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The Demonic Rainbow Cow Announcing Spring’s Arrival

The mysterious shape appears only twice a year, on the third floor of the eccentric Lapham-Patterson House.

The jester-hatted occult equinox cow, announcing spring.

The jester-hatted occult equinox cow, announcing spring. (Photo courtesy Ephraim Rotter)

Spring is a slippery season at the best of times—and in years like this, when brand new crocuses are quickly snuffed by snowstorms, it can be hard to tell whether it has really arrived at all.

Fear not, though: it has. How do I know, you ask? Because on Sunday, the third floor of Georgia’s mysterious Lapham-Patterson House was visited by the rainbow-colored ghost of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, just like it always is on the first day of the season.

The cow is summoned by what the house’s caretakers call the “Equinox Effect”—“a light show that happens throughout the day as sun shines through the mostly amorphous and Amish hex-style shapes on the bargeboard,” says Ephraim Rotter, Curator of Collections for the Thomas County Historical Society.

The Lapham-Patterson house. Look closely at the third-floor window, and you'll see the scrollwork cutout causes all the equinox action.

The Lapham-Patterson house. (Photo: Ebyabe/CC BY-SA 2.5)

The Lapham-Patterson House is a historic property, built in 1885 by eccentric businessman Charles Lapham. As a young man, Lapham survived 1871’s Great Chicago Fire, an experience that left him and his design preferences a bit crispy around the edges.

Fourteen years later, he designed his winter home to be extra-escapable—horseshoe-shaped, with 24 exterior doors and easy-open windows. To cover all his bases, he also imbued the whole building with a certain reverence towards fire, expressed in its flame-shaped scrollwork and walk-through fireplace. 

The eeriest effect of all is left to a suitably ultimate fireball: the sun. Every spring and fall, during the equinox, the day’s sunlight tips just so through a scrollwork cutout and a stained-glass window. It then spreads across the third floor, unleashing the house’s secret inhabitant—a two-horned creature, with broad shoulders and a multicolored trunk.  

A close-up of the cutout that causes the effect.

A close-up of the cutout that causes the effect. (Photo courtesy Ephraim Rotter)

The image, which migrates throughout the room over the course of the day, is both evocative and specific. “The prevailing wisdom is that it represents the fictional cow that tipped over the candle that started the Great Chicago Fire,” says Rotter.

However, since neither Lapham nor his architect left any notes about this particular aspect of the house, the light show has “been left up to interpretation over the years,” Rotter says. Besides the conflagrating cow, viewers have speculated the shapes, which shift over the course of the day, might represent a jester, a set of phalluses, or an occult-style bull.

There’s one thing the shapes mean for sure—spring is here, and that’s no bull.

The cow in context, heading toward the fireplace.

The cow in context, heading toward the fireplace. (Photo courtesy Ephraim Rotter)

Every day, we track down a fleeting wonder—something amazing that’s only happening right now. Have a tip for us? Tell us about it! Send your temporary miracles to cara@atlasobscura.com.