Chicago, Illinois - 4 October 1871
2,000 Acres of Buildings Destroyed
On 11 October 1871, the Chicago Tribune reported that 2,000 acres of buildings had been destroyed by the fire. Eight thousand people were homeless and two hundred bodies had been found by searchers to date.
Mrs. Kate O'Leary's Interview
Q. What do you know about this fire?
A. I was in bed myself and my husband and five children when this fire commenced. I was the owner of them five cows that was burnt, and the horse wagon and harness. I had two tons of coal and two tons of hay. I had everything that I wanted in for the winter. I could not save five cents worth of anything out of the barn. Only that Mr. Sullivan got out a little calf. The calf was worth eleven dollars on Saturday morning. Saturday morning I refused even eleven dollars for the calf, and it was sold afterwards for eight dollars. I didn't save one five cents out of the fire.
Q. Do you know how the fire caught?
A. I could not tell anything of the fire only that two men came by the door. I guess it was my husband got outside the door and he ran back to the bedroom and said "Kate the barn is afire." I ran out and the whole barn was on fire. Well I went out to the barn and upon my word I could not tell anyone about the fire. I got just the way I could not tell anything about the fire.
Q. You got frightened.
A. I got frightened. I got the way I did not know when I saw everything burn up in the barn--I got so excited that I could not tell anything about the fire from that time.
Q. You thought your house was going to burn then.
A. Yes sir. Then the men went and fixed two washtubs at both hydrants. There is a hydrant in front of our place and a hydrant in front of Mrs. Murray's. They set two washtubs and then began to put water on the little house, and everything was gone only the little house, and they made for that and kept it wet all through until the fire was gone.
Q. Is that your house?
A. Yes sir. They kept water on it until the fire went out. We had plenty of water until the fire was done.
Q. Was there any other family living in your house?
A. Yes sir. There was Mrs. Laughlin.
Q. How many rooms did they occupy?
A. Two rooms.
Q. Front rooms?
A. Yes sir.
Q. Do you know whether they were in bed?
A. I know they were not in bed.
Q. How do you know that?
A. Because I could hear from my own bedroom. Could hear them going on. There was a little music there.
Q. They had a little party there?
A. Yes sir. Her husband was a fiddler.
Q. They had dancing there?
A. They had.
Q. Some company?
A. Some company. I could not tell how many were there.
Q. That was going on at the time the fire broke out, that dance, was it?
A. I could not tell you sir.
Q. Did you hear any of these people from the front part of the house passing to the back end of the dwelling, pass back and forth in the alley between the two houses?
A. I didn't indeed.
Q. About what time did this fire break out?
A. As near as I can guess it was a little after nine o'clock.
Q. Had any of the people who were at the party been in your part of the house?
A. No sir. There was not any of them there.
Q. You could simply hear the music and they were having a jolly time.
A. I could hear anything from our own bed to their rooms. Because they pretty near joined together.
Q. Have you heard from any person who was there anything in relation to anybody's going out to the barn with a light?
A. Yes sir. I have heard of it. I have heard from other folks.
Q. Who did you hear anything in regard to it from?
A. I heard from other folks. I could not tell whether it is true or not. There was one out of the party went in for to milk my cows.
Q. Who did you hear say that?
A. Mrs. White.
Q. Where does Mrs. White live?
A. Across the way from us.
Q. There is two two-story houses there right together?
A. Yes sir.
Q. She lives in the east one?
A. Yes sir. She said--the first she told me she mentioned a man was in my barn milking my cows. I could not tell for I didn't see it. The next morning I went over there she told me it was too bad for Leary to have all what he was worth lost. We did not know who done it. Said she and one of the neighbors there was someone from the party went and milked the cows.
Q. Did they state who the person was?
A. No sir. They did not.
Q. What did they want to milk for?
A. Some said it was for oysters. I could not tell anything only what I heard from the outside.
Q. Had these persons in your house been in the habit of getting milk there before if they wanted it.
A. No sir. I never saw them in my barn to milk my cows.
Q. Did you have any talk with Mrs. Laughlin about it?
A. I did.
Q. What did she say about it?
A. She said she never was in the stable.
Q. Did she deny that anybody went from her house?
A. She did sir. She said she had no supper that night. She said her man had supper to a relation and to her brother.
Q. Had no coffee or oysters.
A. Had no coffee or oysters.
Q. Was there any other party in the neighborhood that you know of?
A. No sir. Well there as always music in saloons there Saturday night. I do not know of any other.
Q. This was Sunday night.
A. This was Sunday night.
Q. Is Mrs. Laughlin living in the house now?
A. No sir. She moved out of it.
Q. Do you know whether the tenants of the houses about there were in the habit of getting shavings from the planing mills to burn?
A. There was shavings in every house there.
Q. Put them in the house?
A. Yes sir.
Q. Almost every house?
A. Yes sir.
Q. They got them because they were cheaper fuel than they could get anywhere else?
A. Yes there were shavings in every house. That I can say.
Q. In some houses larger quantities of them?
A. Yes sir.
Q. Did you have any packed in your barn?
A. Yes sir. I had some packed in my barn.
Q. How many do you think?
A. When I used to clean out the barn I used to throw in a little shavings.
Q. Did you use them for bedding?
A. Yes sir. Not so much for bedding. I used to clean out the places and take a dish full and throw it in along with the cows.
Q. After you discovered the fire can you state whether there was any engine on the ground, or how soon after did you discover one?
A. The first engine I seen playing it was on Turner's block.
Q. Can you give us an idea about how great a length of time passed from your first hearing of the fire until you saw the engine?
A. I could not, sir. The engine might be there unknown to me--I got so excited. All I had was there in that barn. I did not know the fire was down until the next day.
Q. Had you any insurance upon your barn and stock?
A. Never had five cents insurance--I had those cows one of them was not in the barn that night. It was out in the alley. That one went away. I could not get that one. My husband spent two weeks looking for it and could not find it anywhere in the world. I could not get five cents. I had six cows there. A good horse there. I had a wagon and harness and everything I was worth. I couldn't save that much out of it (snapping her finger) and upon my word I worked so hard for them.