Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Currier & Ives print of the Great Chicago Fire – looking north across the Randolph St. Bridge (copy)

Neither the infamous Mrs. Catherine O’Leary (1827-1895) nor her cow were Jewish, but the person who was most likely responsible for the Great Chicago Fire was.

The inferno that began on October 8, 1871, essentially burned down the entire city of Chicago, killed about 300 people, destroyed 3.3 square miles of the city, caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage (in today’s dollars), and left more than 100,000 citizens – more than one out of every three residents – homeless.

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The spread of the Chicago fire was exacerbated by several factors, including the fact that the city had sustained an incredibly dry season, having received only an inch of rain from July 4 to the time of the fire, and strong southwest winds that quickly carried burning ashes across the city. Most of Chicago featured wooden construction, including most city buildings (which also had highly flammable roofs of tar or shingle roofs) and city streets and roads. The entire city was protected by only 185 firefighters and 17 horse-drawn steam pumpers, and the city’s water system had not been maintained.

Moreover, a comedy of errors ensued, including the failure of an alarm sent from the area near the fire to register with the designated watchman who, upon learning of the fire, proceeded to send the firemen to the wrong place.

Print of Chicago burning (1871).

Later, the hopes of fire officials that the Chicago River would serve as a natural barrier to the further spread of the flames were dashed because, first, flammable waste had collected in the river because of years of improper disposal methods used by local businesses and, second, because burning debris blown by the wind carried across the river to the Chicago lumber yards and warehouse. The dire situation turned even worse when a burning piece of wood fell on the roof of the city’s waterworks and, within mere minutes, the building was destroyed and the city’s water mains within ran dry.

Ironically, in 1956, the remaining structures on the original O’Leary property were torn down to construct the training facility for the Chicago Fire Academy. Pillar of Fire, a bronze sculpture of stylized flames by sculptor Egon Weiner (1906-1987), was erected on the site in 1961. His parents, who both committed capital offenses under Nazi law – his father was a Jew and his mother was a Catholic who had married a Jew – were both murdered after Egon fled Vienna for the United States in 1938.

Copy of woodblock print of Chicago’s Jewish Maxwell Street slum by Todros Geller (1889-1949), a renowned Jewish artist and master printmaker. The slum was only a few blocks away from the O’Leary barn.

At the time of the Great Fire, Chicago’s population was at 334,000, of which some 4,000 were Jews, most of whom were wholesale or retail merchants. O’Leary’s barn was located just southwest of Chicago’s major Jewish settlement at the time, and the Jewish community was particularly hard hit by the fire because so many of its homes and businesses were located in the downtown area. According to newspaper accounts, many Jews were killed rushing into burning structures to save others, and 500 Jewish families were left homeless. The new Jewish hospital was destroyed, burning alive thirteen patients, and five of the city’s seven synagogues were destroyed – including Beth El, which had been organized on the very eve of the fire – as were four B’nai Brith lodges.

In the days and weeks following the fire, monetary donations flowed into Chicago from around the country and abroad, along with donations of food, clothing, and other goods, but the only Jewish relief committee organized to support the Jewish victims of the fire was the B’nai Brith Committee, which sent out national solicitations for aid, received funds and supplies, and worked together with the Hebrew Relief Association to distribute the assistance. The Chicago Times noted with great approval that the Jews, who as a community could always be counted on to take care of their own, generated support from within the Jewish community and did not seek aid from the gentiles.

In the wake of the fire, substantial economic problems led a number of synagogues to consider a merger, including particularly the KAM and Sinai congregations, but the plan failed because Sinai insisted that services be held on Sunday instead of Shabbat.

Experts all agree that the conflagration began at Patrick and Catherine O’Leary’s barn in back of their property at 137 DeKoven Street, where two tons of hay (her husband says it was three tons) to weather the coming bitter Chicago winter had been delivered and stored shortly before the fire. However, although the experts generally agree about the reasons for the fire not being stopped before it caused such incomprehensible damage, as discussed above, Chicago officials could never determine the actual source and cause of the blaze. Various theories have been offered, but the preeminent lore that has withstood the test of time has the fire beginning when one of her six cows being milked by dairy farmer Mrs. O’Leary kicked over a kerosene lantern at about 8:30 p.m. and set fire to her small barn, from where it spread.

At a time when anti-Irish sentiment was strong in the United States in general, and in Chicago in particular, the poor, Irish Catholic immigrant O’Leary was the perfect scapegoat. Even with the embers still burning, the story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was published in the very first post-fire issue of the Chicago Republican by Michael Ahern, a police reporter. The Chicago Tribune even went so far as to allege that she purposely set the fire to take revenge on the city for cutting off her welfare payment when it learned that she was earning income as a dairy farmer.

However, the O’Leary family always maintained that they had retired for the evening before the fire began, and twelve years later in 1893, Ahern admitted that he had made up the entire story to heighten intrigue and to sell newspapers. Writing on the anniversary of the fire in 1921, he added that he had fabricated the story with two other reporters, John English and Jim Haynie.

Nonetheless, with the story so firmly established in the public consciousness, the legend persisted, even after the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners cleared Mrs. O’Leary of any responsibility for the fire. In its report of December 12, 1871, the Board stated:

There is no proof that anybody had been in the barn after nightfall that evening. 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. Mr. Leary [sic], the owner, and all his family, prove to have been in bed and asleep at the time.

Sadly, the entire affair and the public attention caused severe psychological problems for Mrs. O’Leary, and she was forced to board the house to protect her family’s privacy from the throngs of curious people who regularly congregated at the now-famous site. With books and popular songs keeping the myth alive; with the newspapers continuing to ignore established facts and repeating the story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow on every anniversary of the fire; and with O’Leary’s notoriety not waning in the least over time, she became a recluse who withdrew entirely from public life and died heartbroken.

Publication on the 10th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, which perpetuated the O’Leary’s cow myth.

Even contemporarily, the fairytale lives on. In 1937, Daryl Zanuck’s In Old Chicago, which repeated the cow and lantern nonsense, was nominated for an Academy Award; Alicia Brady, who played Catherine O’Leary (for some reason, the character’s name was “Molly O’Leary” in the film), won the Best Supporting Actress Award; and its popularity only exacerbated the “fake news.” (Ironically, the film credited the Chicago Historical Society for its assistance in providing historical research.) Even after a September 10, 1997, official proclamation by the Chicago City Council signed by Mayor Daley that exculpated Mrs. O’Leary (and, perhaps equally important, her cow!), the public remains fixated on the O’Leary myth.

That leaves one intriguing outstanding question: who was actually responsible for the Great Chicago Fire of 1871?

According to one theory, Daniel Sullivan, AKA “Peg Leg,” a neighbor who first reported the fire, was the culprit. In his testimony before the official inquiry, he confirmed that the O’Learys had retired for the evening at about 8:00 p.m. when he left them after a visit. He said that he stopped briefly in front of the White home to light his pipe and, when he saw the fire at the O’Learys, he called for help; ran to try to extinguish it; and, failing to do so, managed to escape the burning barn. (The rumor at the time, however, was that while drinking and smoking with some friends in the O’Leary barn, they accidentally ignited the hay stored there with the ashes of their pipes.)

In any event, later analysis showed that Sullivan could not have seen the fire as described because there was a house sitting between the barn blocking his line of vision; because if he was returning home as he claimed, he would not have lingered at the White house, which was further down the road; and, perhaps most significantly, because he could not possibly have done all he claimed on his peg leg.

According to another theory, the fire was caused by a meteor shower fragment from Biela’s Comet, which had splintered in 1845 but, for several reasons, this theory has been roundly rejected.

Pursuant to the account most generally (but not universally) accepted today, 18-year-old Louis (Ludwig) M. Cohn was responsible for the fire. Born in Breslau (now part of Germany), he came to New York with his family, including father Marcus and mother Therese, arriving in New York Harbor on October 26, 1957. Cohn (1853-1942) later became a prosperous German Jewish importer and an outstanding civic-minded citizen recognized as an expert on Chinese customs, political history and art who established important relationships with Chinese royalty. He also served as the respected treasurer of the Chicago Elks and, as a renowned world traveler, he visited every country in the world at least twice.

In his will, he admitted that he was gambling in the hayloft of the O’Leary barn by the light of a lantern with a group of neighboring boys, including one of the O’Leary’s sons and, when she came out to chase them away at about 9:00 p.m., he scooped up the money (he claimed that “I was winning” when Mrs. O’Leary broke up the game) and, in their haste to flee, one of the boys knocked over the lantern.

Cohn chose an ironic evening to gamble because October 8, 1871, was Simchat Torah. As it turns out, this was a particularly fortuitous time for the Jews who, because they were dancing with their Torah scrolls when the fire reached their synagogues, were able to save most of them.

In 1942, the day after Cohn’s will was admitted to probate, the Chicago Tribune noted his $435,000 scholarship to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism but made no mention of Cohn’s confession. A few days later, however, the Sun-Times reported that Cohn’s estate had been bequeathed to Medill but ended its story with a brief mention that Cohn “had claimed to have been present in the barn of Mrs. O’Leary on the night of the Chicago Fire.”

There was no further mention of Cohn’s revelation until 1964, when gambling historian Alan Wykes’ discussed him in The Complete Illustrated Guide to Gambling (1964). Some commentators hypothesize that Cohn’s friends purposely quashed the story to preserve Cohn’s good name, but Cohn’s account has several important indicia of reliability.

First, Chicago was then arguably the greatest mecca of gambling east of the Mississippi River, and wagering games were broadly popular, particularly amongst the immigrant working class to which Cohn belonged. Second, he was almost certainly near the scene of the crime; the 1870 Chicago census shows 32 Cohn households in the area, three of whom listed the male family heads as born in Prussia and who lived within walking distance of the O’Leary’s barn. One of the three was Cohn’s father, Marcus, who lived less than a mile from the barn.

Third, Cohn asserted that he was gambling with James, one of the O’Leary’s two sons who, as “Big Jim” O’Leary, later ran gambling operations, pioneered off-track betting, and went on to become a leading gambling boss in Chicago.

But the most credible narrative of all comes from Stanley K. Feinberg, the son of Cohn’s friend and executor, Judge Michael Feinberg. Feinberg, who often served as Cohn’s chauffeur, says that he heard Cohn’s detailed account of his role in the fire many times: “He would simply state that the story about the cow was hooey. He spoke as though he was correcting history. He wasn’t being boastful, or proud or remorseful. He was just setting the record straight. ‘Here are the facts,’ he’d say.” Cohn confirmed that there was a regular floating craps game in the barn and that Mrs. O’Leary was always after them. However, Feinberg says that whenever he would ask Cohn if he personally kicked over the lantern, his response would be only “a knowing smile.”

Feinberg explains that Cohn, always a gentleman, was not known to be a liar and that he had no reason to doubt his story. Feinberg’s wife, Loie, agrees that there can be no doubt that the charming, gallant, and fascinating Cohn was telling the truth: “Knowing him as I did, I don’t think he would have taken the blame unless he was part of the cause. He was smart. He was not a stupid man.”

Nonetheless, there are holes in the Cohn theory. First, Mrs. O’Leary testified that all her children were in bed, so how could Cohn have been playing with James O’Leary? (Although, of course, it is possible that she was covering for him.) And if James somehow snuck out to meet Cohn, it defies credulity that, rather than take action to put out the fire, save the animals or, at the very least, wake up his parents, he walked away and left his family’s home and business to burn. Moreover, if Mrs. O’Leary was there to chase the gamblers away, she would have seen the lantern being knocked over and been able to prevent the spread of the fire.

In addition, why would the boys choose to gamble in a stuffy hay-filled barn with little room when they just as easily could have gone outside on a beautiful October evening and played out in the alley unseen? Moreover, there was a vacant house across the property where the neighborhood boys often congregated, and the group could have run their game there undetected.

Cohn, who was not at all Jewishly observant – in fact, he is said to have had an aversion to all organized religion – specified in his last requests that “no religious services of any character whatsoever be conducted.” He died at age 89 of kidney cancer, and was survived by his wife, Bertha (they had no children).

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.