Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Hartford Circus Fire
The Hartford Circus Fire, which occurred on July 6, 1944, in Hartford, Connecticut, was one of the worst fire disasters in the history of the United States. The fire occurred during an afternoon performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus that was attended by approximately 7,500 to 8,700 people.
The fire began as a small flame about twenty minutes into the show, on the southwest sidewall of the tent, while the Great Wallendas were on. Bandleader Merle Evans was one of the first to notice and immediately struck up John Philip Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever, show-business code for a life-threatening emergency. Ushers spotted the flame and threw buckets of water on it, but to no avail. Seconds later, the fire reached the roof. At the top of the center pole, the fire split in three directions. The announcer at center stage urged the audience not to panic and to leave in an orderly fashion, but the power went out and he could not be heard.
Sources and investigators differ on how many people were killed and injured. Various people and organizations say it was 167, 168, or 169 persons—168 being the figure most commonly given—with official treated injury estimates running over 700 people. The number of actual injuries is believed to be higher than those figures, since many people were seen that day heading home in shock without seeking treatment in the city. More than 100 of those killed were under the age of 15. All of the circus animals escaped unharmed.
The cause of the fire remains undetermined. Most investigators believe it was caused by a carelessly flicked cigarette or an arsonist. Because the big top had been coated with 1,800 lb (816 kg) of paraffin and 6,000 US gallons (23 m³) of gasoline, a common waterproofing method of the time, the flames spread rapidly. Many people were badly burned by the melting paraffin, which rained down like napalm from the roof. Eventually, the fiery tent collapsed, trapping hundreds of spectators beneath it.
The circus had been experiencing shortages of personnel and equipment due to World War II. Delays and malfunctions in the ordinarily smooth order of the circus had become commonplace. Two years earlier, on August 4, 1942, a fire had broken out in the menagerie, killing a number of animals. Circus personnel were concerned about the 1944 Hartford show for other reasons. Two shows had been scheduled for July 5, but the first had to be cancelled because the circus trains arrived late and could not set up in time. In circus superstition, missing a show is considered extremely bad luck, and although the July 5 evening show was fine, many circus employees may have been on their guard, half-expecting something to go terribly wrong.
It is commonly believed that the number of fatalities is higher than the estimates given, due to poorly kept residency records in rural towns, and the fact that some smaller remains were never identified or claimed. It is also believed that the intense heat from the fire combined with the accelerants in the paraffin and gasoline could have burned people completely, as in cremation, leaving no substantial physical evidence behind. Additionally, free tickets had been handed out that day to many people in and around the city, some of whom appeared to eyewitnesses and circus employees to be drifters, who would never have been reported missing by anyone if they were killed in the disaster. The number of people in the audience that day has never been established with certainty, but the closest estimate is about 7,500 to 8,700.
Cause of the fatalities
While many people were burned to death by the fire, many others died as a result of the ensuing chaos. Though most spectators were able to escape the fire, many people were caught up in the hysteria and panicked. Witnesses said some people simply ran around in circles trying to find their loved ones, rather than trying to escape the burning tent. Some escaped but ran back inside to find family members. Others stayed in their seats until it was too late, assuming that the fire would be put out promptly, and the show would continue.
Because at least two of the exits were blocked, one by the chutes used to bring the large felines in and out of the tent, people trying to escape could not bypass them. Some died from injuries sustained after leaping from the tops of the bleachers in hopes they could escape under the sides of the tent, though that method of escape ended up saving more people than it killed. Others died after being trampled by other spectators, with some asphyxiating underneath the piles of people who had fallen down over each other.
Most of the dead were found in piles, some three bodies deep, at the most congested exits. A small number of people were found alive at the bottoms of these piles, protected by the bodies that were on top of them when the burning big top ultimately fell down on those still trapped beneath it. The emotional toll on performers and spectators cannot be underestimated, and the event became known as "the day the clowns cried."
The first investigation
On July 7, charges of involuntary manslaughter were filed against five officials and employees of Ringling Bros. Within days of these charges being filed, the circus reached an agreement with Hartford officials to accept full financial responsibility and pay whatever amount the city requested in damages. This resulted in the circus paying out almost $5,000,000 USD to the 600 victims and families who had filed claims against them by 1954. All circus profits from the time of the fire until then had been set aside to pay off these claims.
Although the circus accepted full responsibility for the financial damages, they did not accept responsibility for the disaster itself. The five men charged were brought to trial in late 1944, and only one was not convicted. Although they were given prison terms, the four men found guilty were allowed to continue with the circus to their next stop, in Sarasota, Florida, to help the company set itself up again after the disaster. Shortly after their convictions, they were pardoned entirely.
In 1950, a Circleville, Ohio, man named Robert D. Segee claimed he was responsible for setting the Hartford Circus Fire. He said he had a nightmare in which an Indian riding on a "flaming horse" told him to set fires. He further claimed that after this nightmare his mind went blank, and that he did not come out of this state until the circus fire had already been set. It was said Segee fit the description of a serial arsonist right out of a psychiatrist's textbook. Segee also knew intimate details of the incident, which some believed only the real arsonist could have known. For instance, it was never made public that the circus had two smaller fires of undetermined origin prior to the tragedy. Segee admitted setting both of them as well. These statements, Segee added, were in response to a later dream he'd had of a woman standing in flames urging him to confess.
In November of 1950, Segee was convicted in Ohio of unrelated arson charges and sentenced to more than 40 years of imprisonment. However, Hartford investigators raised doubts over this man's confession, as he had a history of mental illness, and it could not be proved he was anywhere within the state of Connecticut when the fire occurred. Connecticut officials were also not allowed to question Segee, even though his alleged crime had occurred in their state. Additionally, Segee, who died in 1997, denied setting the fire as late as 1994 during an interview. Because of this, many investigators, historians, and victims believe the true arsonist—if it was indeed arson—was never found.
Little Miss 1565 and her true identity
The most well-known victim of the circus fire was a young, blonde girl wearing a white dress. She is known only as Little Miss 1565, named after the number assigned to her body at the city's makeshift morgue. Oddly well preserved even after her death in the fire, her face has become arguably the most well-known image of the fire.
Her true identity has been a topic of debate and frustration in the Hartford area since the fire first occurred. Despite massive amounts of publicity and repeated displays of the famous photograph in nationwide magazines, she was never claimed and eventually was buried without a name in Hartford's Northwood cemetery, where a victims' memorial also stands.
In 1991, arson investigator Rick Davey (along with co-writer Don Massey ) published A Matter of Degree: The Hartford Circus Fire and Mystery of Little Miss 1565, in which he claims the girl's name was Eleanor Emily Cook and that she was from Massachusetts. Davey also contends that there was a conspiracy within the judicial system to convict the Ringling defendants, and that Segee was the arsonist. Prior to writing the book, Davey spent six years researching the case and conducting his own experiments as to how the fire may have really started. He has professed the original investigation was both flawed and primitive, though it should be noted for clarity that he did not work on the original case.
Various assertions put forth in A Matter of Degree have been fiercely disputed by investigators who worked on the case, as well as by other writers, most notably Stewart O'Nan, who published The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy in 2001. O'Nan points to the fact that Little Miss 1565 had blonde hair, while Eleanor Cook was a brunette. The shape of Little Miss 1565's face and that of Eleanor Cook are dissimilar, and the height and age of the two girls do not match up.
Perhaps most significant, when shown a photograph of Little Miss 1565, Eleanor's mother Mildred Corintha Parsons Cook immediately stated that this was not her daughter. She firmly maintained that stance until her death in 1997, age 91. Badly injured in the fire, Mrs. Cook had been unable to claim her two dead children, and was too emotionally traumatized to pursue it later. She'd been told that Eleanor was not in any of the locations where bodies were kept for identification. She believed that Eleanor was one of two children who had been burnt beyond recognition and remain unidentified. O'Nan thinks she may be Little Miss 1503. He further points to the differences in the dental records of Eleanor Cook and the records made of Little Miss 1565 after her death.
Due to the many supposed errors in Davey's work, A Matter of Degree is considered by sone to be a work of revisionist history or journalistic sensationalism, with some victims and reviewers accusing Davey of using the book to further his own career and notoriety.
With the questions over whether or not Eleanor Cook is the true identity of Little Miss 1565 still unanswered in the eyes of many, the body was exhumed after the release of A Matter of Degree and buried in Southampton, Massachusetts, next to the body of Edward Cook, the brother of Eleanor Cook and a victim of the circus fire himself (another brother, Donald, survived and worked with Davey to establish Miss 1565's identity). In 1992, her death certificate was officially changed from the previous identification of "1565." Since then, the Cook family has raised questions over whether or not the body is indeed that of Eleanor Cook, and some investigators have come to believe that Eleanor's body may have been another of the unclaimed bodies from the fire and not Little Miss 1565. As of 2005, the Connecticut State Police Forensic Science Lab is reviewing the case.
Hartford and the circus today
While the circus was banned from Hartford and other parts of Connecticut for years after the Hartford fire, it began to make a comeback in the 1970s. Laws passed in Connecticut shortly after the fire made it illegal for big tops to be used, so the Ringling Bros. circus has traditionally been held in the Hartford Civic Center when it visits the city.
While attendance has gotten stronger over the past 3 decades, many people, especially those who were alive when it happened, refuse to attend based on what happened in 1944. Some people believe Ringling Bros. should not be allowed to visit the city altogether, citing what they view as insufficient sympathy and assistance on the part of the company after the disaster. For a time, Ringling Bros. trains passing through Connecticut, on their way to other states, had police escorts from the time they entered the state until they exited it, but these measures are no longer felt to be needed.
Though many of those present at the fire have not returned to circuses since then, others have gone back. In May of 2004, Dorothy Carvey and her son, Tighe, were given free passes for their family by Ringling Bros. to attend a show at the Hartford Civic Center. For Dorothy Carvey, this was her first time back at a circus since the fire occurred. The story of their visit, as well as what happened to them in 1944, was written about in The Hartford Courant.
In 2002, the Hartford Circus Fire Memorial Foundation was established to erect a permanent memorial to the people killed in the circus fire. Ground was broken for the monument on July 6, 2004, at the site where the fire occurred. The H.C.F.M.F. is now working to publish a book containing witness accounts of the fire.
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