Today on Bewilderbeasts we’re going to talk about Mrs. O'Leary's cow and the Great Chicago Fire. OMG CROCODILES ARE FASTER THAN YOU EVER IMAGINED. Let’s go.
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About your host:
Melissa McCue-McGrath, CPDT-KA, is a science-based dog trainer outside of Boston, MA, and author of the book, "Considerations for the City Dog" More about Melissa can be found at MelissaMcCueMcGrath.com
Intro Music is “Tiptoe out the back” by Dan Lebowicz
Interstitial music is by MK2
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And if you want to hear a longer talk on the Great Chicago Fire, listen to the episode of Stuff You Should Know, another podcast you might enjoy :)
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Hi! Welcome to Bewilderbeasts! I’m your host, Melissa McCue-McGrath and today on Bewilderbeasts, we’re going to talk about a framed cow who ultimately helped get free public libraries in Chicago & OMG CROCODILES ARE FASTER THAN YOU EVER IMAGINED. Let’s go!
I’m excited to talk to you about a cow who was essentially framed for burning down Chicago in the 1800’s - but even though she didn’t do it, she inspired a new way of building cities and helped create public libraries.
Many animals who live both IN water and ON are generally good at mobility in ONE of those environments. Let’s look at animals like seals. Seals are super awkward on land - right? It looks painful the way they hop with their torso and flippers and thud back onto the rocks just to move around. But, they are incredibly fast in water. Crocodiles? They can swim really fast but on land, they can also move really fast - turns out, they can gallop like a horse!
Before last year, 2019, scientists knew of only one crocodile who could bound or gallop and it was …* SHOCK *... the Austrailian crocodile….because Australia. However, when zoologists put cameras in the only place scarier than Australia….crocodile enclosures in a Florida zoo... they noticed of the 15 croc species they tested, 8 could gallop or bound at 13 miles per hour. That’s as fast as a squirrel laid out as fast as it can go, or just a little less speedy than a zipping dragonfly.
This led me to think that perhaps Alligators are safer if encountered on land. That’s a HARD NOPE. While gators are only capable of a trotting gait, they are able to hit the same speed as the crocodiles. No matter what the gait, stay far away and good luck sleeping tonight if you watch videos of galloping crocodiles.
Stephen King? Call me. I have some ideas.
FINALLY! Let’s get back that cow.
The scene: 1871. That’s like, a really, REALLY long time ago. Old timey hats, horse-drawn carriages - cars wouldn’t be invented for another 14 years Oh, and wood. Everything was built out of wood ---- which turns out, is not the best material to have an entire city built out of during one of the worst droughts in American history. And not only that, but the streets and sidewalks were even lined with wood, wood, wood everywhere. Oh, and dried cow poop because, animals pulled, carts, carriages, and Chicago was a town known for animal trading and slaughterhouses. *TURNS OUT dried manure is actually a decent fuel source, and is quite flammable.
Everything built out of wood during one of America’s worst droughts *prior to the 2000’s*, a tinderbox drought, what could possibly go wrong?
Now, imagine what that could potentially lead to, and then add a barn with 2 tons of hay and 2 tons of ***coal*** for people no doubt preparing for a long, cold Chicago winter right around the corner…they didn’t have central heating, so coal and flamey things were how our ancestors survived.
What we have here is a perfect storm for the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. And the guys at Stuff You Should Know did an entire episode on this topic, and suggested, to go to Google Maps and search for “Great Chicago Fire” in maps - it shows you just how big that fire was.
So this term, ACRE. I live in a city. Country kids get what acres are, but city kids? We talk in “blocks”. How big is an acre? One acre is 90% of an American football field or 16 tennis courts in a 4x4 formation.
So when I say a 194 acres in ONE division of Chicago burned, that’s 194 football fields, or over 194,000 tennis courts - in just ONE division. There were three divisions of Chicago at the time - 460 acres in the south division burned and left 21,000 people homeless, and Chicago’s North division was the worst hit - 1,470 acres burned, 13000 buildings were destroyed...when our city has one triple dekker go up it’s a tragedy.
13000 buildings in one division. In total, ⅓ of the city ended up without shelter, and 300 people died.
And Chicago wasn’t the only city to burn that day - there were several massive fires in the area including in Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin and Ontario Canada, but they didn’t have a story about a cow to make the history stick. Chicago had a FIRE THE DAY BEFORE that firefighters fought overnight and into the morning of the fateful fire. The fire teams were already exhausted, hadn’t eaten or slept, and then the fire - and the rumors - started to spread.
WHY are we talking about this on an animal podcast? Now some of you might have heard the story that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow started the fire in Chicago. The story goes the cow Daisy, Madeline, or Gwendolyn, depending on the tale knocked over a lantern while Mrs. O’Leary was milking her. The fire started in the barn and the fire spread - thanks in part to the dry conditions, wood EVERYTHING, including the streets, and dried cow poop which exacerbated the fire. Fire trucks and air support teams as we know them today - you’ll see them working the west coast fires - didn’t exist! In addition, there were strong winds that fed the other fires through the area, too, and since the fire burned so quickly, and the water pumping system went down, destroying any chance of getting it put out early on, added to the devastation.
There seems to be little debate as to where the fire started: it started in or near the O’Leary’s barn.
But, that long told story, the story of the cow, was completely fabricated, made up, fake news. The only thing that spread faster than the fire were the rumors that started before the blaze was out. Mrs. O Leary was an Irish immigrant and anti-Irish sentiment was at an all-time high in the late 1800s. Additionally, she was a proud Catholic, and that was also an easy target at the time. Some of this might sound familiar in today’s climate - the more things change….
It’s clear the fire started here, or right near the barn. We know for sure they didn’t have gender reveal parties, so that wasn’t it, and we also know it wasn’t the cow knocking over the lantern as reporter Michael Ahern reported on the front page. Over a decade later, Ahern came clean, stating he made the story up, but even he couldn’t put the myth of the cow to rest. The cow stuck. And Mrs. O’Leary died a few years after the fire in 1895 of acute pneumonia and a broken heart. She spent the rest of her days defending herself, her beloved Daisy, Madeline, or Gwendolyn, depending on the tale, and the weight of a city’s grief lay unasked and undeserved on her shoulders. Can you imagine 300 dead, and a ⅓ of your city burned to the ground and everyone blamed you because you were an innocent, easy target?
If it wasn’t Daisy, Madeline, or Gwendolyn, depending on the tale, who or what caused the fire? Likely kids gambling in the barn, or a man named Daniel “Peg Leg” Sullivan who liked to visit his mom’s cow at night (I’m not asking any more questions about that) housed in the same barn as the O’Leary’s cow. And if it wasn’t them, it would have been someone else. IN addition to the wood, the coal, the hay, the drought, the wind... there were already fires the day before in Chicago and the fire department was exhausted from the overnight effort, and with the dry conditions, fires everywhere else in the Midwest, a single spark was waiting to ignite the tired, dry city, an ember from a cigarette, a spark from a chimney, it wouldn’t take much and it would have happened somewhere else in the city if it weren’t the O’Leary’s barn.
The irony is that the O’Leary’s house? Didn’t burn down.
So - how DID this cow, a cow who didn’t even start the fire, become infamous and synonymous with the destruction of an American City? Well, the news of a city falling due to a frisky heifer continued to spread, no doubt in part due to the devastation, but the cause of the fire erroneously pointing to a milking cow - it is silly, right? But, in part because of the attention the framed bovine brought to the story, city government immediately improved building codes to stop the rapid spread of future fires (and got rid of the whole “Let’s make streets out of wood” thing), and other governments got involved, too! London proposed an "English Book Donation", sending 8000 books and money, and with it, Chicago was able to establish a FREE public library. And while that might not seem like such a big deal, it was. Prior to this, you had to pay a membership to use the library. Can you imagine?
So, that’s how a framed cow inspired one of the biggest public library systems in the United States.
And just a funny, perhaps not well-thought-out epilogue:
In 2014, the city of Chicago and Redmoon Theater partnered to create The Great Chicago Fire Festival. Ironically, the event suffered from technical difficulties as replicas of 1871 houses on floating barges in the Chicago River failed to ignite properly due to electrical problems and--- heavy rain.
I think that was probably for the best.
What do you do when you’re a Goat and you’re hungry?
Anything you dang well want. Including, breaking into a police cruiser, eating official paperwork, and HEADBUTTING THE OFFICER, knocking her to the ground and then using the distraction to make your getaway. Lucky for her, she was completely unharmed except for her pride. Lucky for her Chief there was a body camera when she had to explain “Yeah, Chief? There was a goat. Stop laughing. I’m serious. He ate the papers”. And lucky for us, you can see this footage online.
So thanks for joining me today on Bewilderbeasts! If there are topics you would be interested hearing about on the podcast, know of any historical animals who changed the world, animals who help humans, or wacky animals in the news, send them in to:
bewilderbeastspod on Facebook
@bewilderedbeasts on Twitter
And @bewilderbeasts on Instagram
I’m Melissa McCue-McGrath with Muttstuff media -
Now, go get curious!
I got today’s information from
Science Alert.com Huffpost, ABCNews, Smithsonian MAG, Brittanica.com, GreatChicagoFire.com (copyrighted by Northwestern University and the Chicago Historical Society), and two other podcasts you should listen to if you already don’t: Stuff You Should Know (episode on the Great Chicago Fire) and Stuff You Missed in History Class on the same topic
Links are in the description of today's episodes
Intro Music is “Tiptoe out the back” by Dan Lebowicz and Interstitial music is by MK2
Don’t forget to like, subscribe, review and share with your curious friends. Allthose things every other podcast tells you to do.
Thanks for listening!