Oct 8, 2011

Catherine O'Leary's Cow

Norman Rockwell painting of Catherine O'Leary and her cow.
On this day in 1871 Chicago burned. How someone could blame a woman (an Irish woman no less) for leaving a lantern burning in a barn is a perfect example of laying the blame elsewhere. Chicago had a population explosion, resulting in haphazard immigrant buildings made of wood. And the sidewalks and bridges were wooden along with some streets. The river was full of wooden vessels and businesses were in the practice of dumping grease in the water. It had hardly rained a drop for months. Only one water station existed for over 300,000 residents. Chicago in 1871 was ripe for disaster and that's what happened--four miles burned. Three hundred people died in the fire and thousands were displaced--perhaps as much as one-third of the population.

How did Mrs. O'Leary and her cow get blamed for this? Blame the media. A newspaper journalist later admitted creating the tale, but not until more than twenty years had passed. Apparently, however, Catherine O'Leary and her husband Patrick were chastised and family members say Mrs. O'Leary was vilified for the rest of her life. (Reminds me of Fred Merkle, player for the New York Giants baseball team who bore the blame for the Giants losing the pennant in 1908 when he failed to complete a play. He never lived it down, even when he stopped playing. He even thought they'd engrave his error on his tombstone.) There was speculation that another man dropped a match in the O'Leary's barn. But the real blame should rest on the lack of city planning. Unfortunately sometimes tragedy has to hit before safety measures and just plain good sense take affect.

In the late 1990's Chicago exonerated Catherine O'Leary. Too little much too late for her, however.

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