On the afternoon of
July 6, 1944, approximately 8,000 people gathered in the north
end of Hartford, Connecticut to enjoy a performance of the
Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. High in the tent,
the Flying Wallendas were preparing to start the third act of
the show when suddenly, a fire erupted on the sidewall of the
canvas big top. Employees rushed to douse the flames with
buckets of water but the fire quickly intensified and drove them
back. The fire climbed the wall and started to sweep across the
roof of the tent with unimaginable speed.
the proximity of the elephants to the burning tent
on the right side of this photograph taken probably
from Hampton Street. Incredibly, no animals died in
The flames spread so
rapidly that at first, the audience didn't react to what was
happening. Once the audience realized the danger of the
situation a panic ensued. In an attempt to clear the way, chairs
were tossed from the grandstand into the ring. Once people
reached the bottom they stumbled on them. Steel railings along
the front of the bleachers impeded the way and some jumped from
high atop the stands trying to flee the danger.
towards the exit from which the entered. This unfortunately was
the end of the tent that was on fire. Employees tried to direct
people to other exits but people still rushed towards the fire.
Many were trampled to death in the maddening rush to escape.
across the main exit blocked the egress and people tried
desperately to clamber over. The ringmaster Fred Bradna helped
several children over the chutes saving them. Patrons climbed
onto the chutes and aided others to safety. Still, many victims
lost their lives here.
Some people escaped
by slipping under the tent's sidewalls. A thirteen year-old is
attributed with being the first to use a knife to slice through
the sidewall, saving hundreds. Others soon began to cut through
the canvas to escape.
photographs from the same perspective illustrating
how the fire swept across the big top that
Members of the
circus and audience alike stayed and attempted to help other
escape. Some who had reached safety returned to inside the
flaming tent to try bring others out, and did. Unfortunately a
few individuals resorted to pushing and striking others in an
attempt to move through the mob and to safety.
Sections of flaming
canvas began to fall and cover the fleeing crowd. Ropes began to
burn through and the rigging of the tent started to fail. The
main poles started to topple and with it came the canvas big
top, in a thunderous, flaming roar. Most of those still trapped
inside died. Miraculously, a few people who became buried under
the pile of those who were trampled managed to survive the
collapse and were rescued.
Within ten minutes,
the entire tent was reduced to a heap of burning ruin on the
ground. Some witnesses claim that it was all over in as little
as six minutes. The first fire truck arrived to find the tent
gone. The fire would claim 168 victims and injure several
hundred more. Many of the victims were children. Six of the
victims that day would remain unidentified.
poles and rigging for the big top and sections of
bleachers lay destroyed on the ground.
In the immediate and
distant aftermath, many questions would abound with the foremost
being "what happened"?
immediately began an investigation. No one could provide an
eyewitness account as to how the conflagration started but many
theories flourished. The prospect of arson was explored,
especially by disgruntled workers. Children playing with matches
was considered, and there was speculation that a short-circuit
could have sparked the fire.
discarded cigarette would be officially ruled to have started the
blaze. Witnesses placed the fire starting too high on the
sidewall for this to be a likely explanation, and future
scientific evidence concerning the ignition capabilities of a
cigarette would make the theory implausible.
Then in 1950, a Ohio
man named Robert Segee who had worked for the circus confessed to setting the fire
that day, along with several others during his short employment
with the circus. He claimed that an Indian on a "flaming horse"
appeared in his dreams and instructed him to set fires. He was
never tried for the Hartford Circus Fire although he was
convicted for arson in another case. He also admitted to
committing several homicides over the years but later recanted
on setting the fire in Hartford that terrible day.
certainly seems questionable as he has a history of mental
illness, Additionally, it could never be proven that he was even
in Connecticut the day of the fire. To this day,
the theories of how the fire actually started still abound.
While the cause of
the fire is still open to some supposition, why the fire spread
so fast is less of a mystery. With materials in short supply
because of the War, the canvas had been waterproofed with a
mixture of paraffin wax thinned by gasoline; a flammable
mixture to say the least. Some workers said that the tent had
not been waterproofed for sometime, but the ferocity in which
the fire spread led some to believe that was not the case.
Robert Ringling would later testify that he was unable to
procure fire-resistant materials because of war shortages,
although this is assertion has also been contested.
clown Emmett Kelly carrying water to douse the
flames. The tragedy would later become to be known
as "the day the clowns cried."
revealed that no site inspection had been made by the city fire
marshal prior to the performance and fire protection equipment
was not properly in place. A fire department
pumper was not stationed at the grounds as it should have been,
although many said the fire department would not have been
unable to stop the fire even if they had. When the fire
department did arrive, they had to lay over 1,000 feet of hose
because there was no hydrant on the grounds which didn't help
The circus' water
trucks were supposed to be located near the big top with their
engines running during the show in case of such an emergency.
Again, there are contradictions as to if they were there or not.
Not in contradiction was the absence of the many fire
extinguishers which were supposed to be positioned under the
bleachers. These were not unloaded from the train because the
War had also left the circus very short-handed.
Complaints filed in the aftermath would also state that there
was inadequate circus personnel for fire protection.
In the wake of the
disaster, six officials and employees of the circus were
charged with manslaughter citing that they had not taken proper
precautions to sufficiently protect the public, and exacerbated
the situation by using the flammable substances and obstructing
exits. All were convicted and given jail time. The defense tried
to argue that these men were indispensable and were needed if
the circus was to function and be able to earn money to pay
damages. The judge did allow them to temporarily leave with the
circus to get it back on the road, but all but one was forced to
serve time. The fellow in question testified that he was not
indispensable and the judge, impressed with his honesty,
suspended his sentence.
agreement was reached where the circus accepted full
responsibility and allowed an arbitration board to decide the
damages. The circus would then pay a receiver out of their
profits and the money would be dispersed to the victims. It took
the circus over a decade and between four and five million
dollars to pay the claims which numbered in excess of 600.
The circus did not
contest the settlement and made every effort to fulfill their
obligation. Because the circus acted with such integrity, the
remaining circus officials were pardoned in less than a year.
Many articles, books and
programs have been produced through the years regarding the Hartford Circus Fire
of 1944. A recent book written about the reinvestigation of the
event draws many conclusions based on the evidence from the new
investigation, including the identity of one of the children who
died that day long ago and remained known only as "Little Miss
1565". Still, as has been the case throughout the history of
this tragic event, not everyone can agree.
There is no
disagreement however that the catastrophe had a long-lived effect on the
Hartford area. The city went about burying the dead and services
and funerals were being held constantly. Little Miss 1565 went
unclaimed and was buried with the other unclaimed victims in a
Hartford cemetery. For years, detectives from the case would
place flowers on her grave on the anniversary of the fire.
Everyone seemed to know at least one person who was at the
performance that day.
Fire ordinances were
changed because of the tragedy. To this day, the State has very
restrictive fire protection regulations regarding mass
gatherings under tents.
plaza marks where the center ring stood that day.
bronze medallion is adorned with the names of the
in the walkway in remembrance of Fire Company Member
Frank Bradley who died in the fire.
In 2002 the Hartford
Circus Fire Memorial Foundation was established for the purpose
of designing and installing a permanent memorial in remembrance
of the 168 men, women and children who lost their lives at
the circus on July 6, 1944. Sixty-one years later behind the
Fred D. Wish Elementary school in the field where the tragedy
unfolded, a memorial was dedicated.
The centerpiece of
the memorial is a circular brick and stone plaza that indicates
the location of the center ring. The bronze medallion in the
center marks the location of the big top's center pole, and is
adorned with the names of the 168 victims. Trees around the
periphery denote the entrances to the tent.
Books & Video
Matter of Degree: The Hartford Circus Fire and the Mystery of
Little Miss 1565," by Don Massey and Rick Davey
"The Circus Fire: A True Story," by Stewart O'Nan
"The Great Hartford Circus Fire: Creative
Settlement of Mass Disasters," by Henry Cohn and David
"The Wrath of God: Fire Under the Big Top," A videocassette
of the 50-minute program by the History Channel.
Hartford History: The Circus Fire
HistoryBuff.com: The Day the Clowns Cried
Trinity College Visual Resources Collection: Hartford