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Peg Leg Sullivan

The Guy Who Started the Great Chicago Fire

The Great Chicago Fire of October 8, 1871, burned for two days before it finally died out. 90,000 people lost their homes, 300 people died, and property valued at $192 million dollars was destroyed. A great city rose out of the ashes of that disaster, but the question has always remained; who started the fire? 

According to legend, the fire was started at about 9PM when Mrs. Catharine O'Leary was milking her cows and one of them kicked over a lantern. That story got started because of an article in the Chicago Evening Journal the day after the fire, that appears to have been based on rumor or speculation. One wonders why the newspaper didn't question why a cow was being milked at 9 o'clock at night before printing the story. 

That fabricated story was picked up by other papers and quickly became a legend with a life of its own, even after an investigation was conducted by the Chicago Board of Police and Fire Commissioners a month later. The commissioners were certain that the fire began in the O'Leary barn, but they were unable to determine who started it. Patrick and Catherine O'Leary owned a small house and barn where they kept a few cows for their milk business, but the O'Leary's were cleared when it was proven that they were in bed at the time the fire started. 

Peg Leg Sullivan

A colorful character by the name of Daniel "Peg Leg" Sullivan seems to be the most likely suspect. He was the one who initially gave the alarm. According to his statement, he was standing outside a neighbor's house when he saw the O'Learys' barn on fire. He rushed over and released the animals in the barn. While he was doing that, the fire quickly spread and forced him out of the structure before he could do anything to stop it. Sullivan then woke the O'Learys, but it was too late for them to do anything because the barn was already totally engulfed in flames. By the time any fire trucks arrived, the barn was destroyed and the fire had already spread to some nearby structures.

An amateur historian's recent examination of Sullivan's story revealed several inconsistencies. Land records show that Sullivan would not have been able to see the barn on fire from where he clamed to be standing because there was another building that blocked the view entirely. Since "Peg Leg" had lost his leg in the Civil War and had a wooden leg, he was not able to move very quickly. He could not have hobbled nearly 200 feet to get to the barn and then release all the animals before the barn was completely engulfed in flames. He also claimed to have yelled "fire" several times before he reached the barn, but no one was ever found who heard him.

The obvious conclusion is that Peg Leg must have been in the barn when the fire started. He had a reason to be there because his mother owned one of the cows that was kept there and he would often visit the barn to feed and care for it. It is very likely that he either accidentally started the fire or was there when the fire started, and lied about where he was to avoid any suspicion or unpleasant consequences.

The investigation should have noted the inconsistencies in Peg Leg's story and questioned him further, but they were eager to bury the issue. The Chicago Fire Department's failure to respond quickly and deal effectively with the fire while it could have been easily managed was the primary cause of the disaster that ultimately leveled most of downtown Chicago.

Map showing the burnt district in Chicago

No one seems to know what happened to Peg Leg after he testified. No doubt he decided to leave town quietly. The "cow" myth made Catherine O'Leary into a scapegoat when in fact she was only an innocent victim. She had to spent the rest of her life in hiding because of the undeserved notoriety. In 1997, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution that officially exonerated her of any responsibility for the fire.

After the fire, Chicago was quickly rebuilt to be bigger and better than ever. The Chicago Fire Academy now occupies the area where the fire started and there is a Maltese cross painted on the floor to mark the spot where the O'Learys barn once stood.


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