There is no known photograph of Catherine O’Leary, and who could blame her for shunning the cameras? After those two catastrophic days in October 1871, when more than 2,000 acres of Chicago burned, reporters continually appeared on Mrs. O’Leary’s doorstep, calling her “shiftless and worthless” and a “drunken old hag with dirty hands.” Her husband sicced dogs at their ankles and hurled bricks at their heads. P.T. Barnum came knocking to ask her to tour with his circus; she reportedly chased him away with a broomstick. Her dubious role in one of the greatest disasters in American history brought her fame she never wanted and couldn’t deflect. When she died 24 years later of acute pneumonia, neighbors insisted the true cause was a broken heart.
Mrs. O’Leary claimed to be asleep on the night of Sunday, October 8, when flames first sparked in the barn next to the family cottage on DeKoven Street. The blaze traveled in northeast, tearing through shanties and sheds and leaping across Taylor Street, the heat so fierce that fireman Charles Anderson could hold his hose to the flames only when shielded by a door. His hat curdled on his head. All spare engines were called to the growing conflagration, prompting one fire marshal to ask another: “Where has this fire gone to?” The answer was swift and apt: “She has gone to hell and gone.” Residents noticed that a freakish wind whipped the flames into great walls of fire more than 100 feet high, a meteorological phenomenon called “convection whirls”—masses of overheated air rising from the flames and began spinning violently upon contact with cooler surrounding air. “The wind, blowing like a hurricane, howling like myriads of evil spirits,” one witness later wrote, “drove the flames before it with a force and fierceness which could never be described or imagined.”