Today, a new look at an old fire. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization run,
and the people whose ingenuity created them.
The great Chicago fire began
around nine on the windy Sunday evening of Oct.
8th, 1871. It didn't burn itself out until Monday
night. Rainfall had been only 28 percent of normal
that summer, and Chicago's population had recently
grown by a factor of ten.
Thirty years earlier, the modern balloon-frame
house had come out of Chicago. That's the wooden
structure with light joists and cross-members that
we use in houses today. Chicago had become an
overcrowded, wood-built, bone-dry city with a poor
The fire destroyed over three square miles of city,
killed 250 people, and left 100,000 homeless. If
one thing hadn't started the fire, another
would've. But, still, we wonder what did start it.
My 1970 Encyclopaedia Britannica says
the cause was unknown. My 1897
Britannica says the cause was an
overturned lamp. When I was young, the great urban
legend told how the fire began when Mrs. O'Leary
milked her cow, and the cow kicked over her
Now Richard Bayles, who works for the Chicago Title
Insurance Company, has gone back into his company's
old files looking for Mrs. O'Leary. He found that
she lived in a small rear house off Dekoven Street.
Behind her house was a barn where she kept five
cows. She sold milk to the neighborhood. Bayles has
gone through testimony from the hearing after the
Pegleg Sullivan, a young man with a wooden leg,
testified he'd been on the far side of Dekoven
Street and seen fire break out in the O'Leary barn
-- nothing about Mrs. O'Leary or cows kicking
lanterns. Sullivan had a lot to say about that
night. He told how he'd run across the street to
the barn and released the animals.
But old insurance maps show a house and a high
fence blocking Sullivan's view of the barn. And are
we to believe he ran 200 feet on a wooden leg, then
fought his way through the fire in the barn?
Sullivan also testified that he went to the barn
every evening to feed his mother's cow -- also in
Mrs. O'Leary's barn. So Sullivan had been in the
barn himself. Bayles thinks he started the fire by
dropping his pipe -- or maybe by kicking over a
In any case, Mrs. O'Leary had been home in bed when
the fire started. But the fire department ended the
hearings quickly -- before it could come out that
they'd been taking bribes. They'd been looking
after places that could afford bribe money at the
expense of Mrs. O'Leary's working-class
As for Mrs. O'Leary: the myth about the kicked
lantern grew as the tabloid press went after her.
She finally had to flee to Michigan. In those days,
it was the Irish who occupied the lowest rung on
the social ladder, and Mrs. O'Leary made a good
target. But Chicago really burned because all the
factors favored a fire -- and no one was paying
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds