The city was in festive mood. The Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus had arrived at last. It was still wartime and the citizens of the Connecticut capital needed a diversion. At that time the only entertainment to rival it was the cinema. Those who chose to go there instead on that incredibly hot Thursday afternoon would be the fortunate ones.
Hartford has witnessed a number of terrible events in its long history but this would be the most heartbreaking of all. Many of those who survived that tragic day are still alive as they were children at the time.
Circuses are no longer very popular, partly because of the plethora of alternative entertainment today and partly because of the cramped and unnatural conditions under which wild animals have been kept in order to supply oohs and aahs to a paying audience. They spend their lives cooped up in cages and pens, then doing unnatural things concluding with a sea of thunderous surround sound as the audience applauds their acts.
I attended circuses myself as a kid because at that age we see everything differently and imagine the animals enjoying every moment of their performance. But reading the story of Bongo, the circus bear, escaping into the wilds, gave me a different perspective. As I grew older I began to realize that circus life is far from idyllic for the animals.
Our circuses were always small compared to the spectacular three-ring ones at their heyday in the States, with their brass bands and sideshows. But they gave me a glimpse of the exotic – a show of travellers permanently on the road and not bound to a particular town. In fact when our young maid could no longer be found after one of the circuses came to town, and I heard she “ran away with the circus” it sounded so romantic to my young ears.
I remarked that clowns must be such happy people to which my mom responded that they were usually sad people. Nowhere would this be more evident than after the worst day in Hartford’s history.
World War II had resulted in staff and equipment shortages for the circus. A tragic foreshadowing occurred on 4 August 1942 when a fire broke out in the menagerie causing the deaths of a number of the animals.
The trains carrying the circus were running so late on 5 July 1944 that one of the two scheduled shows of the opening day had to be cancelled. This is considered an omen of bad luck in circus business, so it was with a sense of foreboding that some of the performers prepared for their acts.
Despite 6 July being a very hot day 7000 people, mostly women and children, and many from surrounding towns all over Connecticut crammed into the huge Big Top just off Barbour Street for the afternoon performance. Also in attendance were a number of people who’d been given free tickets to the show – something they would have been better off without on this ominous day.
It was approximately 2:30 pm, about a half an hour after the show began. The big cats’ performance had just ended and the spectacular Great Wallendas trapeze act had begun. Bandleader Merle Evans noticed flames on the southwest sidewall. He instantly directed the band to begin playing The Stars and Stripes Forever, a recognized distress signal among circus staff.
The ringmaster, Fred Bradna, grabbed the megaphone and asked the audience not to panic but the power failed and no one could hear him anymore. Utter pandemonium set in among the crowd as the fireball spread and thousands of people stampeded toward the exits. Due to the paraffin wax layer which was used for waterproofing at the time, the fire spread rapidly and the entire blazing tent, weighing 19 tons, collapsed in about eight minutes, trapping hundreds inside.
In May 1944 the tent had been treated with a mixture of four parts Texaco White Gasoline and one part yellow paraffin wax. This dubious mixture may well have contributed to the rapid spread of the blaze.
The Wallendas and other performers made their way to safety, but many spectators would not be so lucky.
The lions and tigers who had just performed were herded into chutes and survived with just a few minor burns. Many spectators had to climb over these chutes to get to safety as they blocked two of the exits. Several were clawed by the panicked cats as they clambered over the bars.
Many people were trampled, asphyxiated, burned to death or were killed attempting to jump from the top of the bleachers – tiers of open wooden benches on frameworks – to try and scramble through the sides of the tent.
At least one hero, probably more, cut through the canvas with their pocket knives, allowing numerous people to get out. They saved countless lives that way.
There were many unsung heroes that day. Some survived; others didn’t.
Once outside many people fled the scene in fear that the frightened elephants, lions and tigers would break loose. The entire scene was one of confusion and despair as mothers and fathers looked for missing children, and crying children sought their parents.
Circus clown Emmett Kelly was famously photographed carrying a water bucket during the fire and the image appeared in newspapers under the heading The Day the Clowns Cried.
Kelly had the following to say about the disaster later:
”Leaving the show grounds, I walked past the ruins of the big top and saw some charred shoes and part of a clown doll lying on what had been the hippodrome track. That moment was when the tension of the past hours broke over me in a wave and I couldn’t keep from crying any longer.”
All four Hartford radio stations dropped their regular programming and used their airtime to relay messages, including one from the Governor. Mayor William Mortensen made two broadcasts that evening: one at about 8 pm and then at 9:15 pm.
The death toll has never been established with certainty but the official tally is 167. But some were so badly burned that only parts were ever found and a number were never identified, so it could have been at least 170. The intense heat simply incinerated everything in its path in an instant. A few lucky people were found alive under heaps of bodies after the fire was out.
The circus management came to an agreement with Hartford officials and accepted full financial responsibility. A total of $5 million was paid in damages to the families of victims.
The circus was barred from visiting Hartford for many years. “Big tops” were slowly phased out, and when the circus finally began revisiting Hartford in the 1970s they used the XL Centre for performances. The glamour and allure of the Big Top had faded.
No one knows for sure what caused the terrible fire. Investigators suspected either a carelessly thrown cigarette butt, or arson.
Six years after the event a young man named Robert Segee, who had been a roustabout at the circus and was being questioned about other arson incidents, confessed to starting the fire. He also confessed to four murders, but it seems he was never charged for these, or for the Hartford fire so perhaps they were part of his delusions. He was only 14 at the time of the disaster. Segee later recanted his confession. He had a long history of mental illness so perhaps he was simply tormented by nightmares and hallucinations. He spoke of seeing an Indian riding on a flaming horse and telling him to set fires, and later, a woman standing in flames and urging him to confess.
He was only convicted of setting two other fires but sentenced to 40 years imprisonment. Regarding his earlier confession to setting the Hartford Fire he said the following in 1993: ‘Yeah, I did say that. But at the time I said it, I was nuts.’
Up to his death in 1997 he continued to deny any responsibility for the Hartford fire.
If there was indeed an arsonist, no one knows who he was. No evidence for arson was ever found. Many investigators, historians and survivors believe Segee to be innocent.
Maybe a negligent smoker tossed a still smouldering cigarette butt onto the highly flammable wax-coated canvas, or the sawdust-covered floor and started the blaze. At that time it was common practice to discard still smouldering butts, and there were many more smokers than today as the dangers of smoking hadn’t been discovered yet. Today one would never have been allowed to smoke in or near the structure at all!
The origin of the fire was traced to the vicinity of the men’s room, a canvas structure abutting the tent on the southwest side, so this is quite a likely scenario. The blaze spread rapidly from the men’s room to the main canvas structure, feeding gluttonously on all the highly flammable materials.
The unknown little girl
She’s simply known as Little Miss 1565 as no one ever identified her beyond all reasonable doubt. She powerfully symbolizes the sadness of that day. She is buried in a nameless grave.
Two police investigators spent years trying to identify her but met with no success. Every year they put flowers on her grave at Christmas, Memorial Day and on the anniversary of the disaster.
In 1981 the widow of one of the officers said that the family had come forward to claim her but had requested no publicity.
In 1991 investigator Rick Davy, who spent six years researching all aspects of the Hartford fire, declared her to be Eleanor Emily Cook. Her body was moved and buried next to her brother who was also a fire victim, but there’s still an element of uncertainty, since Eleanor’s aunt and uncle had failed to identify her at the time. Eleanor’s own mother, when shown a photo, also stated that Miss 1565 was definitely not her daughter. She had been badly injured in the fire and was unable to claim the two children whom she lost in the fire.
Besides, Eleanor was a brunette whereas Little Miss 1565 is plainly blonde. The faces are also dissimilar and the dental records differed. Possibly Eleanor was claimed by mistake by the wrong parents, or was burned beyond recognition. Nowadays a DNA test could solve the dispute but after all these years it’s better to let Little Miss 1565 rest in peace, whoever she may be.
Eighteen years later another fire would claim numerous lives in the city when one broke out at Hartford Hospital. But that’s another story for another day…
Two of the victims: Samdra Logan and Francis Markovicz
Those who lived through tragedy: Survivors’ accounts
Some survivors managed to overcome their deep emotional scars and have been able to attend circuses again. Many never did, and developed a fear of crowds and tents. There was no counselling for PTS or related disorders in those times.
Many never forgot the smell of burned flesh and the terrible screams of the people and roars of terrified animals.
Survivor Dorothy Carvey was given a free pass and attended the circus again in 2004, 60 years after her dreadful experience.
Various accounts and impressions of the awful day include:
- The father who could only identify his daughter by the red Wizard of Oz Dorothy shoes she wore to the show and which the family still keeps;
- A girl who wrote that she attended the circus with her aunt and two cousins. Her aunt kept her cool and told them to walk calmly and not to look back as they left the tent. Her aunt’s calm handling of the crisis saved their lives;
- The 10 year old boy who was lifted over the stairs over the lion’s cage amid all the confusion and found himself safely outside the tent. It seems the same gentleman who helped many to escape this way was a reporter from the Hartford Times and perished heroically in the fire;
- The pregnant woman whose waters broke when she jumped from the bleachers, and whose baby was born just hours later;
- A woman went with her sister-in-law. Neither survived. They were going to bring their children to the next day’s show;
- The abusive old alcoholic who pitched up at his daughter’s door wanting to take his grandsons to the circus that day. She refused point blank because he didn’t want to take his granddaughter as well, so none of the children went. Had they done so, they might well have been victims;
- A 15 year old girl, working in tobacco fields in Bolton who had a premonition that something had happened to her mother, who turned out to be one of the victims;
- In 1958 six young women from the Sisters of Mercy had a chat together and discovered that five of them had planned on visiting the circus that day but couldn’t go for an assortment of reasons: a flat tyre, a bout of chicken pox, and one who decided it was too hot for the circus and went to the cinema instead. Just a few of the people who couldn’t go for some reason and turned out a blessing in disguise;
- The girl and her cousin who instead of going to the circus, went shopping without telling their parents of their change of plan. The father of one of them, a fire chief, spent hours looking for them in morgues before being told they were safe;
- Some spectators got splinters from sliding down the wooden support poles in an attempt to reach ground, but made it safely out;
- A little girl who played “circus” – lining up her dolls as the audience, she would say: “Watch the cats dance” and then “oh oh here comes the fire; we have to leave;”
- A boy who was afraid to go home from the grounds because he’d lost his shoes in the chaos;
- Villains of the day: a few disgusting people in apartment blocks near the circus who charged $5 or even $10 for people to make calls to their loved ones. There were long lines of folk waiting to use the public call boxes and the rate at the time was just 10c;
Much more here: http://www.circusfire1944.com/survivors.html
Lest we ever Forget…
The Hartford Circus Fire Memorial Foundation erected a memorial to the tragedy at the site of the fire. The dedication of the memorial took place on 6 July 2005, sixty-one years after the tragedy. It is located just behind the present-day Wish School at 350 Barbour Street, not far from where the northern limit of Barbour Street ends at the entrance to Keney Park.
The memorial carries the names of all the known victims. Flowering dogwood trees mark the boundaries of where the tent stood.
None should ever forget this terrible incident which irreparably changed the lives of many hundreds, if not thousands, of people and left countless physical and emotional scars in its wake. Many of those who were there cannot speak of it even today, as it upsets them too much.
Writing this blog has been emotionally draining and harrowing even for me, half a world away researching an event 72 years ago.