Generations of American schoolchildren have been taught the story of how the Great Fire of Chicago in October 1871 was started by Daisy, a cow belonging to one Mrs. O'Leary. The cow, stabled in a barn behind Mrs. O'Leary's house, supposedly kicked over a kerosene lamp, which set fire to hay and other combustible materials stored there. The blaze quickly spread, and fanned by a strong southwest wind and aided by intensely dry conditions, the conflagration engulfed and entirely destroyed more than three square miles of built-up area. Almost 100,000 people were left homeless, and about 300 lost their lives. Property damage was estimated at 200 million dollars, an immense sum in those days.
Soon after the fire, the O'Leary-cow story became an almost unchallenged truth and, over the years, took on the status of a modern-day myth - a staple ingredient in the fabric of American folklore. However, there are good reasons to believe that neither Mrs. O'Leary nor Daisy was culpable. First, a police reporter later claimed to have invented the whole story. Of course, this is not a conclusive refutation, but his reasoning was valid and his alternative suggestions credible. Furthermore, the testimony of one of the main witnesses. a neighbor called "Peg Leg" Sullivan, is now thought to be questionable. Some claim he invented the story to avoid censure, since he himself was not above suspicion and there were inconsistencies in his account. Other accusers have focused the blame on a variety of targets - some local boys smoking in the barn, a different neighbor, an unnamed terrorist organization, spontaneous combustion, and. most recently, an asteroid. The asteroid theory gains credence from the fact that on the same night as the Chicago fire, neighboring states suffered more than a dozen major fires. One fire destroyed the entire town of Peshtigo. Wisconsin, with the loss of more than 1,200 lives.
Whatever the real origin of the fire, the truth is that it was inevitable, given the near-drought conditions of the time and the fact that much of the city consisted of densely packed wooden shacks served by an undermanned fire department. It seems that Mrs. O'Leary and her cow were perhaps no more than convenient and vulnerable scapegoats on which a devastated populace could center its frustrations.