CHICAGO — A DNA test kit that came as an anniversary gift dropped two bombshells in Cindy O’Gara’s quiet suburban life.
First, the test showed that the man who raised her wasn’t her birth father. Second, the man who was her biological father was the great-grandson of Catherine O’Leary’s eldest child, Mary O’Leary Scully.
Since the discovery, O’Gara, an accountant and longtime Berwyn, Ill., resident, has delved into her family history, glued to ancestry websites and reaching out to any surviving relatives to learn more of the story.
She connected with her birth father’s two sisters, who filled her in on family stories they’d grown up with, sharing the family tales of woe.
“So I find this out and it’s devastating at 50, and everyone is dead, unfortunately. All of the main characters are gone,” she recently told the Tribune.
Even 150 years later, the apocryphal tale of a family cow kicking over a lantern in the barn on DeKoven Street has haunted several generations of O’Learys and made their name synonymous with the city’s destruction. Catherine O’Leary and the family cow, Daisy, were exonerated, but the mark against the family remains, they said.
Growing up O’Leary meant living with jokes regarding the debunked story that even now is told as truth, said Peggy Knight, who is one of O’Gara’s distant cousins and knew since childhood of her O’Leary connection.
The fire remained a taboo subject within the family for generations. The pain and shame of the incident was passed down like an heirloom.
“People would come from all over to throw rocks at the house,” said Knight, a great-great-granddaughter of Catherine and Patrick O’Leary.
Some descendants of Catherine and Patrick O’Leary say the passage of time has done little to remove the stain on the O’Leary family name, still blamed for sparking the blaze that cost 19th century Chicago thousands of buildings, millions of dollars and hundreds of lives.
The fire that smoldered for weeks afterward was just the beginning of tribulations for the Irish-American family, who left their home on DeKoven Street for the city’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. The anger was fueled by rampant rumors and pop culture that included songs, nursery rhymes and even cartoons and movies. Years later, city schoolchildren would be taught of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow as fact.
But in the anniversary year of the family’s biggest tragedy, descendants say they’re embracing their Irish heritage and want to finally put the old rumor to rest.
Catherine O’Leary “had a very sad life. My grandmother always said she died of a broken heart,” said Knight’s cousin, Nancy Knight Connolly, one of the few O’Leary descendants who has spoken about the incident.
She brought her family to the 1997 exoneration hearing staged by a City Council committee. She was also interviewed by WTTW-TV. “Our purpose for talking about it is to get the facts out — that she was not responsible for it.”
The humiliation sometimes came from fellow Irish immigrants, who were upset with the heat put on them as their presence increased in the city.
“It’s hard to talk about, but I know that within that community there were fellow Irish that scapegoated them too,” said O’Gara. “I want justice for her. I know it destroyed her life,” she added.
“I think it’s time for closure,” said Knight, despite her family’s past refusals to speak about the tragedy, including a relative who threw potatoes at reporters.
‘It’s my blood’
O’Gara, who grew up in the southwest suburbs, said she always felt a connection to the city since her first visit downtown at age 16. She had heard of the old O’Leary myth, but it didn’t make an impression on her then.
“Obviously growing up in Chicago, I was very familiar with the story, but I always kept a distance from it,” she said. “But not now, because now I know. It’s my blood. I know who I am now. I’m an O’Leary.”
In Lombard, Knight has become a champion of family matriarch Catherine O’Leary, speaking with great respect for the woman who left her famine-stricken homeland with her husband before eventually settling in what is now Chicago’s South Loop.
“She was the milk lady for the whole little area there on DeKoven Street,” said Knight, whose grandmother, Eileen, was the daughter of Catherine O’Leary’s youngest daughter. “She had the five cows and she owned them. She was a wonderful, ambitious lady and for this to come down on her.”
Connolly recalled an incident when Carson Pirie Scott did a store window commemorating the Great Chicago Fire in 1971. Store managers invited Eileen Knight and her sister Florence, granddaughters of Catherine O’Leary, to attend a luncheon.
“My grandmother (Eileen) was furious that her sister agreed to go,” Connolly said. “That would mean you would have to talk to reporters.”
The O’Leary myth
Patrick O’Leary was born in County Kerry, Ireland, and raised as a laboring man, according to his obituary in the Tribune. He married Catherine Donegan in County Cork around 1845. After the birth of their first child, the family migrated to America and Patrick enlisted in the Civil War. Soon after the war ended, the O’Learys arrived in Chicago, where the couple’s last three children were born.
There are several versions of the fire myth, but the most common one is this: Catherine O’Leary went into the barn on that dry Sunday night with the lantern to milk one of her cows for oyster stew. O’Leary left the lantern in the barn and the cow kicked it over and started the fire.
The family long maintained that they were in bed by 8 p.m. that evening. The fire was discovered by Daniel Sullivan, a one-legged beer deliveryman, who raised the alarm about the growing fire.
“Our side of the family has a story that I believe, and we stick to it because I heard it from my grandmother’s mouth, who remembers her mother,” Knight said. “It was neighbors. It was the McLaughlin family. The McLaughlin party started the fire.”
Next door lived Patrick McLaughlin, a popular fiddle player, who hosted a party for his wife’s cousin from Ireland. The story goes that while the O’Learys slept, having already turned in, someone from the party entered the O’Leary barn looking to pilfer milk to make oyster stew. It was the interloper who likely started the fire.
Following the fire, an official inquiry cleared O’Leary and debunked the cow story, though it did little to make life easier for the family. The O’Leary myth infected their world as they fled their home to resettle on the South Side. Word-of-mouth and speculation made its way into newspapers as the city rebuilt.
The early versions placed blame on O’Leary, calling her old and drunk, though she was the mother of several small children.
A sworn affidavit of the O’Learys’ version of events published in the Tribune noted that the Chicago Times newspaper referred to Catherine O’Leary as an “Irish hag” who started the fire. It also claimed that she was 70 at the time when she was only in her mid-40s.
In 1903, just ahead of fire anniversary festivities in the city, a woman named Mary Callahan said she was among a group of young people who sneaked into O’Leary’s barn to milk her cow.
A string of misfortunes
The family was hit by tragedy in August 1885, when the eldest son Cornelius, called “Puggy,” shot his sister Mary O’Leary Scully and his “mistress,” Kate Campbell, in Town of Lake, a former suburb that was annexed into the city, becoming part of the Southwest Side.
Scully, a widowed mother of two, died at Cook County Hospital, never revealing what spurred the shooting. Retired Oregon University professor Louise Carroll Wade wrote about the incident in her 2003 book, “Chicago’s Pride: The Stockyards, Packingtown and Environs in the Nineteenth Century.”
“Puggy was an uncouth ruffian in chronic trouble with the police,” Wade wrote. “One hot August night in 1885, he staggered out of a saloon, encountered his mistress and his sister, recently widowed by a barroom brawl, and continued drinking with them.
“When the trio ran out of beer, Puggy asked his mistress for money to buy more. She refused, and he shot and killed both women.”
O’Leary was later captured in Kansas City on a murder warrant the following month and was tricked into going to the train station with a promise of a job. Puggy, among the first children to be baptized at Holy Family Church, later pleaded guilty to murder.
Relatives stepped in to care for Scully’s children, but misfortune continued to follow. In September 1894, father Patrick, “still hale and hearty” at age 75, fell dead from an apparent heart attack on the front stoop of his family’s home at 5133 S. Halsted St.
In her book, Wade described Patrick as “a quiet drinker who spent his days in the Halsted Street saloons, willing to talk about anything except the Chicago fire, a topic which turned him into a sphinx.”
Catherine O’Leary died the following July at their home at 68.
Another son, Patrick, died at 38. James “Big Jim” O’Leary, the famous saloon owner and renowned gambler known to bet on anything, died at 56. The longest-living was the youngest child, Catherine O’Leary Ledwell, who died at 69 at her home in South Shore.
Ledwell became a spunky Irish matriarch in her own right, raising five children and mostly swatting away reporters hounding her for her story. She finally relented in 1933, sharing her sparse memories of the fateful night, as well as her family’s suspicion of the real culprit, someone from the neighboring fiddler’s gathering.
“It was a Sunday night,” Ledwell recalled to the Tribune. “Mother had put me to bed with the other four children at 8 o’clock. She went to bed, too, and father followed a half hour later. It was a hot night and the sun had been blistering for weeks.”
“Even though I was only 5 years old, I can remember it like yesterday and then it was talked about at home because of the lie of the cow which followed us about whenever we went.”
“As it was, we lost everything. I don’t like to talk about it. I can see the burning yet and the rushing about and the weeping and the rest,” Ledwell said.
She also theorized that the “youngbloods” of the neighborhood who often drank beer in the shed loft after the O’Learys went to bed possibly tossed a cigar butt into the dry hay. Ledwell died three years later.
In 1943, Catherine O’Leary’s great-granddaughter, Anna O’Leary Monreal, 30, and her two children, Mary Louise, 2, and Robert, 8, all died in a house fire in Oak Lawn caused by a defective oil stove.
Remaining relatives believe there was a schism between the O’Leary descendants, with them going their own ways and concentrating on their own families.
There were children, then grandchildren, then great-grandchildren. The O’Learys became Knights, O’Connors, Neesons, Kopfmans and Fords, among others. They were teachers, carpenters and even a few firefighters.
Many remained in the Chicago area, while others relocated. Some family members keep contact with cousins, but connections between long disparate relatives were lost. To this day, several surviving branches of the family remain estranged.
“I don’t think there’s any animosity, but we have just never connected,” Connolly said. O’Gara said her aunts spoke of at least one visit from their Aunt Ledwell in their childhood.
“They were taken out of the room a lot (when older relatives visited), she said. There was a lot of shame involved when they would come over. There was a lot of secrets and they weren’t sure what was going on, and kids were just sent out of the room,” O’Gara said.
Another O’Leary relative declined to be interviewed by the Tribune, saying she and her cousins would honor an age-old tradition of not speaking publicly about the fire.
Both O’Gara and Connolly, who have never met, said they saw parallels between the treatment of their family and the anger shown toward immigrants today.
“In those days, the papers could print whatever they wanted and you didn’t have to worry about a lawsuit,” Conolly said. “I mean they were immigrants, for God’s sake, and who’s going to stand up for them?”
Knight said she plans to mark the anniversary with family and reflect on what her family endured. “I do think there was shame, but I don’t feel it. I’m very proud to be Irish,” Knight said. “I feel sad for (Catherine O’Leary). I wish she was alive to see all of this, how it all turned out.”
O’Gara said finding out her links to the O’Learys has been bittersweet. “It’s the worst and the best thing that ever happened to me. Now I know who I am, but the hurt from being lied to ... It’s hurtful, but the truth. Whoever said the truth shall set you free was exactly right.”
She says her search for O’Learys continues and hopes for a family reunion, either in person or virtually.
“I want to be sure that my family name in the story is articulated that we’re strong, we’re survivors,” O’Gara said. “We’re O’Learys. We understand. Shame happens. It can happen for generations, and enough is enough.”