Catherine O’Leary owned a small dairy at the fire’s origin. It has become the stuff of legend and song that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow started the Great Chicago Fire when it kicked over a kerosene lamp during the evening milking. The woman was even vilified in the Chicago Tribune.
All these years later I was able to find articles that, with both facts and logic, exonerated Mrs. O’Leary. The Chicago firemen were weary from fighting a Saturday night blaze. Many had been without food and sleep for close to 24 hours. The equipment was in poor condition because of that earlier fire, especially the hoses. The wrong alarm box was sounded in the firehouse due to an inaccurate sighting, which delayed the arrival of the firefighters, and the man responsible for re-sounding the correct one when notified didn’t, “because they’ll find the right place when they get there. It’s on the way.” Evidently not.
As for Mrs. O’Leary, she claimed that she and her husband had gone to bed and were unaware that a fire had started until it was too late. Dairy owners rise well before daylight to take care of the morning milking, so that makes sense. Evening milkings are done much earlier than 9 pm. In fact, had she been in the barn it would have been a simple matter to have put out the small fire before it got out of hand, if indeed it was the accused cow that started it. No one in the barn means no kerosene lamp.
So what about arson? Was the dairy failing? Were their huge debts that a nice-sized insurance check would have covered? That is a moot point because neither the barn, nor the cows, nor the supplies were insured. Arson would have done them no good at all. I am inclined to believe that Mrs. O’Leary was completely innocent.
We, though, are not as innocent when we start fires. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasts great things. Behold how great a matter a little fire kindles! James 3:5. A small barn was the starting point for 4 sq miles of devastation. Something as small as the tongue can start something just as devastating, that travels just as far and just as fast. We once received a phone call from a friend 150 miles away asking if what he had heard about us was true. We are grateful that he called and asked, because it was not true at all. Thanks to a friend who cared enough to check, we were able to put out a fire that could have caused us much trouble and sorrow, perhaps ruining our reputations for life.
Sometimes the statements we make are perfectly innocent, but we are not careful how they come out or who hears them. Kerosene lamps, especially in the nineteenth century, were beneficial tools after all. Yet all it would take was one moment of carelessness for an accident to bring about a catastrophe. And so all it takes from us is one careless word, even one well-meant, to “set on fire the entire course of life,” James 3:6.
And then there are the arsonists who set those fires on purpose. They like to see the fire, the confusion, the havoc they can wreak in the lives of others. It fills them with a power they otherwise can’t feel, and that is why it is so satisfying to them. Gossip can do exactly the same thing. Repeating rumors, perhaps even embroidering them to the point that by the fourth or fifth telling there is little if any truth left in them, can be empowering. Nothing ever happens to me, I am important to no one, but look at all the trouble I can cause anyway. Arsonists often kill people when they engage in their crime. Gossips are no better than those murderers when they commit “character assassination.”
Be careful out there today. If one kerosene lamp can start a fire that nearly destroys a large city, one word can ruin a life. Don’t be the one who knocks over the lamp or the one who adds to the flame by listening.
For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases. As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife, Prov 26:20.21.