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The O'Leary Home after the Fire
On top of this, on the fortieth anniversary of the great conflagration a police reporter named Michael Ahern, who was working for the Chicago Republican at the time of the fire, boasted in the Tribune that he and two now-deceased cronies made the whole thing up. The O'Leary's, he reminded readers, lived in the rear of 137 DeKoven, renting the front to a family named McLaughlin, who were hosting a party that evening. Ahern opined that one of the revelers went out to get milk for some punch and ended up burning Chicago down. To make the mystery murkier, the invention of the cow story has also been attributed to others, and after Ahern's revelation appeared a long-time colleague wrote to members of the O'Leary family telling them that he had ghost-written the Tribune story under Ahern's byline. As for Ahern himself, this other reporter confided, "The booze got him many years ago, and he has not been able to do any newspaper work."

Several additional theories surfaced then and since. Some boys were sneaking a smoke. Spontaneous combustion. A fiery meteor that split into pieces as it fell to earth October 8, which explains the simultaneous catastrophes in Chicago and Peshtigo, Wisconsin, plus a lesser fire in Michigan. Daisy acted alone. Recently a researcher, working from property records and the post-fire inquiry, has argued that an O'Leary neighbor may have accidentally sparked the blaze.

Like the several cowbells that different people have sworn were the one the four-legged perpetrator (who herself perished in the fire) wore around her neck that fateful night, it is possible that any one of these theories has the truth behind it, but all of them are open to question.

Mull's The Cause of the Great Chicago Fire, October 9th, 1871


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The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory
Copyright © 1996 by the Chicago Historical Society and the Trustees of Northwestern University
Last revised 10-1-97