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Circus Fires and other tragedies of Record

Year

Location

Tragedy

1799

Philadelphia, PA and New York City, NY

Both of the Ricketts Equestrian Circus Amphitheaters burned to the ground; no injuries or deaths of any kind occurred. The owner was bankrupted however because of the two losses.
1868

Bridgeport, CT

Barnum and London winter quarters caught fire; no loss of human life but nearly all animals were lost.
1901

Kansas City, MO

Ringling Brothers' Circus Little Top (sideshow tent) burned to the ground; no injuries or deaths of any kind occurred.
1910

Schenedy, NY

Barnum and Bailey Circus Big Top, with over 15,000 people inside caught fire. Everyone got out before the tent burned to the ground. No injuries or deaths of any kind occurred.
1912

Sterling, IL

Wind carried a piece of burning barn to the Big Top of the Ringling Brothers' Circus just before a performance. The Big Top burned to the ground. No injuries or deaths of any kind occurred.
1914

Cleveland, OH

43 railway cars owned by the Ringling Brothers Circus caught fire and burned to the ground. No injuries or deaths of any kind occurred.
1916

Huntsville, AL

The Ringling Brothers Circus baggage stock tent burned to the ground. 40 draft horses died in the flames and 40 more were injured so badly that the decision was made to put them down.
1918

Ivanhoe, IN

A stalled and fully loaded Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train was struck from behind by an empty (except for a sleepy engineer) troop train. The wreck smashed five sleeping cars and started a fire. At least 85 circus personnel died; possibly more, since many ended up missing and many bodies were charred beyond recognition.
1940

Rochester, IN

Winter quarters of the Cole Bros. Circus burned to the ground. There was no loss of human life but over 18 animals died; 2 elephants, 2 zebras, 2 llamas, 6 lions ( 2 adult males, 2 lionesses and 2 cubs), 2 leopards, 2 audads, a sacred Indian cow, a pygmy hippo, and an unknown number of monkeys.
1941

Atlanta, GA

11 elephants of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus died from arsenic poisoning. Some older circus hands suspected a chemical plant in Charlotte, NC was the cause; in the 30s, several grazing elephants tethered next to it had gotten sick but lived.
1942

Cleveland, OH

The menagerie tent of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus burned to the ground. There was no loss of human life, but  45 animals died or were put down because of their injuries; 13 camels (all that the circus had), 9 zebras (again, all that the circus had), 5 lions, 2 tigers, 4 elephants, 2 giraffes, 2 gnus, 1 puma, 2 white fallow deer, 1 axis deer, 2 ceylon donkeys, 1 chimpanzee, and 1 ostrich. Several animal handlers suffered burns in their attempts to save the animals.
1944 Hartford, CT The Hartford Fire. (click here to return to Hartford Fire Page)
1958 Rio DeJanairo, Brazil A nylon big top burns to the ground; 320 persons were reported killed. Later, a disgruntled employee admitted to setting the fire with an older accomplice who doused the area in gasoline.
1994

Lakeland, FL

A circus train derailed. Two circus employees died.

In addition to fires and train wrecks, circuses in the past had to worry about "blowdowns" (big tops toppling over in high winds). In 1945, for example, a twister caused a blowdown of the big top of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus while it was playing in Dallas Texas. Ringmaster Fred Bradna was seriously injured and retired soon after the incident. 


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     This Page was updated on: 01/31/2004