The Great Chicago Fire was not, despite early reports, started by Catherine O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern – the reporter who claimed that later admitted that he’d decided to sexy up the story a little. In fact, despite the fact that the fire started in the O’Leary’s barn (and failed to destroy either their house or the nearby Catholic church at which they worshipped), the O’Learys appear to have been scapegoats. The true culprit was likely a thief who set fire to the barn – the same man who first reported the fire, one Daniel “Pegleg” Sullivan.
The fire lasted for two days, and burned hot enough that it was impossible to enter parts of the area it affected for some days, even after it was extinguished. 125 bodies were recovered, but it is believed that they may have been less than half of the total deaths. The fire destroyed an area more than 2,000 acres in size, including about a third of the city’s buildings. Over $200 million of damage was done, and that’s in 1871 dollars. Approximately a third of Chicago’s citizens were rendered homeless by the blaze.
Chicago was rebuilt by architects such as Daniel Burnham, and within two decades, the city was bigger and better than ever before. Today, the former site of the O’Leary farm now houses the Chicago Fire Academy.