A Dairy Tale

updated 09/22/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/22/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

EVERY OTHER SATURDAY FOR THE past 2½ years, Richard F. Bales has been squinting his way through a 126-year-old, handwritten, 1,163-page report at the Chicago Historical Society library. Magnifying glass in hand, he's out to put to pasture the dearly held belief that Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern that ignited the Chicago Fire of 1871. "This is the ultimate historical mystery," says Bales. "Here I am doing something that no one has done before. It's real neat."

One might say that Bales, 45, an attorney for the Chicago Title Insurance Company, is udderly obsessed with his subject. "He's very intent," says Ken Grenier, a land-description underwriter who has assisted Bales in his research. "He strongly feels the cow didn't kick over that lantern."

Though Bales is not the first one to acquit the bovine, he is the first to point the finger at Daniel "Peg Leg" Sullivan—a neighbor of Catherine O'Leary's—for starting the 30-hour blaze that killed 300 people and left almost 100,000 homeless. Sullivan, says Bales, told an 1871 inquiry board that he was across the street when he saw the fire break out in O'Leary's barn. "There is circumstantial evidence that Sullivan lied," says Bales, who claims that Sullivan's view would have been blocked by at least one two-story house. He also theorizes that Peg Leg was himself in the barn feeding his mother's cow when, says Bales, "Sullivan kicked over the lantern or dropped a match or a pipe." Illinois state historian Thomas Schwartz, for one, praises Bales for "coming to a conclusion on the fire's cause that other people had only hinted at."

Bales admits his study of the conflagration was stoked by "a bit of sibling rivalry." He and his twin brother, Jack, the oldest of nine children of schoolteacher parents in Aurora, Ill., a Chicago suburb where Bales still lives, attended Illinois College together. Jack, now a reference librarian, has written three biographies. "I thought, if he can do that, I can too," says Bales, who plans to write a book about the fire.

That almost certainly means even more time away from his family—wife Joanne, 43, a schoolteacher, and sons Mike, 15, and Tom, 10. "Anything he undertakes he goes at to the nth degree," says Joanne. "Gee," she adds wistfully, "maybe we could go out to dinner sometime."

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