JULY 2018

JULY 2018
One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017


Friday, October 01, 2010


I would say that the O’Leary family of Chicago was pretty average, in all aspects, even the extraordinary  ones. The 40,000 Irish in Chicago in 1870 made up 13% of the cities’ 300,000 citizens. In the popular image of the day the Irish, as a group were stupid, lazy, alcoholic and violent. But, like the vast majority of the real immigrants, Catherine and Patrick O’Leary frugally invested their meager savings not in education, not in comforts, but in property, even pulling their four girls out of school and putting them to work to hold onto as much of their adopted country as they could afford.
Like many other Union Army Civil War veterans, Patrick O’Leary had saved much of his pay, and used it to purchase a lot on the west side of Chicago. In the spring of 1864 his new estate at No. 137 DeKoven Street was all of 25 feet wide and 100 feet deep, situated halfway between Jefferson and Clinton Streets, and it cost him $500. There were two shacks on the lot and one barn (above). The O’Leary’s rented out the larger shack, on the street, and Catherine, “a stout woman of about 35 years”, turned the barn into a dairy. It wasn't much to look at, Lord knows, and the birth of her son in 1869 barely delayed her struggles, as she increased her herd to five cows. She sold the milk throughout the neighborhood, and as the summer of 1871 came to a blistering end, Kate even laid in a stock of 2 tons of hay and 2 tons of coal to feed and warm the Dairy cows throughout the coming winter. And this was the woman most people blamed for burning down Chicago.
There had been only an inch of rain since June. The city’s 185 firemen were stretched to the breaking point. They beat back three fires on October 4th, four on October 5th and 5 on October 6th. And then about 10:30p.m.on Saturday, October 7th, they were faced with heavy dry winds from the west, feeding a blaze at the Lull-Holmes Mill at 209 Canal Street. Within 20 minutes four city blocks were ablaze. Somehow with their primative tools, the firemen held the line, but a few of their pumps were damaged, and some of their hoses singed, and several firemen were injured, and all of them were exhausted. And less than 24 hours later, two men would be banging on Catherine and Patrick’ O'Leary's side door, yelling that their barn was on fire.
The alarm just after 9p.m. on Sunday October 8th, woke Catherine and Patrick from a dead sleep. The entire family rushed out into the darkness to fight the flames. A few minutes later they were joined by one fire department pumper, named appropiatly enough, The America. One of the firemen said later that “with the help of two more engines we could have knocked it cold.” Alas, the exhausted firemen did not have two more engines. The dry winds sent the sparks leapfrogging eastward across the neighborhood, all the way to the lake shore.
When the conflagration finally succumbed on Tuesday, October 10th, over 3 square miles of Chicago were burned down, 100,000 people were homeless, and at least 300 people were dead.
It was a very sad tale, and the villain of the piece as far as Kate O’Leary was concerned, was not the fire but the aptly named Michael Ahern, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. It was Mr. Ahern who created the story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern while the woman was milking the beast at night. It was patently false, as anyone who has ever lived with a cow could testify to. Cows are milked in the morning, and Catherine testified at the hearings investigating the fire, that she never milked her cows at night. Her neighbors agreed, and insisted that she and Patrick had both been in the house when the fire had sparked to life.
But the Ahern story had what in modern parlance is called “legs”. A poem, published a few months later in the “Insurance Monitor” magazine, would prove that. “This is the cow, at the Leary back gate, Where she stood on the night of October the eighth, With her old crumpled horn and belligerent hoof, Warning all "neighbor women" to keep well aloof. Ah! this is the cow with the crumpled horn that kicked over the lamp that set fire to the barn That caused the Great Fire in Chicago!”
In 1895 Mr. Ahern admitted he had concocted the entire story. But he remained seemingly unrepentant for the grief he had caused the O’Leary family. Their house had been saved, but the barn and its contents had not. The O'Learys had no insurance, so the barn was a complete loss, as were the animals, and the coal and hay. But the public scorn, based on the Ahern story, was far worse, repleat as it was with death threats and public mockery. The official commission completely exonerated Catherine, but Mr. Ahern’s tale withstood even reality. Kate was “heartbroken” and eventually broken financially; in 1879 the O’Leary’s sold their property, and were forced to move to the working class tenements “behind” the Union Stock yards.
 Ironically, the spot where Kate’s barn once stood is now the site of the Chicago Fire Academy.
Patrick O’Leary died in September of 1894, and Catherine on July 3rd, 1895. Her death certificate says Kate died of acute pneumonia, but James Patrick O’Leary, who was two years old that night in 1871, contended that she actually died of a broken heart.
James Patrick O'Leary went to work in the stockyards, acquiring the moniker of “Big Jim” O’Leary. But at heart, his whole life he was a gambler. He took a second job working for local bookies, and that led him to open an off-track betting parlor across the border in Indiana. That went bankrupt in the 1880’s, and then in 1892 James bet everything he had on “Gentleman” James Corbett in his fight with John L. Sullivan, and Cobert and James O'Leary both won big.
James then opened a saloon back in Chicago, right across Halsted Street from the entrance to the stock yards. Over the years he expanded this to include billiard rooms, a bowling alley, a barbershop and a Turkish Bath. As a matter of pride he put the name “O’Leary” over the front door (above), in electric lights. Catherine would have been proud.
For thirty James O’Leary (above) was the most famous gambler in Chicago. In his view, “Nearly everybody gambles. Sometimes it's with money, sometimes it's with time, sometimes it's with jobs. Nearly every fellow is willing to take a chance… A fellow that won't gamble or steal is a beggar.” It was hard to argue with his success. His club's telephone number “YArds 628” was instantly recognizable all over Chicago. His bookies were available in every downtown hotel, and rare amongst bookies, he promptly paid off if he lost. And in an age before public opinion polls, newspapers would visit “Big Jim” before every Election Day to get the odds – in 1908 he offered 4-1 on Taft and 5-1 on Bryant. Taft won. Of course, so did James O'Leary.
He had married Annie McLaughlin, whose family had lived next door to his parents back on DeKoven Street. Their son, James Jr., married the daughter of the top police inspector.
James was indicted four times for gambling but convicted only once, when he was 53.  Then, in the early 1920’s police found a stash of now illegal whiskey in his club. In court “Big Jim” produced a pharmacist license, but the judge was not buying the argument that he was selling the booze for medicinal purposes. The club was shut down.
When asked how much money he had made, Jim O’Leary insisted, “I’ve got enough to take a trip around the world when I sell my shop.” It was a false front. The youngest son of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary died of a heart attack in January 23, 1925, just 56 years old
It would be nice to say that the O’Leary’s had gone from paupers to millionaires in one generation, achieving the Amiercan dream through hard work and stubborn perserverence, but James’ estate was valued at a mere $10,200 - more than most, but hardly millions.
So, by the time James O'Leary died the Irish in America had proven those terrified of immigrants to be wrong. They might have had a strange religion, and when they first arrived, they appeared to be dirty and ignorant to the "nativists" Americans. But up close, they were, on average, pretty much average; thrifty, hard workers, at either honest or illegal jobs. And all things considered the O'Leary's could look back at their lives and say they were not extraordinary at all, just living average American lives, in which, occasionally, extraodinary sparks were struck. And that is what we celebrate every Saint Patrick's day. It makes you wonder what Muslim holiday will be celebrated a generation hench. 
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1 comment:

  1. I would like to know what happened to his 33-room Mansion at 726 Garfield Boulevard after Big Jim died? Did it go to a son/daughter or sold by widow?


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