WHO CAUSED THE GREAT CHICAGO FIRE?
A POSSIBLE DEATHBED CONFESSION
By Anthony DeBartolo
CHICAGO - All we know for certain is the approximate time and place: About 9 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 8, 1871, in or around a small shed that bordered the alley behind 137 DeKoven St.
Everything else we've heard about the Chicago Fire's origin--the cow, the comet, and most recently, Daniel "Peg Leg" Sullivan--is "interesting, but ultimately unprovable theory," says Carl Smith, a Northwestern University professor and expert on the Chicago Fire.
Ald. Edward M. Burke, though, seems so convinced Peg Leg did it that last month he introduced a resolution in the City Council exonerating Catherine O'Leary and her bovine of all blame. Monday, the Council's Police and Fire Committee passed the resolution and sent it to the full Council for consideration.
The resolution was based on research by amateur historian Dick Bales, a Wheaton attorney. After comparing Peg Leg's testimony (Sullivan told an investigative hearing convened after the holocaust that he was the first on the fire scene) with land records, Bales theorized Sullivan, a neighbor of Mrs. O'Leary, lied about where he was standing when he initially saw the blaze. That's led some to conclude he was in the barn actually causing the trouble.
But before officially censuring Peg Leg, we should at least consider one other possible suspect: The only credible individual ever reputed to have admitted, in effect, "I did it." His name was Louis M. Cohn.
IN FAREWELL - Chicago Elks who honored Louis M. Cohn, Treasure of the Board of Trustees at a farewell party last night. Left to right: William J. Sinek, past exalted ruler; Mr. Cohn and Alderman Leonard J. Grossman. In rear, M.S. Hyland, chairman board of trustees.
from the Chicago Herald Examiner, November 23, 1928
Although fire experts like Bales and Smith have never heard the name -- and, says Bales, "I've read absolutely everything" -- gambling historians have. Because according to Cohn, the flames that left 300 people dead, another 100,000 homeless and destroyed $192 million in property were sparked by the hottest craps game this town will ever see.
Cohn's claim first surfaced Sept. 28, 1944 when his $35,000 estate, bequeathed in his name to Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, was ceremoniously handed over to Kenneth Olson, dean of the school. The university's news service issued a one-page press release at the time.
In it, we learn that Cohn, a retired importer, "was regarded as an authority in Chinese customs, political history and art" and "became intimately acquainted with Chinese royalty."
"A renowned traveler," Cohn crossed the Pacific 42 times, the Atlantic 29 times, and "boasted of having been in every country in the world at least twice."
A less flattering boast is dispatched in the last paragraph, which begins: "Mr. Cohn had an interesting connection with the origin of the Great Chicago Fire."
"He steadfastly maintained that the traditional story of the cause of the fire -- Mrs. O'Leary's cow that kicked over a lantern -- was untrue. He asserted that he and Mrs. O'Leary's son, in the company of several other boys, were shooting dice in the hayloft . . . by the light of a lantern, when one of the boys accidently overturned the lantern, thus setting the barn afire. Mr. Cohn never denied that when the other boys fled, he stopped long enough to scoop up the money."
According to his Cook County death certificate, Cohn would have been 18 years old at the time of the fire. He was born March 10, 1853 in Breslau, Prussia (part of modern-day Germany), also the birthplace of his unnamed father.
He died in 1942 a few weeks before his 89th birthday, succumbing in Passavant Hospital after a lengthy bout with kidney cancer. He survived his wife, Bertha, by many years, had no children and was buried in Rosehill Cemetery.
Mr. Solid Citizen
In his will, Cohn comes across as a solid, sensible, civic-minded citizen, despite an apparent aversion to organized religions. Among his last requests: "The obsequies to be performed over my remains be simple yet dignified; that my remains be placed in a casket which shall be unostentatious and moderate in cost; that the services at my funeral be conducted by members of Chicago Lodge No. 4 the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, U.S.A. and that no religious services of any character whatsoever be conducted. . ."
As the endowment indicates, Cohn died a relatively wealthy man. Court documents tell us he left behind $2,618.30 in cash; $4,753.91 in personal property, and considerable equity in a seven-unit Hyde Park apartment building. He also owned several thousand shares of worthless stock, primarily in speculative gold mines.
While Cohn requested perpetual scholarships be established in his name, his will cited the University of Chicago and/or Northwestern University as possible beneficiaries. No single school or specific area of study was selected.
His estate's executors -- Judge Michael Feinburg, Arthur Berg and Morris Neufeld, close friends of Cohn's and also beneficiaries of his will -- chose Medill. Administered as a need-based subsidy for Illinois journalism students, the Louis M. Cohn Scholarship fund is still continuing to bestow grants. So far in 1997, it has doled out about $12,000 in interest income, according to university sources.
In 1942, the day after Cohn's will was admitted to probate, the Tribune briefly acknowledged its scholarship provision. Two days later, the Sun-Times reported that the estate went to Medill, ending its two-paragraph story with this kicker: Cohn "claimed to have been present in the barn of Mrs. O'Leary on the night of the Chicago Fire." The Tribune, which essentially founded Medill 23 years earlier, made no mention of the gift or the fire.
A gambling story
Cohn's alleged involvement in the disaster was not publicly acknowledged again until gambling historian Alan Wykes' 1964 book, "The Complete Illustrated Guide to Gambling." In a chapter headed "Seven Come Eleven," Wykes reports Cohn's $35,000 gift to Northwestern, adding that the estate was handed over "together with the full story of the `truth' about the Chicago Fire." Wykes explains that Cohn's alleged admission is unverified, "but, true or not," he writes, "it has taken its place in the colorful history of craps."
In his retelling of Cohn's claim, Wykes also significantly expands upon it. "In his will," the author writes, "Cohn added a postscript to his story in the form of a deadpan comment that could have been made only by a man with the unswerving single-mindedness of the dedicated gambler: `When I knocked over the lantern, I was winning.' "
Attempts to reach Wykes through his London-based publisher, Aldus Books, Ltd., and New York's Doubleday and Co., which handled the American edition, were unsuccessful.
According to a contemporary university spokesperson, no additional records regarding Cohn's bequest can be found. Dean Olson, who might have shed some light, died in 1967.
Cohn's recorded nine-page will, signed five months before his death, contains no reference to the fire. There is, however, reason to question the document's authenticity.
It seems Cohn didn't properly sign or date what was represented as the will's last page. Instead, he signed all nine pages in their margins, but didn't affix his signature to the bottom of the final page to confirm that the preceding pages contained all he had to say.
After briefly questioning the will's witnesses, the probate judge in the case, Judge John F. O'Connell, seemed satisfied by the will's legitimacy. In retrospect, perhaps he shouldn't have been.
It is entirely possible that out of civic concerns, ethnic pride or a sense of benevolent protectiveness, Cohn's friends thought it best to keep his reputed admission, true or not, as private as possible.
What is certain is the plausibility of Cohn's alleged tale. It takes place at a time when Chicago was not only the heartland's seaport to the world, but the most prominent gambling center this side of New Orleans. Games of chance flourished, especially among the immigrant working class.
One can, without a huge leap of imagination, place a youthful Cohn near the scene of the crime. Chicago's 1870 census registered 32 Cohn households. The male heads of three of them reported Prussia as their birthplace. All lived within walking distance of the O'Learys. One, a cigarmaker who resided with another male and three females at 343 1/2 Park Ave., was even named Louis.
As for Cohn's claim that he was gambling with Mrs. O'Leary's son, one immediately thinks of James, the youngest of her two boys. Based upon church records, the lad would have been almost 9 years old.
James grew up to be "Big Jim" O'Leary, a notorious gambler and pioneer off-track betting operator. In his DuPage County OTB parlor, he took bets on races run at five tracks. His Long Beach, Ind.-based OTB, meanwhile, had barbed wire, armed guards, vicious canines and secret tunnels.
O'Leary's largest city operation, a sportsbook and casino at 4183-85 S. Halsted St., was near the Stock Yards' main gate. As his 1925 Tribune obituary noted, the "gambling resort was the best known place of its kind in Chicago."
After 126 years, with the trail ice cold and all witnesses long gone, we'll surely never know the truth about the Great Fire's origins. But those now convinced Peg Leg was involved should at least reconsider what he was doing in the barn.
The odds may be that he was losing to Cohn.
Jim O'Leary's sports book & casino at 4183-85 S. Halsted St., Chicago
|LA JOLLA, Cal. -
Last fall, Ald. Edward M. Burke
ushered through the City Council a resolution exonerating Catherine
and her cow of all blame for the Chicago Fire of 1871.
Wednesday night, the Newberry Library's young professional group celebrates the municipal pardon by staging a mock trial in the O'Leary family's honor.
While the affair is billed as an absolution of "all proud Chicago Irish," ironically, it will do little more than shift the mantle of guilt from a poor,immigrant Irish woman to a poor, immigrant (as well as disabled) Irish man, Daniel "Peg Leg" Sullivan.
Sullivan was the O'Leary neighbor who was fingered last year as a likely cause of the Great Fire by amateur historian Dick Bales, writing in the Spring 1997 Illinois State Historical Society journal.
After comparing land records from 1871 with Peg Leg's testimony at a post-holocaust hearing (he told investigators that he was the first on the fire scene and, after trying to save Mrs. O'Leary's animals in her burning barn, ran for help), Bales theorized Sullivan could not, as he had testified, have been sitting two houses down when he initially spotted the blaze - another house would have blocked his view. Nor could a man with a wooden leg have hobbled the 193 feet to the O'Leary barn in the short time he said he had. These inconsistencies led Bales to conclude that Peg Leg had actually started the fire himself, perhaps while feeding his own family cow on the O'Learys' hay, and lied to cover it up.
Bales' theory clearing Mrs. O'Leary and her
instantly popular with Chicagoans and led Ald. Burke (14th) to
But as the Tribune wrote Oct. 8, the question is far from resolved. That is because there is a third person who could have been involved in the blaze, and he brings to the matter something the other suspects lack. He has actually confessed to being there when the fire began.
The man is Louis M. Cohn, and the case for his involvement in the fire has grown even stronger since we wrote about him in October.
If Cohn is indeed our man, the Newberry should be hosting a casino night instead of a mock trial.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
A Chicago importer and world traveler, Cohn claimed throughout his life that as a youth, he was one of several boys who accidentally touched off the blaze that destroyed $192 million in property, left 300 people dead and another 100,000 homeless.
His story first surfaced publicly Sept. 28, 1944, when his $35,000 estate, which he bequeathed to Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, was turned over to the school by his friend and executor, Judge Michael Feinberg.
The university announced the gift in a press release, which, in addition to noting that Cohn was regarded as "an authority in Chinese customs, political history and art" and was "intimately acquainted with Chinese royalty," concluded with this item from Cohn's personal biography, provided to the school by Judge Feinberg:
"Mr. Cohn had an interesting connection with the origin of the Great Chicago Fire . . . He asserted that he and Mrs. O'Leary's son, in the company of several other boys, were shooting dice in the hayloft...by the light of a lantern, when one of the boys accidentally overturned (the lantern)...Mr. Cohn never denied that when the other boys fled, he stopped long enough to scoop up the money."
According to the Prussian-born Cohn's Cook County death certificate, he would have been 18 years old at the time of the blaze. He died in 1942 a few weeks before his 89th birthday, having survived his wife, Bertha, by 18 years. He had no children and was buried in Rosehill Cemetery.
Other than the fact Cohn left behind a small Hyde Park apartment building and more than $7,000 in cash and personal property, that's basically all that was known about Cohn at the time of the Tribune's story.
Soon afterward, however, this newspaper was contacted by Stuart L. Cohen (no relation), an expert in Chicago Jewish history and genealogy. Cohen supplied the previously unknown name of Cohn's father, Marcus, who, according to Chicago's 1869-70 city directory lived at 10 4th Avenue. That was less than a mile from the O'Leary house, around what is now Dearborn Street and Jackson Boulevard.
Cohen also proved to be a conduit to Judge Feinberg's now-82-year-old son, Stanley K. Feinberg. The former Chicago attorney and his wife, Loie, 77, currently live in La Jolla, Cal., where they recently consented to an interview.
"I was very fond of Lou," says Feinberg. "He was a friend of my dad's. They were both Elks."
"I would drive (Lou) around. I was like his chauffeur. I enjoyed being with him," he says. "I'd bring my friends over (to Cohn's apartment). I loved his stories, and his whiskey was superb.
"He bought the barreled goods of the Elks club at Prohibition and stored it in a public warehouse. It was 145 proof when he had it bottled after Prohibition. It was smooth."
Smooth enough, says Feinberg, to regularly tempt Illinois Gov. Henry Horner.
"When (Horner) was a bachelor and had no wife to go home to, he would often have his driver take him to Chicago (from Springfield) on a Friday night, at a high rate of speed." Feinberg recalls that the governor "would rap on Louie's door, even at two in the morning. `I want to relax,' he'd say. `How about a drink?' "
One can only guess if Cohn ever admitted his involvement in the Great Fire to the governor (and if after pouring a few shots got pardoned), but Feinberg heard the story from Cohn's lips several times, he says -- usually in response to someone bringing up Mrs. O'Leary.
"He would simply state that the story about the cow was hooey," Feinberg says. "He spoke as though he was correcting history. He wasn't being boastful, or proud or remorseful. He was just setting the record straight. `Here are the facts,' he'd say."
"O'Leary's son (and Louie) and two or three others were in the habit of playing craps in the hay loft of the barn. I got the impression this floating craps game didn't float very far from there."
(The O'Leary son in question may have been James, who, though only about 9 in 1871, grew to become "Big Jim" O'Leary, a notorious Chicago casino operator and off-track betting pioneer.)
"(Louie) said Mrs. O'Leary was always after them. On the night of the fire -- and he told me it was a Sunday night -- they were playing craps when Mrs. O'Leary came up and chased them away. In running, they tipped over a lantern. Lou said he went back to pick up the money."
Feinberg adds that Cohn "was kidded about the story from time to time. `Did you knock over the lantern because you were losing?' someone would ask. His only response to the kidding was a knowing smile. I never heard him admit he knocked it over."
It was once reported, however, that Cohn allegedly confessed to the deed.
In gambling historian Alan Wykes' 1964 book, "The Complete Illustrated Guide to Gambling," Wykes recounts Cohn's $35,000 gift to Northwestern and his tale of the calamitous crap game, but adds: "In his will Cohn added a postscript to his story...'When I knocked over the lantern,' he wrote, 'I was winning.'"
But Cohn's recorded will contains no reference to the fire, according to Feinberg, who, though he did not draw up the will, saw it through probate court.
"If I recall properly, he probably drew it up while in Passavant (Hospital)." It was at Passavant where Cohn endured a lengthy bout with kidney cancer. "If (the lantern confession were there) I'm confident I would remember it."
"I suspect he may have had an earlier will," Feinberg adds, "but I have no knowledge of it."
As for the account heard from Cohn's own lips, "Looking him in the eye, I had no reason to doubt what he said," contends Feinberg. "The man was not known to be a liar. He was quite a gentleman."
"I believed him," adds Loie, who first heard the story after she met Cohn as Feinberg's fiance. "Knowing him as I did, I don't think he would have taken the blame unless he was part of the cause. He was smart. He was not a stupid man."
She said he was also altogether charming.
"The man was fascinating. The man was gallant. He dressed formally all the time. I never saw him otherwise. He always wore silk suits he had made in the Orient, jade studs and pleated formal shirts, which were his everyday shirts."
"He once told me," says Feinberg, "that he wouldn't sit down to dinner alone with his wife in his apartment without wearing a jacket or collar. `I would have considered it disrespectful of my wife if I did,' he told me."
Cohn's fire account is not only memorable, it's also credible. By 1840, Chicago was as infamous a gambling center as New Orleans. Games of chance flourished, especially among the poor, immigrant working class.
As gambling historian John Philip Quinn wrote in his 1892 book,"Fools of Fortune," in the Chicago of that time "hotels, lodging houses, the back rooms of saloons, in fact, every available place was utilized (for gaming)."
That included the O'Leary barn, according to another source the Tribune learned of after the October story about Cohn appeared-- one Roy Grayson, 74, a retired marketing executive living in Clarksdale, Ariz.
Says Grayson, "My grandfather, Abraham Goldstein, came to Chicago when it was a mud hole. My dad told me he was the first market master of Maxwell Street."
Abraham Goldstein's 1939 Tribune obituary reported that he was appointed "referee in the tumultuous old world bazaar" by Mayor Carter H. Harrison. He died at 100.
Grayson's father, Jeffrey, who changed the family name, also told him that Abraham Goldstein "lived right near Mrs. O'Leary and knew her quite well. He also knew three or four neighborhood boys that often played cards and drank heavily in O'Leary's barn," says Grayson. "On the night of the fire, one of them kicked over a lantern."
"I'm certain it's true," he says. "My grandfather was a stickler for the truth. So was my father."
Whether caused by craps, cards or a cow,
perhaps the most
interesting thing about the Chicago Fire is that people still care.
article first appeared in the Chicago Tribune 5 months later on March 3, 1998.
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