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Mrs. O’Leary and her cow

Photo credit: Chicago History Museum
Photo credit: Chicago History Museum
Photo credit: Doug Haight
Photo credit: Doug Haight

For decades, it was widely reported that the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was caused when Mrs. Catherine O’Leary’s cow kicked a lantern over in the family’s barn just southwest of the Loop. But it’s likely the cow was more of a goat – a scapegoat, that is.

The fire did start in the vicinity of the O’Leary’s barn, but whether a cow kicked over a lantern, or a cinder came from a neighboring chimney, or a drunken neighbor dropped his pipe onto a pile of hay, or a meteor strike occurred — all theories that have been debated — no one knows for sure what happened in that barn, and the fire’s initial spark has never been definitively established.

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