In October 1997, the City Council of Chicago passed a resolution stating that both Mrs. Catherine O'Leary and her cow, Naomi, were not responsible for the fire that destroyed Chicago during the last century. Many from the news media interviewed Mrs. O'Leary's relatives for their feelings in the wake of this declaration of her innocence. While the interviews were interesting, there were one-sided-only Mrs. O'Leary's relatives. The descendents of her cow were never asked about how they felt. After much research in the archives of the Holstein Association located in Brattleboro, VT, I was able to trace the relatives of Mrs. O'Leary's cow. Naomi's nearest relative lives on a small farm at the last turnoff of a county road in Northern Indiana. John Sanders, a dairy farmer, owns one of the descendents of the cleared cow.

John John was gracious enough to allow me to talk with his cow but was a little concerned about being beset by a hoard of media types. He doesn't want all the commotion of their trucks, cameras, and lights disrupting his quiet farm. He would prefer that the media quote from this interview instead of stopping by his homestead. The use of this interview would allow his cows the peace and quiet necessary for good milk production. I would ask that you honor his request. Anyone interested in the cow's story may reproduce this interview with my permission. Merely footnote where you obtained the material. Thank you.

Al: Thank you for allowing me to interview you. John told me that your name is Elvira: How did you get that name?
Elvira: You must be kidding. Just move back and take a good look at me. Don't I look like an Elvira to you? I'm a prize-winning Holstein. I normally produce eight gallons of milk a day. That's more milk than other cows although my butterfat is only 3.5%. For years, farmers have used us for bringing up the volume of milk that they take to the creamery. I come by my name honestly-see what I mean?

Al: Well, now that you mentioned it, you do look like an Elvira: May I call you Elvira?

Elvira: Sure.

Al: I can call you, Elvira, and Elvira, when you call me, you can call me, Al.

Elvira: That has a nice sound to it.

Al: Elvira, you have probably heard that the City Council of Chicago exonerated Mrs. O'Leary and Naomi for the Great Chicago Fire. As one of the descendents of the absolved cow, what can you tell me about your feelings regarding the decision to clear your family's name?

Elvira with Al and JohnElvira: I certainly appreciate your willingness to talk with me. All the other writers interview the relatives of Mrs. O'Leary. However, my forebears were there in the barn that night, and several of them were killed. We feel like the press has ignored us. My relatives and I didn't like being made scapegoats, as it were, for an accident committed by humans late that night, the 8th of October 1871. As far as I'm concerned, the City Council's decision is long overdue. However, I guess that it's better late than never.

Al: What actually happened 126 years ago in Mrs. O'Leary's barn? If it wasn't Naomi's fault, whose fault was it?

Elvira: Family tradition has it that the fire started around 9pm Sunday night. The now debunked story of the origins of the fire was that it was started by one of my relatives. Naomi was supposed to have kicked-over a lantern while Mrs. O'Leary was milking her. Now, I ask you, have you ever been on a dairy farm?

Al: Yes, as a matter of fact, I spent many summers of my youth on a farm owned by my relatives in Oxford, PA. They milked about fifty head, and most were Holsteins.

Elvira: That's great. Then you will be able to answer this question. When did they milk the cows? 9pm?

Al: No, it was always late in the afternoon. We milked at 5am and then again in the evening about 5pm. Milking of the herd took place every twelve hours.

Elvira: That's right. Imagine what a cow would feel like after eating all day from early morning to 9pm! If you had an utter, you'd feel like you were going to explode. An hour past milking time, I get to feel downright uncomfortable-believe me.

Al: Elvira, believe me, I can only imagine. However, if it wasn't an accident while milking a relative of yours, how did the fire start from your historical perspective?

Elvira profileElvira: While it is clear that those 126 years have blurred the real truth, there are some things that we do know. My relative wasn't being milked at 9pm, and she didn't kick over the lantern in the barn at 137 Dekoven St. That's for sure. However, there are several rather plausible theories about the possible origins of the fire.

The first is that Daniel "Peg Leg" Sullivan was responsible for the fire that burned over 2000 acres of the city. Peg Leg was the first on the scene. Perhaps, he was already there and accidentally started the fire by careless smoking, or he could have kicked-over the lantern. Some suggest that he might have been drinking too much that night and accidentally started the fire himself.

Elvira's faceOn the other hand, Peg Leg's story is that he was sitting on his front porch and saw the fire just after it started. That was impossible because, according to documents of the time, existing buildings would have blocked his vision. My relatives confirm this also; he couldn't have seen the barn at all-they never saw him sitting on his porch as he alleges. In addition, how could someone with a wooden leg arrive upon the scene before anyone else was able to get there? He had to have already been in the barn when the fire started. Reports were that he rescued a cow. That cow, a relative of mine, passed down her eyewitness report to her offspring and they in turn to the next generation. In the process the story got confused and altered over time.

Al: You said that several theories had come down over the years about the great Chicago fire.
Elvira: Yes, another possibility was that some boys were playing cards and drinking in the barn that night. Peg Leg could have been one of them. However, a man named Louis Cohn actually claimed that he had been gambling in the hayloft that night. In fact, after his death in the early 1940s, someone found in his journal this confession of sorts, "When I knocked over the lantern, I was winning." He surely must have had a hot hand-hotter than he knew at the time.

An interesting aside to the Cohn story is that there is some evidence that suggests that James O'Leary, the youngest son of Catherine, was one of the boys gambling with Cohn on that infamous night. It's funny how Mrs. O'Leary and her cow get exonerated and in the process, her son gets implicated. If this story of the boys gambling in the hayloft is true, they were responsible of the destruction of over 18,000 buildings and leaving over 100,000 Chicagoans homeless. It shouldn't be a surprise that they would have wanted to implicate someone else or some cow for starting the fire.

James grew up to become Big Jim O'Leary, a notorious and successful gambler. He was a gambling entrepreneur. He started off-track gambling parlors and his casino on South Halsted was one of the première gambling houses in the Midwest. However, he never owned up to being there in the barn that night, but Louis Cohn did. It has taken 126 years to get my family's name cleared of that holocaust.

Al: Are there other theories that you have heard over the years from your relatives?

Elvira Profile 2Elvira: Actually, yes. Another conjecture has come down through the family that blamed a comet for that cataclysmic fire. It had been a particularly dry summer-everything was brown and just waiting for a spark. This wasn't the only fire that night. In fact, some of my Wisconsin relatives told me about a really bad fire at Peshtigo, which allegedly was caused by a comet. Some have speculated that a comet might have started both the Peshtigo and Chicago fires. The resultant fire in Wisconsin caused many times more deaths than the one in Illinois. They also told me about other fires around the same time in several other places worldwide including Siberia. I don't know about this theory-I'm not into extraterrestrial theories-but who knows. Stranger things have happened.

Whatever the cause of the Chicago fire, it caused 200-300 deaths in that three-square-mile area. I have heard it said that a third of the city's valuation went up in smoke during the fire.

Al: Well, at least you and your relatives are off the hook for starting the fire.

Elvira: True. I have had a beef about this for a long time. My follow cows have been maligned for years in history books and by the media. Either we get bad press or no press. Sometimes, I wish that I lived in India.

Al talking to Elvira Move a little closer, I want to tell you something on the Q.T. This is just between you and me. John is a good guy. He feeds and treats us well. However, I think that even John buys that old lie about Naomi starting the fire. When you get a chance, look in the barn. You won't see a lantern anywhere. I think that he feels that he is playing it safe not having a lantern around milk cows. Old myths die slowly.

Al: Is there anything else that you would like to get off your chest, as it were, about being cleared of causing the fire?
Elvira: Aside from the scapegoating issue? Well, doesn't it strike you somewhat strange that the Chicago City Council spent all this time and money clearing a cow while corruption runs like a wild-fire through city government today? I'm glad my family's name is cleared but get with it you public officials! We didn't kick over the lantern years ago nor did we get kickbacks from people doing business with the city. Talk about hypocrisy! Sure, I'm glad that we have finally been cleared of the fire, but government needs to clean up its act if they expect to have any credibility.

Al: Well, Elvira, thank you for taking the time to give me your thoughts on the action of exonerating Naomi for causing the great fire. I don't want to cause you any discomfort by delaying your milking.

Elvira: I guess that John forgot to tell you. I'm expecting in less than three weeks. So, John hasn't been milking me for months.

Al: That's great. Can I come back after you deliver and see your baby?

Elvira: Of course, I'd want my offspring to know you. You're the first of your species to take time to talk with me about our side of this fire controversy. Humans often think they are at the center of the universe. We all share this planet, and our histories are linked together. We just want our views known.

Al: What do you think that you will have, a male or female?

Elvira: I don't know-just as long as it has four cloven hooves.

Al: Have you thought of possible names for your calf?

Elvira: I haven't given it much thought. I've been too busy getting ready for the delivery to come up with any names.

Al: I'll try to think of some names for your calf. Tell John to call me when you deliver.

Al talking to Elvira with JohnElvira: I'll look forward to hearing some suggestions. John's a good farmer but when it comes to naming us, he needs some help. He named some of our herd with numbers-no names just numbers. Can you believe that?

Al: I'll do my best with some possible names. In the meantime, take care of yourself and good luck with your delivery. Thanks again for the interview.