The above photo shows a park-like setting in the background, and a hopscotch game painted on the blacktop surface in the foreground. This is the site of the Hartford Circus Fire. The background is a memorial to that tragedy. The hopscotch marking is part of a present-day school grounds where children play, who thankfully have no personal knowledge of that gruesome event. But they undoubtedly heard about it.
On July 6, 1944, some 65 years ago yesterday, a terrible thing happened. That it happened in a moment’s notice, and without any warning, is part of the tragedy. That it happened to mostly children enjoying a day at the circus is heartbreaking. Today we mark the infamous Hartford Circus Fire.
It was hot in Hartford, Connecticut that day. World War II was still grinding on, though D-Day had occurred a month before and it was hoped that the tide had turned. On this hot, lazy summer day (Lazy for kids. The grownups in nearby war plants like Pratt & Whitney, Hamilton Standard, Sikorsky were still slaves to the mantra of Production.) Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to town, what had been an annual event in Hartford for generations.
The month before, The Greatest Show on Earth played in Waterbury, and New Haven, and Bridgeport, Connecticut. Then up to Worcester and Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Then Manchester, New Hampshire. Then Portland, Maine. Then down to Providence, Rhode Island. Next stop was Hartford.
The circus train arrived, and they set up the enormous Big Top on an empty lot in the north of town. Possibly as many as 8,700 people came to the circus that day (exact figures are still not known).
They all looked up from their wooden bleacher benches to the high-wire act performed by the famous Flying Wallendas. At this moment, this unspeakable, unwarned moment in time, a fire broke out on a side wall of the big top. The tent had been waterproofed with a mixture of white gasoline and paraffin, and so of course was extremely flammable. In minutes, the entire big top was a holocaust, and flaming drops of liquid fire from the roof rained down on the panicked audience. The Wallendas scrambled down on ropes. The audience rushed for exits, some slashed holes in the side wall of the tent with pocketknives. People were trampled, and others burned to death. Some were burned to death heroically saving others.
As soon as the flames were detected, even before most of the audience was aware something was wrong, the circus band broke into John Phillip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” The bandleader, Merle Evans, may have been one of the first to notice the flames. The band continued to play as the fire spread, and played for as long as they could. Some horrified patrons might have wondered why a celebratory song was played during such a terrible tragedy. They would learn later that in the circus world, at least in the US, “The Stars and Stripes Forever” is called “The Disaster March.” In the circus it is played only during emergencies, as a signal to circus staff to all come and help. In the circus, it is never played for any other reason.
The circus staff all did come to help, the animal trainers and the acrobats rushed to drag people to safety. A famous photograph was taken of the clown Emmett Kelly, dressed in his clown’s outfit with full makeup, hurrying with a bucket of water. Possibly because of this photo the Hartford Circus Fire is sometimes referred to as “The Day the Clowns Cried.”
The massive, flaming tent collapsed on top of those still trapped inside.
Hartford was haunted for a long time over this tragedy, where 168 people died (this figure is a best guess due to circumstances), and some 487 others injured. With not enough ambulances, store delivery trucks were used to dispatch the injured to hospitals, and the dead to makeshift morgues. Many businesses and individual citizens pitched in to help. The famous department store, G. Fox, discussed in this previous post, donated sheets to the overburdened Municipal Hospital, where burn victims were lining the hallways.
Even those lucky ones who escaped without injury, were left with horrific memories of the event and suffered from what today would be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many could not endure being in crowds after that, or going to the circus. Even hearing “The Stars and Stripes Forever” under happier circumstances would send some people into panic attacks. The actor and director Charles Nelson Reilly, who was a boy when he attended the circus that day, could never attend plays or films as part of an audience after that, the emotional stress of the tragedy was that powerful.
There was no official determination of the cause of the blaze, though speculation about arson was investigated for years. Likewise, another mystery about the identity of some of the remaining unclaimed bodies lingered for decades. One particular child, unnamed except for her morgue number and called “Little Miss 1565” was thought to have been at last identified a few years ago, but afterward further evidence showed this late identification might have been an error. The police detectives responsible for, and inevitably, unable to identify these unclaimed bodies, marked their graves with flowers on the anniversary of the fire for decades.
There is a memorial to the victims of the Hartford Circus Fire standing at the exact spot where the big top stood in 1944. The photos accompanying this piece are of that memorial. It was dedicated in 2005, and is located behind the Wish School. A circular plaque lists all the names of the victims. It is placed exactly where the center ring stood under the big top. It is surrounded by a brick walk with the names of memorialized loved ones. The walk which leads to this spot is dotted with information plaques which dramatically depict the timeline of the events. Surrounding this expansive area is a perimeter marked by young dogwood trees. Connect the dots of these trees, and you have the exact outline of the big top.
It is an eerie, and paradoxically, healing memorial.
Here is a link to “The Stars and Stripes Forever” from the Library of Congress collection. It is, by Act of Congress, our National March. Listen to it, and this time put away thoughts of happy Independence Day parades where you might have heard this tune. Think instead of what it must have been like to hear it played in desperation under the burning big top. You may get some inkling of the panic.
For more information on the Hartford Circus Fire, have a look at this book by author Stewart O’Nan, “The Circus Fire” (Doubleday, NY, 2000). It is an excellent and dramatic narrative of the events, I believe the best book written on this tragedy.
Also, have a look at a couple of articles, interesting in their comparison. One is from Time Magazine only the week following the tragedy, and the other is from the New York Times marking the 50th anniversary. Time heals, or at least lends perspective where it cannot heal.