Typhanie (typhanie) wrote in world_tragedies,

The Hartford Circus Fire

Okay, so this will be my first real contribution to this community.

I think I'll start with what's been holding my interest lately.

The Hartford Circus Fire of 1944.

Imagine, please, that you are a child of nine or ten. The year is 1944. It is early July. The second World War has been raging for five long years. Times are hard. Food and supplies are rationed and treats are in short supply. Your father or older brother or uncle is overseas somewhere, fighting. You get letters from him every so often, but they grow ever more bleak as the war wears on and he see horrible things. You don't quite understand everything that is happening, but you know it's bad, and that the adults are worried all the time.

Then the circus comes to town and it's so exciting. Everyone's telling you about the circus. There are exotic animals there; lions, bears, elephants. All the circus folk are in brightly colored clothing and they smile all the time. There is a freak show, and people who perform amazing feats. There are clowns. It is a ray of sunshine.

Mom tells you that you're going to go to the circus tomorrow. You tell all your friends and everyone is so jealous, but by then end of the day, half the kids on your block have convinced their parents to let them go to. You fall asleep that night and dream happy circus dreams.

Tomorrow finally comes. July 6. All morning you get ready. You and your neighbors make the trip in close proximity, and you grin as some of your friends sit near you in the bleachers. The tent is so big and beautiful. It's everything that you hoped it would be. It's magic.

The show starts. You watch in wonder as the band starts playing and performers and animals swarm out and begin their acts. It's only when the acrobats, the Great Wallendas, are on stage, that things start to get weird. The band starts playing a new song, the Stars and Stripes Forever. Suddenly there's fire everywhere. People are yelling, screaming. People are running towards the entrance and jumping off the bleachers. There just one writhing throung of people stampeding to get out. Somehow you make it off the bleachers. There are chunks of burning stuff falling from the sky. Perhaps you've lost mommy and your friends in the process. Now you're scared, standing by a portion of the tent that isn't yet on fire. Perhaps someone grabs you and pulls you to the performers entrance. Or perhaps someone slashes the canvass open. Some how you're now out of the tent running, then stopping, panting, turning around to look back.

You'll never forget the sight of that magnificent big top burning on that sunny day. You'll never forget the smell of charred bodies or the screams of the people trapped in the tent as the canvass collapses. You'll never forget the sound of the ambulances and firetrucks coming to put out the fire and take away the injured and the dead.

They called it the Day the Clowns Cried.

On July 6, 1944 the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Baily Circus came to Hartford, Connecticut. They'd performed there before, and it was a favorite city of theirs. The day seems to have been unremarkable. Just another midsummer day in a war-torn world.

The circus was performing under a big top. As usual for the time, the big top had be waterproofed by a mixture of parafin and gasoline. There were safer chemicals at that time, but the government controlled them because of the war. On one site I read that the circus had petitioned the military for these chemicles and/or fireproofing chemicles, but were refused. Whether or not they actually approached the government, these things just weren't available for them to use.

That day a crowd estimated between 6,000 to 10,000 were in attendance. About 20 minutes into the act, while the Great Walledas were performing, a few people of the circus noticed the fire. One of the first was the band leader, who signaled the band to play Stars and Stripes Forever, which was apparantly a code that the circus used to signal that something was seriously wrong. Soon the flames were too great to be ignored, and the crowd started to panic. First, they stampeded the entrance they'd all come through, but that was the side of the tent that was engulfed. Circus workers tried to direct people to the performers entrance, but many people were too panicked to listen, or were impeded by the large animal chutes. (Chutes that led from animal cages to the three rings.) Finally some people, the first of whom being a 13-year-old boy, started slashing open the canvass and hundreds of people were able to get out that. During all this hot chunks of parafin and burning canvass were raining down on people.

Reports vary as to how many actually died in the fire that day. They range anywhere from 160 to 169. Most seem to settle on 168. Probably the reason for that is that an unknown number of bodies were burnt so completely because of the parafin and gasoline that they were essentially cremated, and only pieces were recovered. According to Wikipedia, official estimates of the injured ran to over 700 people, most of whom were horribly scarred or burnt. It's amazing to me that out of probably 8,000 people there that day, so many got out of it uninjured and alive. Ironically, some people who were trampled and buried in panicked people survived the fire, because they were trapped under so many people that the fire didn't reach them.

Let me take a moment to say that this is one of the things that affected me the most about this tragedy. Can you imagine, being trampled and have people falling on you and sufficating you, and hearing and feeling them burning and dying, while you can do nothing but lay there? That's one of the worst possible things that I can think of.


Most of the victims of this fire wre women and children. Most men were out at war, or working hard to support their families and/or the country. It was during the week, so mostly it was mothers and children there. There are accounts of soldies on leave who were in the audience. A sailor in particular is said to have slugged a woman to get her out of his way. There are also reports of wounded veterans and their nurses who were there that day. But the overwhelming majority of those in attendance were woman and children. It is said that less than 100 or those killed were over the age of 15.

The Hartford Circus Fire leaves us with several mysteries. First is how the fire started. On the record, they say a cigarette was carelessly tossed. However, eyewitness accounts say that the fire started in the middle of the canvass, not the bottom, otherwise circus personnel could have put it out. Someone even admitted to starting the fire, then recanted. Second, there were several bodies that were so badly burned that they could not be identified, but there was one that wasn't burned at all. Her death had been caused by a blow to the head or trampling. She was in almost perfect condition, yet no one ever claimed her. She was dubbed Little Miss 1565 and buried with the five other unknown. Later a Hartford Chief Fire Inspector became convinced that she was Eleanor Cook and she was reburied next to other members of the cook family. However, there is a lot of doubt whether or not this was true, because at the time of her death, various family members were unable to positively identify the body, and her mother denied that it was her.

One good thing that came out of this tragedy was that the safer chemicles were made available to the public. From what I've read, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Baily Circus took full responsibility and since then have not performed under a big top.

A couple of books are continually mentioned on the subject of the Hartford Fire. One was The Circus Fire by Stewart O'Nan. Another was A Matter of Degree by Don Massey and Rick Davey. The most famous clown from that fire, Weary Willie, was played by Emmett Kelly, Sr. He's often credited as a hero of that day. In his autobiography, Clown he talks about the Hartford Fire.

I will be adding this site to the section above. It's a little hard to wade through because of the colors used on the site, but he is thourough as far as summary and details and talks about heroes and villians of the day. It's a good site to go to for more in-depth information.

This is just a summary post. If anyone has experiences or details or feelings they'd like to add about this event, please feel free to post them. I want to learn more about what happened that day.
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