History

The history of Fire Prevention Week has its roots in the Great Chicago Fire, which began on October 8 but continued into and did most damage on October 9, 1871. In just 27 hours, this tragic conflagration killed more than 250 people, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed more than 17,400 structures and burned more than 2,000 acres. While the origin of the fire has never been determined, there has been much speculation over how it began.

According to popular legend, the fire broke out after a cow belonging to Mrs. Catherine O'Leary kicked over a lamp, setting first the barn, then the whole city on fire. Chances are you've heard some version of this story yourself; people have been blaming the Great Chicago Fire on the cow and Mrs. O'Leary, for more than 130 years. But important research by Chicago historian Robert Cromie has helped to debunk this version of events.

An Old Cow's Tale
cowLike any good story, the "case of the cow" has some truth to it. The great fire almost certainly started near the barn where Mrs. O'Leary kept her five milking cows. But there is no proof that O'Leary was in the barn when the fire broke out or that a jumpy cow sparked the blaze. Mrs. O'Leary herself swore that she'd been in bed early that night, and that the cows were also tucked in for the evening.

But if a cow wasn't to blame for the huge fire, who was? Over the years, journalists and historians have offered plenty of theories. Some blamed the blaze on a couple of neighborhood boys who were near the barn sneaking cigarettes. Others believed that a neighbor of the O'Leary's may have started the fire. Some people have speculated that a fiery meteorite may have fallen to earth on October 8, starting several fires that day in Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as in Chicago.