after being told that one of her sons has been injured in a fight.
  • Quentin Tarantino's debut film Reservoir Dogs (1992).


  • ”Sophia's Wedding Part 2”, a 1988 episode of The Golden Girls. Blanche Devereaux calls the fire department after the smoke alarm goes off in her house. While flirting with the fireman over the phone, Rose Nylund proclaims “I'll bet that's why Chicago burned down. Mrs. O’Leary was probably a tramp too.”
  • "Little Match Girl", a 1992 episode of the situation comedy Cheers.
  • "Voyage of the Damned", a 1997 episode of the sitcom Frasier.
  • In the Early Edition episode "Hot Time in the Old Town", the fire is started by a brawl in the barn. Due to the situation being so difficult to explain, the man who goes for help simply blames Mrs. O'Leary's cow.
  • In the JAG episode "The Kings of the Greenie Board", Sarah MacKenzie advises Mic Brumby that he would have a better chance of winning if he advocated Mrs. O´Leary's cow.
  • "Dream Goat!", a 2001 episode of the animated children's series The Fairly OddParents.
  • "Nobel Peace Surprise", a 2002 episode of the animated children's series Time Squad.
  • "Being Mrs. O'Leary's Cow", a 2005 episode of the drama series Medium.
  • In the Warehouse 13 episode "Personal Effects", O'Leary is connected to a cow bell which can trigger great fires, actually revealed to be the same artifact which started the Great Fire of London.
  • The Dick Van Dyke Show, Season 4 Episode 15.
  • "Gloria Poses in the Nude", Season 2 Episode 2, A 1971 episode of the sitcom All in the Family Archie mentions that he feels like Mrs. O'Leary's Cow shouting "fire!" regarding Gloria posing in the nude for an artist, but that his warnings are not being heeded.
  • In the final episode of the Netflix series Bojack Horseman, the character named Diane makes a reference to the cow, arguing that she understood why it had caused the fire.

Popular songEdit

Literary fictionEdit

  • A fictional interpretation of the story behind O'Leary's cow is central to the plot in Ilona Andrews' book Burn for Me.
  • In Unnatural Selections, a 1991 collection of Gary Larson's Far Side, the color section "The Evolution of Life on Earth"" concludes with a vision of a post-human future where cows rule the earth. One detail is a memorial statue to Mrs. O'Leary's cow. In another strip, a comic shows a series of accidents caused by Mrs. O'Leary's cow culminating in causing the fire. In yet another strip, two cows watch Chicago burning from a pasture outside of the city, mentioning an agent of theirs, heavily implying they had been abetting Mrs. O'Leary's cow.


The 1987 Williams pinball machine "Fire!" references O'Leary's cow by playing a "Moo" sound when the player inserts a coin and presses the start button. The table for this machine was inspired by the Great Chicago Fire.


  1. ^ Pierce, Bessie Louise (1957). A History of Chicago: Volume III: The Rise of a Modern City, 1871–1893 (2007 rep. ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-226-66842-0.
  2. ^ "5 Things You Probably Didn't Know about the Great Chicago Fire". DNAINFO. Archived from the original on 2019-08-29. Retrieved 2019-08-29.
  3. ^ a b c Owens, L.L. The Great Chicago Fire. ABDO. p. 7.
  4. ^ "The O'Leary Legend". Chicago History Museum. Archived from the original on 2011-01-10. Retrieved 2007-03-18.
  5. ^ "Obituary". Chicago Tribune. July 4, 1895. p. 1.
  6. ^ "Last of O'Leary Family". Harrisburg Telegraph. 26 December 1936. p. 1. Retrieved 13 September 2015 – via  
  7. ^ Edmonds, Molly. "Did the Great Chicago Fire really start with Mrs. O'Leary's cow?". HowStuffWorks. Retrieved 2011-10-07.
  8. ^ "Lyrics: "Old Mother Leary"".
  9. ^ "Lyrics: "I Could Be In Love With Someone Like You"".

External linksEdit