North Central College in the News

North Central College history professor quoted in the New York Times

Mar 19, 2021

Dr. Ann Keating shares historical perspective on Catherine O’Leary’s Chicago mansion, now for sale

Like the legend that Catherine O’Leary’s cow started the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, historians question the story behind the home that was built for her, or that she ever lived there. In recent weeks, the 6,270-square-foot, four-story Englewood mansion has been placed on the market. According to a Chicago real estate agent, the 12-bed, five-and-a-half bath property has original woodwork was allegedly built by James O’Leary to honor his mother.

Ann Keating, Dr. C. Frederick Toenniges Professor of History at North Central College, was interviewed by the New York Times where she shared her Chicago historical expertise; citing the myth of Catherine O’Leary’s cow’s fateful lantern kick and the unlikelihood of her living in the mansion given the time period. However, the question remains as to where the cow story started.

Dr. Keating shared the cow story caught on because of anti-Irish and anti-immigrant sentiment—and it all started with a rogue reporter. More than 20 years after the fire, Michael Ahern, who at the time was a reporter for The Chicago Republican, admitted that he had concocted the cow tale because it made for a better story. His story had not implicated Mrs. O’Leary by name, but Dr. Keating said Catherine O’Leary—an Irish immigrant—was an all-too-convenient scapegoat.

“Within 48 hours, they’re blaming the O’Learys for this,” said Dr. Keating. “Mrs. O’Leary in particular. They were looking for a scapegoat, and she was Irish and a woman.”

Click here to read the full interview in the New York Times.

Ann Keating