Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Hartford Circus Fire


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.

16 comments:

John Hayes said...

What a sad story, but well-told; the detail about "The Stars & Stripes Forever" turns the whole scene surreal; I had no idea that circuses used this (or any other) piece of music in this way. Fascinating stuff.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hello, John, thanks. Yes, no happy story today, I'm afraid. But a remarkable event, not just for the gruesome tragedy, but in the heroic way many tried to help, and how Hartford pulled together for this ironic homefront tragedy during wartime. It should also be noted that Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey made good on all claims against the circus without ever needing to go to court. All their profits for the next several years, I understand, went to the survivors and surviving families of the victims until restitution was made. Many companies, especially these days, would not have accepted responsibility so honorably. Not without a long court battle forcing them to take responsibility.

The reason for the song, as I understand it, was due to many factors. Partly, it was one song that most pick-up circus bands knew without needing much practice. Secondly, in an age before public address systems or walkie-talkies, the staff needed to be alerted to emergencies immediately, and this was the most efficient way. Now, I suppose, it's simply tradition.

Tony said...

Unimaginable horror. I assume the numbers next to the names on that wheel are the ages of the victims, and so many of them were toddlers or very young children. That this happened to families out for a happy afternoon makes it seem even more sorrowful...

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Tony, thanks for stopping by. Yes, those are the ages, and most of the deceased were young children. Gruesome, and as John noted above, surreal. Another agonizing aspect (as if we needed another one) is that some servicemen fighting in war zones overseas had to be notified by the Red Cross of their family members among the dead and injured.

Don said...

As one of the founders of the Memorial, and as the person who wrote the memorial plaques that line the walkway to the Memorial, I only wish you had referenced our nonfiction book, A Matter of Degree, which shows the facts of the fire and its subsequent investigation, and includes photos and a complete list of documents supporting the facts in the book. That would be fair to those who view your site, and to those who come to the Memorial. An objective review of those facts, to include the confession of Robert Dale Segee, which we include in our book, would allow people to come to their own conclusion about the tragedy of the fire, rather than being led to the opinion you express in this blog. Truth is what we've always been after, and that's what we hope visitors will find in our work. Don Massey

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I understand and sympathize with your irritation that I did not mention your book, "A Matter of Degree" along with Mr. O'Nan's book in the discussion about the complicated circumstances of the Hartford Circus Fire. However, the only opinion I expressed in this blog was not about the summation facts on which you differ with Mr. O'Nan, but simply that I felt Stewart O'Nan's book was, as stated "an excellent and dramatic narrative of the events, I believe the best book written on this tragedy."

I have also read your fine book, Mr. Massey, and this is my opinion based upon reading both books, simply that I enjoyed his book enough to casually mention it. I did not make disparaging comparisons to yours; as you pointedly note, I did not even mention yours.

I am baffled that you infer that I am guilty of misleading readers of facts by not mentioning your name.

This does nothing to diminish your own contributions to the recording of the tragedy, both in your book and your work on the memorial. I commend your work as one of the founders of this very special memorial.

Don said...

This has nothing to do with my ego or a mention of my name. I have always sought to have readers make a determination of facts as they are found in the books that have been written on this subject. For readers to obtain the necessary information so as to review and judge the facts as presented, they have to be made aware that other information exists in more than just the one book your site references--that's objectivity. To that end, and to that end only, I expressed a desire to have our book's contents assessed by readers. It must be said that there is ONLY ONE BOOK that contains the indexed data, including copies of actual documents from the time of the tragedy, and that is our book. Perhaps when readers analyze that data, they will see that many of the assertions made in the book you referenced are actually false, thus misleading readers about the underlying facts and truth of the 1944 tragedy. For example, there is no existing file of two sets of dental records for 1565, hence no comparison of such records could be made. That means there is no basis to assert that the "records don't match." But readers can't know such facts when they are pointed to only one published book. I assure you, our quest to provide truth is not about selling books. Plenty of libraries own the book, and a review of the data can be done without cost of any kind. A site on this subject should provide the means for objective assessment to be done. Thanks dm

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Mr. Massey, I am not a scholar on the Hartford Circus Fire, so I will not, and cannot, banter facts with you. My intention was only to mark an anniversary.

Your resentment in my mentioning my admiration for Mr. O'Nan's book and not yours seems extreme. I understand your desire to have the readership of this blog know that you also wrote a book that you feel is superior and should be read for a complete understanding of the Hartford Circus Fire. Surely you have achieved your purpose with these comments.

There are many other sources of information about the circus fire, in print form and at least a couple of documentaries. I hope readers of this blog who want to know more about the tragedy will investigate any and all sources of information. I expect they will.

Stephanie said...

I just came across this blog entry today. Thank you for marking the anniversary of the 1944 Circus Fire and for including the pictures of the Memorial. The one you included showing some of the names on the circle just happens to have my aunt's name visible. Her name was Sandra Logan, and she was 4 yrs old when she was killed in the fire. I'm so glad that others feel the way I do in that the fire's victims should always be remembered. Thank you for this blog.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Stephanie, thank you so much for sharing your own painful family connection with this tragedy. It must have been truly an uncomfortable surprise seeing a photo in which your aunt's name was prominent. I'm very sorry for the loss of your aunt, who, like so many victims of this incident, was only a small child. It's an important memorial; as you say, the victims deserve to be remembered.

Anonymous said...

I came to your blog when researching the Deerfield Massacre of 1704. Although none of my immediate family suffered through this fire (I'll ask my mother what she remembers of the news, since she was in her twenties and helping the war effort as a clerk in those days), it does recall the Station Night Club Fire of recent years in Rhode Island, in which a flammable ceiling was implicated.

What seems remarkable to me in this story, along with the "code red" music struck up by the circus band, was how many of that crowd actually made it to safety. The small percentage lost was tragic, and in absolute terms a horror, and the inability to identify the little girl was all the more so. But it looks like a lot of credit has to be given to the performers and the wartime crowd, which may have received some civil defense training (I wonder?) in how to behave in an emergency.

Of course it stands out too as a terrible irony to have happened just as WWII was coming to an end, causing us to ask how many servicemen abroad were going to receive unexpected bad news. Or the tale of a near miss. The PTSD of one man who was a boy during the event can take its place with that of some of the returning servicemen.

It's a story which deserves a retelling every so often, as a portrait of its age.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

You're right that a great deal of credit goes to those who helped as many people as possible escape the fire. There were a lot of unsung heroes that day, and of course in the aftermath through the efforts of the emergency personnel and the medical staff at the hospitals who treated some of these burn victims for several weeks.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for remembering this tragedy. My grandmother, whom I never met, died in the Hartford Circus Fire.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I'm very sorry your grandmother lost her life in that sad event. Thank you for stopping by and remembering the Circus Fire with us.

smcallis said...

I came across this blog while doing research for my own novel about the Hartford circus fire, HARTFORD 1944. This has proven to be an emotional journey. As I do more research, these people become more real to me. 168 people lost their lives on that terrible July day in 1944. I feel a profound sense of duty to proceed carefully to avoid trivializing their tragic loss by juxtaposition my fictional story against the back-drop of their deaths. This is a story that needs to be told. A uniquely American tragedy equal in scope to the Titanic or Hindenburg—yet it remains largely a forgotten chapter in American history.

I plan to visit Hartford this summer, and your blog Ms. Lynch has inspired me to do so.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, smcallis, and good luck with your novel. It is indeed a compelling story and one, as you say, that needs to be approached carefully to avoid trivializing the tragedy. I also mentioned the fire in a novel of mine called "Cadmium Yellow, Blood Red" (which, set in 1949, has nothing to do with the events of that day). I agree that it is a story that needs to be remembered, but perhaps outside of New England is little known.

Hartford is a fine city to visit under any circumstances, and I'm sure you'll find resources and inspriation to proceed with your book. I'd love to read it.