Chris Matthews Uses Dubious Historical Analogy to Tar Conservative Republicans on Debt Ceiling Issue

According to Chris Matthews, conservative House Republicans who are holding steadfast on resisting a debt ceiling deal that includes tax hikes are like the apocryphal bovine of doom behind the 1871 fire that destroyed much of Chicago (video follows page break):

Pat [Buchanan], are you happy with your party being the party of Mrs. O'Leary's cow, basically starting the fire that was just mentioned?


These guys are running around burning down houses. It's a different kind of Tea Party.... This is Mrs. O'Leary's cow politics.

But not only was Matthews's claim insulting to principled Republicans, it is, surprise, surprise,  historically inaccurate (emphasis mine):

No. Mrs. O'Leary and her cow were not responsible for the Great Chicago Fire.

What really caused the massive blaze which destroyed much of Chicago in October 1871 were perilous conditions: a long drought during a very hot summer, and the fact that the city had been built almost entirely of wood.

However, Mrs. O'Leary and her cow did exist, and the legend about them being the cause of the fire endures to the present day.

A fire did begin in O'Leary's barn at about 9:00 pm on Sunday, October 8, 1871.

Catherine O'Leary and her husband Patrick, a Civil War veteran, later swore that they had already retired for the night and were in bed when they heard neighbors calling out about the fire in the barn. By some accounts, a rumor about a cow kicking over a lantern began spreading almost as soon as the first fire company responded to the blaze.

Another rumor in the neighborhood was that a boarder in the O'Leary house, Dennis "Peg Leg" Sullivan, had slipped into the barn to have a few drinks with some of his friends. During their revelry they started a fire in the barn's hay by smoking pipes.

No one will ever know what really happened that night in the O'Leary barn. What isn't disputed is that the blaze spread beyond the O'Leary barn. Assisted by strong winds, the barn fire turned into the Great Chicago Fire.

And within a few days a newspaper reporter, Michael Ahern, wrote an article which put the rumor about Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicking over a kerosene lantern into print. The story took hold, and was circulated widely.


An official commission investigating the Great Chicago Fire heard testimony about Mrs. O'Leary and her cow in November 1871. An article in the New York Times on November 29, 1871, describes Mrs. O'Leary's account of the night of the fire, and notes that she testified that she was in bed when the fire broke out.

The commission concluded in its official report that Mrs. O'Leary had not been in the barn when the fire began. The report did not state a precise cause of the fire, but mentioned that a spark blown from a chimney of a nearby house on that windy night could have started the fire in the barn.

One hundred forty years after the cow-started-the-Great Fire legend was debunked by an official inquiry, Chris Matthews apparently holds to the tale as historical fact.

Yes, this is the same Chris Matthews who's lambasted Republicans for a poor command of history.

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Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is a writer living in New Carrollton, Md.