Don’t Blame the Cow: Did the Great Chicago Fire Have an Extraterrestrial Origin?

By | June 30, 2018

test article image
Painting (by Julia Lemos) of people trying to escape burning buildings during the Great Chicago Fire, Chicago, Illinois, 1912. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

We are all familiar with the children’s ditty that blames Mrs. O’Leary’s cow for starting the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to condemn the poor bovine for knocking over a lantern left in the shed. Perhaps it is possible that the Great Chicago Fire, that raged for three days, killing 300 people and destroying more than 17,500 buildings, was actually ignited by a visitor from outer space. 

test article image
(Chicago Public Library)

Burned into History

Second only to the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is the most memorable disaster to wipe out a major U.S. city. On that windy day in October, fire quickly went from one bone-dry wooden structure to another, creating a fast moving inferno that the ill-equipped fire departments could not contain. Three days later, much of the Windy City lay in ashes and the residents began the grim task of burying the dead and rebuilding their city. Officials searched for a cause to the fire. One theory put forth was that an agitated cow upended a lit lantern in the small barn behind the O’Leary residence and the hay burst into flames…an accident that left the O’Leary family feeling somewhat responsible. But perhaps, history has been too quick to blame the cow.