The Big Top Catches On Fire
Seeking an escape from the war news coming out of Europe and Japan, and relief from an extremely warm and muggy Thursday afternoon, somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 residents (mostly women and children while the male population is off fighting the war or at work ... among the attendees are 13-year-old future comedian Charles Nelson Reilly and 14-year-old future Rock & Roll Hall of Fame drummer Hal Blaine) of the region show up at Barbour Street Show Grounds to witness a matinee performance of the famed Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Inside a giant tent, 425 feet long and 200 feet wide to fit the show's three entertainment rings (it weighs 19 tons!), water-proofed with a highly flammable coating of a paraffin melted with gasoline due to war-time restrictions on other materials (four parts Texaco White Gasoline and one part Standard Oil Company Paraffin Wax), supported by six poles stretching 75 feet to the top of the structure, a full house is enjoying the afternoon's performance as the big cats of French lion tamer Alfred Court conclude their thrilling act and the big brass circus orchestra of band leader Merle Evans plays transition music for the Great Wallendas as they climb ropes up to their aerial positions above the crowd. Thrills and fun, happiness abounding ... it all becomes a nightmare in a matter of seconds (a day after the circus has to cancel a show due to a late train arrival in Hartford ... a circus superstition thought to bring on VERY bad luck) when the tent suddenly catches on fire. It is approximately 2:48 in the afternoon.
Court & Evans
The Great Wallendas
Evans is the first to see the fire, a small flame licking its way up the canvas material near the tent's main entrance, and he instantly alerts the circus personnel of danger by having the orchestra break into "The Stars and Stripes Forever," musical code to circus people that there is a serious problem to be dealt with. Serious indeed, from a flame that could be doused by a single bucket of water (or a well directed gob of spit), if one had been available, the flame goes from small to a major conflagration in a matter of moments, as insanely in the light of what is about to happen, the circus' fifty fire extinguishers have not been unpacked, and the four circus fire trucks are parked a quarter-mile from the blazing tent (additionally, though the circus is taking place on city property, no Hartford firefighters are assigned to the event, and the fire chief, John King, is not even aware the circus is in town). Hearing the danger music being played, ringmaster Fred Bradna asks the crowd to remain calm and exit the tent, but the power on his microphone goes out and no one is listening anymore as 100-foot tall flames eat away at the big top.
In the chaos that takes place as the tent catches fire and then collapses on the crowd, the vagaries of fate decide who lives and who dies ... some people make the exits (two are horribly blocked by the metal caging used to guide the animal acts out of the tent), others remain in their seats too long, thinking that the flames and smoke at first are part of the next clown act (or that the flames will be quickly extinguished), congestion is caused by the first row of seats in the stands (the top level is fifteen feet above the ground) being encircled by a metal railing. Big time panic, heroes also abound in the crowd and circus personnel ... children are tossed or carried over impediments to their safety, bucket brigades are formed (in one famous photo of the fire, legendary clown Emmett Kelly is seen carrying a bucket of water), using pocket knives, escape holes are slashed in the tent siding as a means of escape, and Frieda Pushnik, who performs with the circus as the "Armless and Legless Wonder," is carried to safety by one of the show's minstrel performers (she will continue to perform with the circus until 1955).
Kelley Trying To Help
But for many (an official death count will never be arrived at as in some cases, bodies have been turned into nothing but ash, while in other cases, only pieces of people are found ... most accounts of the catastrophe give numbers between 167 and 186 dead, with an additionally 500 to 700 people injured in the event, many burnt by the flaming wax glop mixture that falls off the roof of the tent), there is no escape and death comes by way of burning, injuries caused by jumping off the top of the stands, asphyxiation caused by smoke inhalation, trampling (at some bottlenecks, the bodies will be piled up to three deep in places ... and in at least two cases, survivors are found sheltered underneath the corpses), and from crushings caused by the support system of heavy wooden beams coming down. Of the dead, only 10 will be adult males, the balance of the perished are women and children ... with a third of the dead younger than 10-years-old. From the moment the fire is first seen by bandleader Evans, it takes only seven short minutes for the tent to be completely destroyed!
In the aftermath of the tragedy, its victims are brought to a makeshift morgue at the State Armory in Hartford ... each body is assigned a four-digit number and toe tag, and then placed on rows of blanket-covered army cots until they can be identified (burnt beyond recognition, many never receive names). Tears abounding for days, identification comes by way of groups of twelve people at a time being registered, and then walked through the morgue by either a nurse or a police officer (a canteen for refreshments is also established at the site by local members of the Red Cross).
Some Of The Victims
The Morgue Walk
The Funerals Begin
The most famous victim of the tragedy is one of the unknowns, a mystery that lingers to this day. Dressed in a white summer dress with her features basically intact (a victim of asphyxiation), other than for a burn on her face, a young little blonde girl is given the number 1565 (when the newspapers get the story, she forever becomes Little Miss 1565), but is never given a name despite the extraordinary efforts of two police investigators, Sergeants Thomas Barber (a widower with two children who had planned on attending the Thursday performance) and Edward Lowe, to identify the corpse (the men take finger prints, foot prints, dental impressions, and pictures of the girl that are circulated around the country to no effect, and obsessed with the little girl and wanting to honor her memory, on Memorial Day, Christmas, and July 6th, place fresh flowers on her grave without fail until the day they die ... a tradition that local florists then continued after the police officers are gone). Despite the array of evidence, there are no bites, though some think the body is that of a six-year-old named Sarah Graham and a 1991 book is published declaring the victim to be Eleanor Emily Cook (Eleanor's mother however will claim the little girl is not her daughter ... right up until she dies in 1997 at the age of 91!) ... a mystery that without several exhumations and extensive DNA testing will never be solved.
Little Miss 1565
Eleanor Emily Cook
Cause and blame required to fully finish a tragedy's story, in the case of the Hartford Circus Fire, they remain, like Little Miss 1565, unknowns. Some theories have the fire being caused by a recklessly discarded burning cigarette, while others have the incident being the work of an arsonist, and sure enough, an arsonist is found that seems to fit the requirements of the case. In 1950, after a series of very bizarre dreams featuring lots of flames (in one dream, an Indian rides a flaming horse, in another, a mysterious woman stands in flames demanding an admittance of guilt), mentally ill Robert Dale Segee of Circleville, Ohio (he is sentenced to 40-years behind bars on other arson charges) confesses to being the fire bug culprit from when he was a 14-year-old roustabout working for the circus. There is a problem however with the confession ... no one can prove Segee ever was in the state of Connecticut in 1944, and three years before his death in 1997, in an interview, Segee denies having anything to do with the fire!
Segee - 1950
The same denials are not available to five Ringling Brothers executives who are charged with involuntary manslaughter the day after the fire ... James A. Haley, the 45-year-old vice-president of the circus, George W. Smith, the 51-year-old general manager, Leonard Aylesworth, the 52-year-old "24 Hour Man" responsible for overseeing the circus being set up in each city it visited, Edward Versteeg, the 44-year-old chief electrician, and 75-year-old David W. Blanchfield, the chief wagon man. Not wanting any more bad publicity other than what they have already received, days after the indictments are announced, Ringling Brothers announces it accepts full financial responsibilities for the fire and will pay whatever Hartford officials feel is appropriate to the victims of the fire, and their families ... payouts that will reach $5,000.000.00 before being completed! Brought to trial in late 1944, four of the men are found guilty and sentenced to prison, but are entirely pardoned before having to spend time behind bars (exonerated, Haley will go on to serve in the Florida House of Representatives from 1949 to 1952, and as a member of Congress from 1953 to 1977).
Lives ended, or changed forever, called the "Day the Clowns Cried," the Hartford Circus Fire takes place in Connecticut on this day in 1944!
The Hartford Circus Fire