Thursday, July 6, 1944 was hot and sunny. Six to eight thousand circus fans made their way to Barbour Street in Hartford, Connecticut to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus. PHOTOS of the fire.
One Hundred sixty-seven never went home that horrible day and more than 400 were injured. Sources differ on how many people were killed and injured and the 168 figure is usually based on tallies that included a collection of body parts.
Back in those days most circuses traveled from town to town by train, performing under a huge canvas tent commonly called a "big top" and The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was the largest circus in the country. Its big top could seat 9,000 spectators around its three rings; the tent's canvas had been coated with 1,800 pounds of paraffin wax dissolved in 6,000 gallons of gasoline! That was a common waterproofing method of the time.
The circus had been experiencing shortages of personnel and equipment as a result of World War II and delays and assorted problems had become commonplace. In August of 1942, a fire had broken out in the menagerie, killing a number of animals.
When the circus arrived in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 5, 1944, the trains were so late that one of the two shows scheduled for that day had been canceled although the evening show ran as planned. The next day the crowd at the afternoon performance consisted mostly of women and children.
The fire began as a small flame after the lions performed while the Great Wallendas were performing. Circus bandleader Merle Evans was said to have been the first to spot the flames, and immediately directed the band to play "The Stars and Stripes Forever", the tune that traditionally signaled distress to circus personnel. Ringmaster Fred Bradna urged the audience not to panic and to leave in an orderly fashion, but the power failed and he could not be heard. Bradna and the ushers unsuccessfully tried to maintain some order as the panicked crowd tried to flee.
The only animals in the big top at the time were the big cats that had just finished performing when the fire started and most were unharmed with just a few receiving minor burns.
It is commonly believed that the number of fatalities is higher due to poorly kept 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, the paraffin and gasoline, could have incinerated people completely, as in cremation, leaving no substantial physical evidence behind.
The cause of the fire remains unresolved, but investigators at the time believed it was caused by a carelessly flicked cigarette; however, others suspected an arsonist. Several years later, while being investigated on other arson charges, Robert Dale Segee (1929–1997), who was an adolescent at the time, confessed to starting the blaze. He was never tried for the crime and later recanted his confession.
Because of the waterproofing of the tent, the flames spread rapidly and many people were badly burned by the melting paraffin and the which was on fire collapsed in about eight minutes, rapping hundreds of spectators beneath it.
Many people were caught up in the hysteria and some simply ran around in circles trying to find their loved ones, rather than trying to escape from the burning tent. Some escaped but ran back inside to look for family members. Others stayed in their seats until it was too late, assuming that the fire would be put out promptly.
At least two of the exits were blocked by the chutes used to bring the show's big cats in and out of the tent so people trying to escape could not get around them them.
Some died from injuries sustained after leaping from the tops of the bleachers. Others died after being trampled by spectators and some asphyxiating underneath the piles of people who fell 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 the piles, protected by the bodies on top of them.
The next day charges of involuntary manslaughter were filed against five officials and employees of the circus. Within days the circus reached an agreement to accept full financial responsibility and pay whatever amount the city requested in damages. This resulted in the circus paying out almost five million dollars to the 600 victims and families. It took until 1954 for all claims to be paid as all profits from the time of the fire until then had been set aside to pay off the claims.
Of the five men charged and brought to trial in late 1944 four were 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. One of the men, James A. Haley, went on to serve in the US. House of Representatives for twenty-four years.
In 1950, Robert Dale Segee of Circleville, Ohio claimed he was responsible for setting the circus fire. Segee, a roustabout for the show from June 30 to July 14, 1944, when he was about 14 years old, 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. Segee knew intimate details of the incident. For example, circus had two smaller fires prior to the tragedy. Segee admitted setting both of them.
In November 1950, Segee was convicted in Ohio of unrelated arson charges and sentenced to 44 years of prison time.
Hartford investigators raised doubts over his confession, as he had a history of mental illness, and it could not be proven he was anywhere in Connecticut when the fire occurred. Segee died in 1997 and denied setting the fire as late as 1994 during an interview. Many believe the true arsonist was never found.
The best-known victim of the circus fire was a young blonde girl wearing a white dress known only as "Little Miss 1565", named after the number assigned to her body at the city's makeshift morgue. Her true identity has been a topic of debate since the fire occurred. She was buried without a name in Hartford's Northwood cemetery, where a victims' memorial also stands.
In 1991, the body was declared to be that of Eleanor Emily Cook, despite the fact that her aunt and uncle had examined the body and it did not fit the description they provided. The Connecticut State Police forensics unit compared hair samples and determined they were probably from the same person. The body was exhumed in 1991 and buried next to her brother, Edward, who had also died in the fire.
In 1987, someone left a note on her graves reading Sarah Graham is her Name! 7-6-38 DOB, 6 years, Twin. Notes on nearby gravestones indicated that her twin brother and other relatives were buried close by.
In 1991, arson investigator Rick Davey claimed the girl was Eleanor Emily Cook and 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.
Eleanor's brother Donald Cook had contacted authorities in 1955 insisting that the girl was his sister, but nothing came of it and he later worked with Davey to establish her identity. Donald believes that family members were shown the wrong body in the confusion at the morgue.
Eleanor's mother stated that this was not her daughter and 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 believed that Eleanor was one of two children who had been burnt beyond recognition and remain unidentified.
It's possible that another family mistakenly claimed the little girl's body and buried it thinking it was their own child. Even with the questions over the girl's true identity, the body was eventually exhumed and buried in Southampton, Massachusetts, next to the body of Edward Cook.
Frieda Pushnik, who performed with the circus as the "Armless and Legless Wonder", was rescued by a minstrel show performer who rushed on stage, picked up her chair, and carried her to safety. Pushnik continued to perform with the circus until 1955. She died at the age of 77 in 2001.
Carol Tillman Parrish, who was six at the time, said that "until this day, I can smell the stench of human flesh" as the blaze consumed its victims.
Judith Shapiro [Cohen] survived the fire. She was about 7 years old attending with her neighbors. They exited up higher into the stands and survived by jumping off; Judith refused to jump and was pushed.
In 2002, the Hartford Circus Fire Memorial Foundation was established to erect a permanent memorial to the people killed in the fire. Ground was broken for the monument on July 6, 2004, at the site where the fire occurred.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey visited Hartford during its final tour, performing on April 30, 2017.