Background (the reason behind this page)
Some time ago, I had an online clown and circus trivia email service. One time, my trivia email concerned a question about the most horrendous of all circus tragedies; the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944. The next day I received an email from one of my subscribers, Katie "Sparkle the Clown" Sullivan, who wrote to give me additional information about the tragedy from a personal perspective (her mother, a student nurse at the time, had cared for some of the injured and dying). My interest in the subject was peaked, and this article is the result.
My sources for this page are the books and websites listed at the bottom of this article, and of course, the fascinating stories and information provided by Sparkle. The sources don't always agree, and I have tried to point out the different points of view where they occur.
Actual eyewitness accounts of this tragedy who are quoted on this page include Sparkle's mother, and the late Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly, Sr. These personal accounts however, are not easily come by.
Sparkle wrote to tell me "My mother had to be forced to tell us about it even in her 70's, and she was in her early 20's when it happened. "
This appears to be the case with most of the eyewitnesses. When I asked Joey Kelly, grandson of eyewitness Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly Sr., if he could share some special insights from his grandfather on the story. His reply was "Sorry, It was one of those things he (Emmett Sr.) blocked out and didn't like to talk about for reasons I'm sure you can appreciate."
Nevertheless, I was able to locate a few comments about that day from Emmett Sr. as he was quoted in the book The Circus Fire by Stewart O'Nan and Emmett Sr.'s own words from his autobiography entitled Clown. O'Nan reaffirmed Joey's statement about his grandfather's hesitance to relive that terrible day with this quote from Emmett Sr:
"I think of it, it's like a movie running in my mind. I try to forget it. I don't like to talk much about it."
In his autobiography, Emmett Sr. said, "I felt as though I had lived a lifetime in the seven minutes of that calamity." He also called it "...the most awful seven or eight minutes in the whole history of circus business."
It was 1944, and the previous two years had seen a few changes in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. In 1942, in-family squabbling had resulted in the temporary retirement of John Ringling North (right), son of the one Ringling sister, Ida, as management head of the circus; in his place was Robert Ringling (left), son of the late Charles Ringling (one of one of the original Ringling brothers). John had favored the three ring circus seen today, but Robert reverted back to an earlier tradition that included, in addition to the three rings, two stages and a hippodrome.
Additional problems had plagued the circus that year. A tragic menagerie tent fire had drastically reduced the number of animals the circus maintained. And World War II had taken a small toll in the circus population; with some performers joining the US military forces, and three others being taken and interred because of German or Japanese lineage or heritage.
1944, on the other hand, had been a very good year; with good performances and few unpleasant incidents...until July.
It was early July in 1944, and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was in Hartford, Connecticut. Big Bertha (which that circus is sometimes referred as) had claimed Hartford as their special territory since 1855, but it had actually been a favorite town of several circuses since 1795.
World War II had been raging oversees for about five years now, and many items (such as waterproofing and fireproofing materials) were scarce. So, as was a common practice with many tented circuses at the time, the 520'x220' big top had been coated with a mixture of 18,000 pounds of parrafin and 6,000 gallons of white gasoline (some sources say kerosene) as a waterproofing measure. Additionally, one source claims that the laces used to connect the sidewalls were made of a type of a hemp like material whose flammability could be compared to that of dry kindling.
On July 6, a matinee performance was held, beginning about 2:23 PM, EST. There seems to be quite a bit of disagreement about the size of the audience (estimates from 6,000 to 10,000 have variously been given), but evidence (pictures, circus testimony, etc.) indicates that the audience of that matinee was about 8,000+ persons . As this was an early afternoon show they were, with at most a couple of dozen exceptions, women and children.
The drama started about 20 minutes into the show. One of my sources claimed the spectacle (Panto's Paradise featuring Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly, Sr.) was already over, but most agree that in those days the spec , as it is often called, always occurred at the end of the show, not the beginning. Weary Willie had been about to make a comic appearance though, along with another clown , as the only approved activity allowed in the ring when the Wallendas were performing.
All sources agree on the acts immediately preceding and during the outbreak of the fire. The audience had roared with laughter at a comic twist to the wild animal act; a man in a lion suit cracking a whip as a group of bally girls dressed as lion tamers in short skirts posed and performed acrobatics in mock imitation of the big cats that would follow.
Immediately following this "wild cats" mockery, the spectators were brought back to the edge of their seats by the real thing. Here again, sources disagree somewhat. Tom Ogden, author of Two Hundred Years of the American Circus says the famous Alfred Court performed that day. But the most reliable sources disagree, saying that, although Court was listed on the program, along with assistant animal trainers Joseph Walsh and Harry and May Kovar, he was not even on the circus grounds on that eventful day. Harry also did not perform that night. In actuality, audiences thrilled to the simultaneously performed acts of May Kovar (panthers, leopards, and pumas) and Joseph Walsh (lions, black bears, polar bears, and great danes). In his autobiography, Clown, Emmett Kelly Sr.'s mentions only May Kovar, in a brief comment praising her later brave actions during the crisis.
Next, as May and Joseph set about herding their cats through the big top chutes back to their cages, the audience's attention was riveted on the famous Great Wallendas' breathtaking high wire act. The Great Wallendas was a first class act that insisted on performing without competition from the other rings, so no other performers were in the big top at that point. But had the fire occurred just a few minutes later, according to Emmett Kelly Sr., the bigtop (with its three rings, two stages, and a hippodrome oval) would have been filled with elephants, horses, and hundreds of circus performers; a factor which surely would have increased the tragic death toll.
Some sources credit Master Bandleader Merle Evans as being the first to see the tiny flame travelling up a rope seam of the bigtop; others say it was Karl Wallenda, and that Merle, always watchful of the acts so that he could keep the right music playing, simply saw Karl point and looked in that direction. Whoever is right is insignificant. Merle started the evacuation process by shouting a warning to ringmaster Fred Bradna and immediately launching the band into The Stars and Stripes Forever; a lively tune that was actually a traditional signal to the circus troupe that there was a serious problem in progress under the big top. Bradna blew his whistle to stop the Wallendas' performance, raced out to warn the next acts (including his wife, equestrienne Ella Bradna) not to come into the big top, then returned to help in the evacuation of the burning tent. Emmett Kelly Sr. records that just as the Wallendas' performing music began, someone rushed past his dressing tent yelling "fire!", which, to quote Emmett, is "the all-time nightmare of circus business."
Those not already in the big top, including Emmett Kelly Sr. and other circus clowns (Felix Adler being the only other clown actually mentioned by name in my source material), responded instantly to offer what assistance they could, but Emmett reports that the panic had already started and the fleeing audience made it practically impossible for more circus personnel to get in to help. Already inside the big top, some ushers had grabbed four buckets full of water that were always kept handy in case of fire, and threw them one by one at the flames. Their efforts failed and the fire travelled up the sidewall to the tent's flammable roof. Once the fire spread to the big top's ceiling, the "waterproofing" fed the flames and made saving the big top impossible. The Wallendas made it to the ground with only`one member of their troupe being slightly injured. Sources agree that the injured trouper was Helen Wallenda, but disagree as to the injury. Some saying Helen suffered a small burn from falling canvas and others saying she was stepped on during the panic. Either way, all of the Wallendas escaped a short time later by climbing on the animal chutes and exiting out of the performers' exit. May Kovar, Joseph Walsh, and their cage boys (assistants) stayed on, working feverishly to herd their cats into their cages. May is the better remembered of the two; possibly because her cage was directly under the flames. Emmett Kelly Sr. specifically praised her in his autobiography.
"May Kovar, a British lion tamer, had been in the big cage when the fire started, sending her animals into the delivery chute as always at the end of the act. She knew what might happen if one of her cats got away when the steel arena crashed, and she stayed until the last one was out. She stuck there at her own risk like the trouper she was and barely got out with her life."
By then the audience had already become aware of the flames and, as the fire spread, the crowd panicked. Fred Bradna and the ushers tried in vain to calm them as they fled to the only exit they were familiar with, where they had entered the bigtop. Unfortunately, this was the side of the tent that was in flames. Circus personnel already inside the big top worked heroically to redirect those they could to the other exits. A mass of screaming humanity struggled to get out of the exits on either side of the bandstand. Others were still trapped in the grandstands, where railings at the bottom of the seat risers quickly caused a bottleneck of hysterical people struggling against them and against one another, to break free. Those still at the top of the seats risers began to jump off the back; often with disastrous results. Two more bottlenecks formed at the animal chutes, and people pushed and grabbed each other in their attempts to go over the top of the chutes. Some of the quick thinkers escaped by ducking under the sidewalls of the tent, others by cutting slits in the canvas large enough for a body to slip through, and a few others by listening to circus personnel urging them to head out the performers' exit. Sources say it only took six to eight minutes for the supports for the center pole to burn away, and the flaming bigtop collapsed on those not lucky enough to have escaped. Many people would remember later the horrible sound of the animals dying in the flames, but the only loss of life from this tragic fire were human. Emmett Kelly Sr. said the noise was "like beaten dogs" (again this is from The Circus Fire by Stewart O'Nan). Others described it as an eery wailing. (That description of the noise is much the same as the noise made by the dying in the Titanic tragedy, as was reported by survivors as they sat in lifeboats waiting for rescue.)
The animals, for the most part, were actually strangely quiet. According to their handlers they could sense death, and this was how they reacted to it. Circus personnel rallied to help the survivors and to keep the fire from spreading to other tents; for example, a bucket brigade consisting of the wardrobe mistress, a whiteface clown, and some midgets (none of which are named in any of my sources), kept the women's dressing tent from from going up in flames. When the local fire trucks arrived, it was too late to save the Big Top, but water was directed to it anyway when it was discovered that some were still alive beneath the burning canvas. Some of the spectators who had gotten out without injury, or who had not been under the big top to begin with, took pictures throughout the tragedy. The most famous of these was of Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly, Sr., in full makeup and costume lugging a bucket of water. Katie "Sparkle the Clown" Sullivan says the picture spawned the other name that the Hartford Fire is known by "...this day became known as "The Day the Clowns Cried" partly as a result of a photo that ran in "The Hartford Courant" showing Emmett Kelly carrying a water bucket trying to help put out the fire!"
Emmett, on the other hand, claimed that he picked up the bucket unconsciously as he ran from the dressing tent to help. By the time he reached the bigtop "there was nothing I could do with it because the tent was burning too high from the ground, and the flame was spreading." The big top was completely collapsed though still burning by the time the local fire department was able to respond. At that time, Emmett Sr. reports, all circus personnel were ordered out of the area by the responding fire department, so were at first unaware of the final outcome. Emmett's big shoes were smoking and blistered as he returned to his tent to splash water on his face. It was reported at first to them that everyone had gotten out alive, including the audience. Sadly this was not the case, as they realized when, again to quote Emmett Kelly Sr., "...we heard a sound that froze us all. The long, thin wail of an ambulance siren. Another and another and another until the air was filled with sound. We knew then. . ." Emmett Sr. left the dressing tent for a moment at that point, and was witness to the smell of burned flesh, and doctors, nurses, and emergency personnel everywhere. He reported that, although the Hartford disaster teams did their work well, it was just too much for them, and surrounding communities were quickly asked to help out. He went back inside the tent and told the others what he had witnessed.
Some soldiers witnessing the tragedy later said they had not seen anything worse even in towns being bombed in the war. Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly Sr. would later report in his autobiography "...always before, in circus catastrophes, the people who died or got hurt had been mostly our own. The terrible thing about the Hartford Fire was that the victims had been our customers, and that so many of them were kids." He said that many of the circus personnel suffered bruises and burns from their rescue efforts (his own hands and face was slightly burned from sparks encountered as he tried to help). But all of the seriously injured and the dead were, indeed, the spectators (customers) of the circus.
Some of those trapped under the burning canvas were buried under mounds of the trampled dead and wounded; a gruesome twist of fate that kept them alive until the fire was out and rescue was possible. Some of these survived to tell the tale; many did not.
One man, Elliott Smith, seven years old at the time, recalls being hopelessly buried under the bodies, facing the fire, and spitting in a childlike effort to put it out.. Miraculously, only 167 persons (67 of them children) died (roughly 2% of those who attended); mostly because the injuries received by being trampled in the panicked crowd had either left them mortally wounded or at the very least had kept them from getting out of the tent in time. Most died at the scene; a few died later in hospitals. The last to die was a teenage girl, who survived fire, burns, trampling, and surgery; only to die weeks later of sepsis and related complications . There is an additional documented casualty; one of the women who survived despite a long fall, miscarried a little girl shortly thereafter. 487 persons were moderately to seriously injured, but recovered from their burns and wounds.
The Unidentified Casualties
Various morgues had been set up to allow people to search for missing loved ones and to recover their remains if possible. Those who couldn't or weren't identified were simply assigned a number. In the end, six of the dead, three adults and three children remained unclaimed. When all available records and evidence was uncovered, there were also a total of six missing persons; nevertheless, the six unknown bodies remained unclaimed. On July 10, at public expense, a grave side service was held in Hartford Cemetery. The grave side service was interdenominational; a Rabbi officiated and a Catholic priest and Protestant minister offered prayers. The unknown bodies were interred near the place where headstones marked those missing in action in various wars, with no names on their headstones, only their assigned numbers. One of my sources claimed that a seventh unknown, a badly disfigured infant, was cremated at one of the hospitals, but author Stewart O'Nan (whose extensive research makes him the best impartial expert on the subject today) disagrees, saying that the remains that were cremated were not from a single victim, but bits and pieces that would never be recognizable or accounted for.
One of the unknowns was a little girl whose death touched the local authorities more than any other. Little Miss 1565, as the morgue would later tag her, was only slightly burned, but mortally injured from being trampled by the terrified crowd. She lived long enough to be taken to a local hospital, but never regained consciousness, and died about three hours later. For many years, two detectives, haunted by the child's sweet face and, returned to her grave with flowers on the anniversary of the fire right up until the years they died.
In 1946, a woman "positively identified" Little Miss 1565 as her long lost granddaughter; and, of course, one of the adult women was assumed to be the woman's daughter, who had run away from home some time earlier. The story hit papers all over the country...and the woman's real daughter called her to assure her that she and her daughter were alive and safe. The mystery continued.
In 1983, then Hartford Chief Fire Inspector, Lt. Rick Davey was on a quest; discover both the real cause of the fire and the identification of Little Miss 1565. He became convinced that the deceased girl was Eleanor Cook, who had attended the circus that day with her mother, and two brothers. Donald Cook escaped uninjured by ducking under the side of the tent. Mildred and Edward Cook were found alive, but Edward died at the hospital. Mildred was hospitalized for six months, then released. Eleanor remained missing; authorities were sure that she was one of the unidentified, but Mildred was too traumatized at the time to investigate, herself. Besides, two of her sisters claimed to have seen Little Miss 1565 and were sure that she was not Eleanor, nor could they identify her amongst the other bodies waiting to be claimed.. Mildred, convinced that her daughter's remains would never be found, placed a marker with Eleanor's name next to Edward's grave; planting flowers in front of it.
In 1987, notes were anonymously tacked to the ground with artificial flowers in front of each grave of the unknown victims; supposedly giving the identities and descriptions of each; claiming they were all part of a group mainly with the last name of Grahame. The descriptions were all wrong when compared to the records (i.e. a woman's description would be tacked on a male grave), and the notes were finally dismissed as bogus.
Meanwhile, Lt. Davey pressed his theories, and, in 1991, Donald Cook at last met with local authorities. Comparing pictures of Eleanor and of Little Miss 1565, all became satisfied that they were same. The body of Little Miss 1565 was reburied where the empty grave had stood.
But the case is still not closed; many experts, including The Circus Fire author Stewart O'Nan, still insist that physical evidence (i.e. dental records, the size of the body, etc.) disputes the claim that Little Miss 1565 is Eleanor Cook. Some theorize that she is the other unidentified little girl, whose description was definitely a better match, and that the real Eleanor was wrongly claimed as the body of another child; some of the tragic victims were simply burned too badly for a positive ID, but were claimed by grieving survivors anyway.
The story of Little Miss 1565 soon, became one of the few stories that people not personally witnessing that tragic day recalled. In fairness to other stories that should be remembered, I have included a section of this page on heroes of that tragic day.
Cause of the Blaze
Right after the fire, several theories surfaced as to the cause; a carelessly tossed cigarette, children playing with matches, various stories of arsonists with grudges, etc. Officially, the carelessly tossed cigarette theory was ruled the cause; but later scientific evidence refutes this claim and supports the arson theory. For example, in 1970 an FBI agent proved that a lighted cigarette dropped in dry grass cannot ignite unless the relative humidity in the air is below 23%; relative humidity in Hartford at the time of the fire was 45%. Also, according to Emmett Kelly's own account, the circus people at the time discounted the cigarette theory; "It didn't start at ground level or it could have been extinguished quickly as it crept up the canvas sidewall. We always had men stationed at intervals around the main tent. and under the seats...That fire somehow began up in the main spread of the canvas."
In 1950, Dale Segee, a man who had been a teenage roustabout for the circus at the time of the fire, was arrested on other arson charges, and confessed to setting the Hartford Fire (as well as several minor fires during other performances) as a way of relieving frustration and tension, and because a "man of fire" would appear to him in dreams and tell him to start the fires. According to an article I found at www.Discovery.com, he confessed to several murders as well. He was never tried for the Hartford Fire (authorities felt they didn't have enough evidence for a conviction), and later recanted his confession (so the official cause on record was not changed); but was convicted for another arson fire and served eight years in prison. Two years after his release, he was again arrested on arson charges. He also appears to have suffered multiple personality disorder (he claimed to be both a white man and an Indian Shaman), and spent time in an institution for the criminally insane.
Of course, it should also be noted that other disgruntled circus personnel (workers, not performers) were suspected at one time or another, but no one was ever charged.
In 1983, Lt. Davey, using the investigative techniques available to him plus reviewing documents of the tragedy, also concluded that arson was the only explanation, and in 1991, an FBI panel of Federal Arson Investigators agreed with him. But again, the courts felt that the evidence was not strong enough to convict Dale Segee; and the cause of the fire was merely changed from "accidental" to "suspicious."
In a strange twist of irony, arson suspect Dale Segee and survivor Mildred Cook both died in August of 1997.
As I have already mentioned, Katie "Sparkle the Clown" Sullivan wrote to tell me that her mother, a nurse, was an eyewitness to the tragedy's aftermath. The following is Sparkle's insight into the Hartford Fire, based on what she learned from her mother and other sources.
"FYI, as a clown from Wethersfield Connecticut (southern border town to Hartford) who's mom worked as a nurse at the scene; The hospital my mother was at was Memorial (she always called it McCook; must have been an old name for it). My mother had to be forced to tell us about it even in her 70's ,and she was in her early 20's when it happened. It was not something easily forgotten. They put light plaster casts on the people to get even pressure on their burns. She said that their bodies swelled so badly that the next day they had to cut them all off and it was HORRIBLE! You can just imagine the pain. Those poor people! ...Picture my young mother, only a student nurse at the time, having to watch all this going on before her. She was a very sensitive person and loved children very much. I remember saying to her once that I was surprised that she didn't work on a childrens' ward in the hospital. She immediately responded that she couldn't, it upset her too much to see children suffer and/or die. I now wonder if it was a legacy from the fire! This was a real tragic case for Hartford and for the circus...
I found his (Emmett Kelly Sr.'s) account of the fire in his autobiography "Clown" to be fascinating after having heard the city's side (about the horrible circus that blocked exits and used kerosene and paraffin to water proof the tents). After many years of course, it is widely accepted that the fire was arson.
My father tells about being in the service in Mississippi and hearing about the fire on the radio. He got worried because his father was the type of person who might just gather a bunch of neighborhood children together and take them to the circus. Well at that instant there was a page..."Sgt. Shannon, report to the radio room." His heart went to his throat and he ran there only to have his buddy who was on duty (and couldn't leave) ask him if he could go to the PX and get him some smokes! He said he almost killed him!
The Hartford Courant did an in depth story a few years ago, mostly first person accounts. One story told of someone's memory of a man who was helping families going through the makeshift morgue, trying to find their missing family members. They would have cards with identifying info. If it sounded like it might be a family member then they would uncover the body to see. Well this poor man uncovered a body for a couple and there lay his own daughter...he hadn't even known she was at the circus!"
Noted Heroes of the Day
Bandmaster Merle Evans and the entire Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Band. Not only were they the first to signal the alarm, but they continued to play despite the fire in an attempt to calm the panicked crowd trying to flee around both sides of the bandstand. Only when the kettle drums burst from the heat, did they desert the bandstand, instruments in hand. Moments later, one of the tent poles came crashing down on the bandstand. Merle and his band continued to play for the survivors just outside the tent. Merle retired from circus life in 1969, but continued to perform as a guest conductor at various private functions until his death in 1987.
May Kovar and the Cageboys The brave young animal trainer had to fend off an impending attack of the last leopard she tried to get into the chute. She then went outside the cage and helped her cageboys (assistants) shoo the leopards into their cages (dealing with another problem when two of the leopards started to fight while still in the chute). May then ran back into the burning big top and stayed as long as she could helping an unknown number of children climb over her animal chute that blocked the way to freedom. Emmett Kelly Sr. said "May Kovar, a British lion tamer,...stuck it out there like the trouper she was and barely got out with her life." Her cage boys tried to help the mass of humanity stacked up at the chutes as well, including fending off attacking leopards when people slipped and put arms or legs in reach of sharp teeth and claws. Once outside, May focused her attention on keeping her big cats safe. In fairness I must mention that Joseph Walsh was also struggling to get five lions out of the tent as the fire raged nearby, but little else that I have found is said of him.
In 1949, May died almost instantly when her neck was broken by an attacking lion during practice. She was married to someone else by then and had left the circus, but she had not had much success in private life and was developing another lion taming act for the animal park at which she then worked.
Fred Bradna and the ushers The ringmaster acted quickly to stop the performance, then ran out of the tent to warn his wife and other performers waiting to enter the big top. That done, Fred ran back inside and tried desperately and heroically to calm the crowd into making an orderly exit. The ushers were doing the same thing up in the stands. As has already been mentioned, these efforts to calm the hysterical crowd met mostly with absolute failure. Moments later, as the mounds of humanity piled up against the animal chutes, Fred assisted several children in going over the tops of the chutes to safety. Unnamed ushers continued to try to calm the panic and to rescue as many children as they could right up to the point when the big top's collapse was eminent. Only then did Fred and the ushers look to their own escape.
Fred continued his illustrious career with the circus until 1945, when he and his equestrienne wife, Ella, retired after he was injured in a blowdown (a term for when the big top is knocked over by high winds). Fred died peacefully in 1955.
Red Cross Volunteers and convalescing soldiers
In the audience that night was a group of convalescing soldiers and the Red Cross volunteers that were helping them.As the fire spread, the volunteers started to get their charges out, but none of the group could resist helping those around them. At least 30 children are credited as having been carried out of the burning big top by these brave souls; and once outside, the Red Cross volunteers had to physically restrain their wounded charges, some in slings, from trying to go back into the fire to attempt more rescues.
Bill Curlee One of the local heroes, Bill Curlee, got his son out, then stood on top of the northeast animal chute and pulled an unknown number of people to safety. Bill was a tragic hero; as he was lifting a boy over, his foot slipped between the bars, he fell, and the crowd he had been assisting swarmed over him. He was found alive under one of the tent poles after the big top was consumed, but was fatally injured and was probably one of the first to die in a hospital after the fire.
Because Bill was young and healthy, his widow later received $15,000; the largest amount that could legally be issued for a death. No other deceased victim's estate received that much, although awards to the living but seriously injured were as high as $100,000.
Thomas Barber A local detective, Thomas was assigned to the circus beat that day, and was instrumental in a number of rescues; one of the most unusual being a woman who fell through the bleachers in the panic but caught her foot and so avoided injury. She was hanging upside down about an inch from the ground when Barber and an unnamed associate helped her get loose and to safety. This proved to be his last rescue that day; the heat from the flames was too much for him to go back under the big top. Like all the other police on duty that day, he remained actively involved in the rescue operations and in the investigation that followed. Barber and another detective, Ed Lowe, became obsessed with Little Miss 1546, visiting her grave and trying to discover who she really was until their deaths. (Thomas in in 1976; Ed some time earlier of cancer.)
Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly Sr. Many sources cited this great clown's heroic actions that day. According to his own account, Emmett had just finished the final touches of the transformation into Weary Willie and was waiting for the Wallenda Act to reach a point when he and another clown would add a touch of humor to the final thrill,. Suddenly, he heard someone yell, "fire!" He hoped it was anywhere but the bigtop, but quickly saw his hopes dashed as he rushed out of his dressing tent with a bucket of water to render what aid he could. Emmett also tried to calm the panicked crowd, directed them toward the exits and held the tent flap open for people to get out, and trying, unsuccessfully it seems, to prevent people from going back in to look for missing relatives and friends. His autobiography lists a particular incident of a little girl who was about to go back in to look for her mother. Emmett told her, "Listen, honey---listen to the old clown. You go way over there to that victory garden and wait for your mommy. She'll be along soon." The little girl did as she was told, but Emmett never saw her again nor did he ever found out if her mother survived. He said he dreamed about her often for a long time. After the big top was destroyed, Emmett kept busy trying to make sure other parts of the circus did not go up in flames (particularly the electric generator wagons) until the Harford Fire Department arrived and told all the circus personnel to stay out of the way. Again according to his own autobiography, Emmett almost became part of the tragedy at this point when a tractor operator trying to help nearly ran him down. Hours later, the circus personnel were allowed to leave the scene to go to trains or hotels; but all luggage, etc. was to be left in the dressing tent. I'm sure many probably echoed Emmett Sr.'s feelings as he left the circus area; "Leaving the show grounds, I walked past the ruins of the the big top and saw some charred shoes and part of a clown doll lying on what had been the hippodrome track. That moment was when the tension of the past hours broke over me in a wave and I couldn't keep from crying any longer." Thus it really was "the day the clowns cried."
Emmett continued a successful career both in the circus and out before dying of heart failure in 1979.
Donald Anderson Thirteen years old, Donald was the first to think of using a knife to cut through the sidewall to safety. Hundreds poured through the hole he had made, and others began to take similar measures to get out of the big top. Donald couldn't find the man he'd come to the circus with, so he cut another hole in the canvas to get back in. He found his companion next to a little girl who had been trampled, and picked up the girl and exited with his companion. Donald's heroics earned him a medal and he and May Kovar are perhaps two of the best remembered surviving heroes of the day.
Felix Adler Sources say that this clown was responsible for rescuing several people from the big top, after getting his daughter and trained animals to safety.
Like Emmett Sr., Felix was devastated by the tragedy, but continued his circus career until he retired in 1956. Felix died in 1960.
Stories abound of individual rescues where the rescuers are unnamed or unknown.
A cadet nurse working for St. Francis Hospital and her companion picked up an elderly lady who had been knocked over, and carried her to safety, after which they returned to the tent to help others. What happened to them in the end is a mystery.
May Kovar and Bill Curlee weren't the only ones trying to get people over the animal chutes that day. Stories abound of unnamed local and circus police who tried valiantly to help people over the animal chutes and out of the tent.
Various unknown adults behind the grandstands tried to catch the children who jumped or fell. Sometimes they succeeded; sometimes, they either missed or went down themselves under the weight of people falling on them. According to Emmett Kelly, Sr., some unidentified circus personnel also tried to hold the tent sidewall in such a way that it would act as a chute for those who jumped.
The elephant handlers (bullmen) kept their animals calm and got them clear of the big top when people coming under the sidewalls suddenly found themselves underneath the huge beasts. No injuries from the elephants occurred as a result.
An unnamed sailor, seeing a six year old boy get knocked out of his mother's arms, picked up the boy, carried him to safety, and reunited him with his family.
At least one person reported being rescued by an unidentified clown. This could have been a number of performers, but it is documented that Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly, Sr., Felix Adler, Jackie LeClaire, and Frankie Saluto were all performers for the Greatest Show on Earth at the time.
Another unidentified man is remembered by many as having stood by the animal chutes, catching children as they were tossed over the top, and then helping the mothers get get across to safety.
"Sparkle the Clown" says "I also found out in talking to my sister about the book that I man I know well (sang in church choir with him) was a fire survivor...his sister lowered him from the bleachers so he could go under the tent!!!) I guess there must be many people here in the area that I pass and never realize they were there that day!"
A boy who had crawled under the bleachers for safety after being knocked over by the crowd, found a baby close by. He rescued the baby and reunited baby and parents.
At least one woman and her two year old child, trapped in the bottleneck at the grandstands exit, were pulled over the railing by a "thirtyish looking" man. They escaped unharmed; the man stayed to help rescue others.
An unknown circus performer (and that is certain only because she was described as being in costume), went back into the doomed big top three times; twice coming out with children. The third time she came out empty handed and collapsed.
A man described only as being from New Britain, got his wife and children out safely, then went back in and rescued a woman and two more children.
And finally, we cannot forget the doctors and nurses (like Sparkle's mother) who tried valiantly and desperately to save those who had come out of the fire alive but injured. Sometimes they were successful, many times not. But always they would bear emotional scars over what they had to witness during those grim days.
Noted Villains of the Day
This section will be brief, but some cases of inhumanity and negligence must be told.
Deacon Banchfield, the circus superintendent of trucks and tractors, was supposed to make sure that the circus's water trucks were next to the big top, engines running, in case of fire. He forgot. (Emmett Kelly said in his autobiography, however, that the water trucks were in place and working by the time he reached the tent).
Whitney Versteeg was in charge of the circus generators and apparently about thirty fire extinguishers (although during his testimony, he denied being in charge of most of them). If he was truly in charge of the extinguishers, why weren't they distributed that day; especially in the parrafin/gasoline treated tents?
The Unknown Villains
One of the survivors said that she learned that day that people can kill each other to survive. A few examples of this type of villainy fueled by panic were:
An unnamed sailor who slugged a woman in the jaw to get her out of her way (It probably rendered her unconscious, because a woman's body was found later, badly burned and with a broken jaw),
An unknown man who couldn't wait for a teenage girl to jump off the risers and pushed her so hard, she fell and broke her neck,
And another unknown man who, thinking only about clearing a path for himself and his wife, was wielding one of the bleacher chairs like a machete, knocking down and probably causing the deaths of untold persons. (Someone finally knocked him down, and he was lost in the surge; suffering the same fate as those he had been mindlessly attacking)
Worst of all, of course, was the unknown arsonist responsible for the tragedy in the first place; maybe Dale Segee, maybe not. Only the heinous killer and our Creator will ever know for sure who caused the blaze.
A lesser degree of villainy existed amongst the circus personnel; some of whom were reportedly smashing cameras and otherwise threatening would be photographers trying to capture the tragic event on film. Despite their efforts, a fairly good film record was made and still exists. The best source of these pictures at this point appears to be in the book, A Circus Fire, by Stewart O'Nan.
Criminal charges of negligence were brought against the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus although, as stated before, they were following the accepted practices of the day as far as using flammable materials for waterproofing was concerned. This was a hard pill to swallow for the other circus personnel, who said it felt like the community was blaming the circus for starting the blaze. Those circus officials who were arrested plead no contest to manslaughter charges, a fine of $10,000 was levied, and six officers of the circus (including Blanchfield, Versteeg, and James Haley, who was in charge of the circus that year) were given prison terms for involuntary manslaughter. Blanchfield, however, managed to impress the judge so much, that his sentence was almost immediately suspended.
In addition, $3.9 million was paid in damage awards to survivors and families of the deceased. Ringling made no attempts to avoid any of the damages; in fact, took steps to see that all victims were properly compensated, and the circus's profits (or at least most of them) for the next ten years went towards these damage payments. In part because of this absolute acknowledgement of responsibility, the imprisoned Ringling officials were pardoned by the State of Connecticut, and released within a year.
John Ringling North wrestled control of the circus back from Robert Ringling the following year, and apparently was not so kind with Robert's designated receivers who had negotiated the settlements (i.e. he was hard pressed to pay their fees), but all accounts say that the circus dealt fairly with the victims and survivors of the fire. It must be noted that North did vote against the settlement, but he was probably being vindictive to those who had pushed him out of power the year before.
The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was kept in Hartford until late in the month (Emmett Sr. said they were beginning to wonder if they would ever perform in any city again), when public outcry at the sanitary conditions caused by the animals (elephants in particular) plus the circus managements agreement to an ongoing "settlement" caused them to be allowed to move on. The rest of the season was a financial disaster, despite the fact that all performances were conducted in open areas without a big top. There was also one other big change. The most popular clown act up until that time had centered around a burning building, which clown fireman attacked with hoses and buckets (sometimes filled with confetti to throw at the audience). The fireman act appears to have never performed again after the Hartford tragedy. A version of it can still be seen, however in the Walt Disney animated film, Dumbo.
It took about ten years for the circus to completely recover financially. (Accomplished in quite a large part by 1950 royalties earned from the Academy Award winning The Greatest Show on Earth).
Several legends and myths grew from the fire. Notable among these were (1) cries of dying animals (as already mentioned no animals died or were even injured), (2) a story that Weary Willie's makeup from that time on included a tear or a spot near the eye in remembrance of the fire (also not true, based on pictures taken of the clown in the years following the fire), and (3) the ghostly visions claimed to be seen at the site of the tragedy. For example, two years later, a temporary housing project was erected on the site of the fire. Many claimed the project was haunted by the ghosts of those who had died in the fire. Later another housing project, then a school were erected on the spot. Both have similar ghost stories. (and who can say if they are true or false; everyone will have to come to their own conclusion there.)
Those who survived the fire but were badly burned faced years of plastic and other surgery, and some were never able to completely recover. Most of the children who survived became celebrities among their peers, but some had to endure endless teasing and cruelty because of their physical afflictions.
Many of the survivors (the young children especially) seemed to recover nicely from any emotional scarring. But there are the typical reports of survivors with nightmares, fear of fire (including stoves and fireplaces), and sirens, avoidance of circuses, fear of tents, claustrophobia, etc. Actor Charles Nelson Reilly, a child at the circus that day, is still unnerved by crowds (refusing to be in the audience of a play, even though he loves performing in the theater), and he is probably not alone. Many nurses who worked in the hospitals at night and saw so much pain and death, couldn't stand to be in the dark for a long time after the tragedy. As Sparkle said of her mother, "I remember saying to her once that I was surprised that she didn't work on a childrens' ward in the hospital. She immediately responded that she couldn't, it upset her too much to see children suffer and/or die. I now wonder if it was a legacy from the fire!" I would imagine she was not the only nurse to feel that way after watching so many children suffer and in some cases, die.
Several lukewarm attempts were made to return to Hartford in the coming years, but it wasn't until 1974 that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus returned to Hartford; formerly their favorite town. Of course by then, most of the circus principals were gone, the Felds now owned the circus, and there was no tented big top. In 1977, they were scheduled to appear in Hartford again, but the show was cancelled because the roof of the building that was to house the circus caved in because of ice and snow. Believe it or not, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus sued the city, asking $1,000,000 for breach of contract.
On a positive
note, the Hartford tragedy caused
the military to make their fireproofing compound easily available to civilians.
Circus officials had claimed that it was not available to them before the
fire, though some evidence exists that this, or at least another good
fireproofing compound probably was available; in fact was used by some smaller
circuses. Unfortunately, common sense often comes out of the ashes (please
excuse the simile) of disasters that could have been prevented. At any rate,
steps were taken to quickly make the military waterproofing compound available
to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and by 1945, all
circuses had access to it.
To end this section on as positive a note as possible, I have recently been told that plans are being made to create a memorial on the site to those who lives were lost or changed forever because of The Hartford Fire. At this time, a date for the completion of said memorial has not been released. Sparkle has promised to let me know when it will happen.
|The Hartford Fire is, of course not the only recorded case of circus fire or tragedy (those who are interested in a brief synopsis of other circus tragedies may click here). Such cases have been reported in the United States since 1799. But it remains the worst circus fire tragedy in American history in terms of loss of human life, only one less than the number who died in the Oklahoma City bombing of the Federal Building in 1995, and certainly deserves the name that Hartford citizens gave it; The Day the Clowns Cried.
Sources and Other Good Reading Material
For those who are interested; these books/websites contain excellent accounts of the Hartford Fire. I have included ratings of each source by myself and Sparkle the Clown.
(Wheeler says "The Hartford Courier often contains articles that reference and describe the tragic fire. They do charge a fee for reading articles from their archives, however.
|Several years back,
The Circus Fire,
also provided some of the eye witness accounts of the fire. The program
may still be available through the History channel.
(Wheeler says "The program showed some fascinating (and somewhat gruesome) film footage of the tragedy, and interesting personal insights, but the (30 minute) program was too short to do justice to the subject."
click here to return to 1940's
click here to return to history page (no pictures)
click here to return to Emmett Kelly Sr. history page
click here to return to Ringling Descendants Fight for Control article
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