Robert Dale SEGEE
The Hartford Circus Fire
Classification: Serial killer? - Mass murderer?
Characteristics: Arsonist - Confesses to setting Circus fire
Number of victims: 173 ?
Date of murders: 1938 - 1950
Date of birth: 1929
Victims profile: Children / Men, women and children
Method of murder: Strangulation / Beating with a stone / Fire
Location: USA / Japan
Status: Confessed in 1950. Never charged with murder. Sentenced to 4 to 40 years for arson in Ohio in 1951. Released from supervision in May 1959. Died in August 1997
Man Confesses to Setting Circus Fire
By R. J. Brown - Editor-in-Chief - HistoryBuff.com
The following is a transcript of a news article published in several American newspapers dated June 30, 1950:
Columbus, Ohio -- Robert Dale Segee, 21, Circleville, Ohio, has signed statements admitting he set the Ringling Brothers circus fire in Hartford, Conn. that killed 168 persons and injured 412 others. Henry J. Callan, Ohio fire marshal, made the disclosure Friday.
Callan said that Segee also admitted setting between 25 and 30 major fires in Portland, Maine between 1939 and 1946, other fires in New Hampshire and Ohio and that he is personally responsible for slaying four people.
Callan said that all of Segee's statements had been carefully checked by his investigators since Segee was taken into custody last May 17 on the farm of a relative near East St. Louis, Ill.
A Pickaway county (Ohio) grand jury Friday indicted Segee on two charges of arson, stemming from fires in Circleville, Ohio.
Callan's prepared statement about the Hartford fire said:
Segee was employed by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus from June 30 to July 13, 1944. He joined the circus on June 30 at Portland, Maine and the day he joined the circus there was a fire on tent ropes that was extinguished without loss. The circus moved from Portland, Maine. to Providence, Rhode Island and while there another small fire occurred on the tent flap, which again was extinguished without loss. On July 6, 1944, at Hartford, Connecticut, the major fire occurred, which took the lives of 168 people.
A thorough and comprehensive investigation of the facts concerning Segee has disclosed, according to his own admission, that he is responsible for that and other major fires, places and dates of which were given.
Tells of Girl's Slaying
Callan said Segee said his first slaying was a 9 year old girl, beaten to death with a stone during a fit of anger. He identified the victim as Barbara Driscoll, 9, slain on a river bank at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, September 5, 1938.
Other victims, identified by Callan were:
A watchman who caught Segee setting a fire in a warehouse in Portland, Maine, March 16, 1943; a 12 year old boy strangled to death on the beach at Cape Cottage, Maine in 1943 "to the best of his (Segee's) recollection" and a Japanese boy, killed in Japan while Segee was in the United States occupation.
The last three victims listed by Callan were not identified by name, but the fire marshal said all three were actual slayings as shown by his and army investigations.
'Red Man' Haunted Suspected Firebug
By Lynne Tuohy - The Hartford Courant
March 24, 1991
Robert Dale Segee grew up in New Hampshire and Maine, a nervous boy taunted by siblings and schoolmates and continually berated by a brutal father who Segee said punished him by holding his fingers over a flame.
His mother said he had bad dreams so often that he was afraid to go to bed. As young as 9 or 10 years old, Segee would sneak out of the house and roam the streets at night.
Ohio Deputy Fire Investigator R. Russell Smith went to Maine and New Hampshire in May and June of 1950 to run a background check on Segee. He determined from interviews with relatives and law enforcement officials that in the years 1940 through 1946, there had been 28 major fires and 40 minor ones within 10 blocks of the Segees' home in Portland, Me.
Under interrogation in Ohio in June, 1950, Segee admitted setting at least 25, perhaps 30 major fires in Portland between 1939 and 1946, the year he moved to Ohio.
Segee's sister, Dorothy Thompson, told Ohio investigators that her brother as a young boy had set two fires inside their home. Robert Segee had no juvenile criminal record.
The year before the Hartford circus fire, school records show, Segee flunked all his sixth-grade subjects. His IQ that year was judged to be 78.
Segee joined the circus on June 30, 1944, in Portland. On that day a minor fire on the circus tent ropes was extinguished without damage or injury. The circus went on to Providence, R.I., where a tent flap mysteriously caught fire. That fire, too, was extinguished without loss. What caused those fires was never determined. Segee confessed to setting both of them in 1950.
The next stop for the circus was Hartford.
Segee told police and psychiatrists who questioned him in Ohio in June, 1950, that he often set a fire after a frustrating sexual encounter, and that he "wanted to burn out a lot of bad memories."
Although he almost always could recall striking the match, Segee said, he often "blacked out" afterward. He would be awakened by a nightmare "red man" with fangs, claws, fiery-red chest hair and flames coming out of the top of his head. The vision is a classic one for a chronic fire-setter, experts say.
Segee told Ohio authorities he had met and had "unsatisfactory" relations with a girl near the Hartford circus grounds just before the fire. He recalled, in his confession of June 26, 1950, that he returned to the circus grounds just after the 2 p.m. performance began. Fire engulfed the tent about 2:20 p.m.
"I was still nervous and upset, and as far as I know, I thought I laid down and went to sleep and then there was the strike of the match again, and then the red man came," Segee recalled.
The Hartford Circus Fire, which occurred on July 6, 1944 in Hartford, Connecticut, was one of the worst fire disasters in the history of the United States. The fire occurred during an afternoon performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus that was attended by approximately 7,500 to 8,700 people.
The fire began as a small flame about twenty minutes into the show, on the southwest sidewall of the tent, while the Great Wallendas were on. Circus Bandleader Merle Evans is said to be the person who first spotted the flames, and immediately directed the band to play The Stars and Stripes Forever, the tune that traditionally signaled distress to all 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 big top.
Sources and investigators differ on how many people were killed and injured. Various people and organizations say it was 167, 168, or 169 persons (the 168 figure is usually based on official tallies that included a collection of body parts that were listed as a "victim") with official treated injury estimates running over 700 people.
The number of actual injuries is believed to be higher than those figures, since many people were seen that day heading home in shock without seeking treatment in the city. Only 100 of the dead were older than 15.
The only animals in the big top at the time were the big cats trained by May Kovar and Joseph Walsh that had just finished performing when the fire started. The big cats were herded through the chutes leading from the performing cages to several cage wagons, and were unharmed except for a few minor burns.
The cause of the fire remains unproven. Investigators at the time believed it was caused by a carelessly flicked cigarette but others suspected an arsonist. Several years later while being investigated on other arson charges, Robert Dale Segee, who was an adolescent roustabout at the time, confessed to starting the blaze. He was never tried for the crime and later recanted his confession.
Because the big top tent had been coated with 1,800 lb (816 kg) of paraffin and 6,000 US gallons (23 m³) of gasoline (some sources say kerosene), a common waterproofing method of the time, the flames spread rapidly.
Many people were badly burned by the melting paraffin, which rained down like napalm from the roof. The fiery tent collapsed in about eight minutes according to eyewitness survivors, trapping hundreds of spectators beneath it.
The circus had been experiencing shortages of personnel and equipment due to World War II. Delays and malfunctions in the ordinarily smooth order of the circus had become commonplace.
Two years earlier, on August 4, 1942, a fire had broken out in the menagerie, killing a number of animals. Circus personnel were concerned about the 1944 Hartford show for other reasons. Two shows had been scheduled for July 5, but the first had to be cancelled because the circus trains arrived late and could not set up in time.
In circus superstition, missing a show is considered extremely bad luck, and although the July 5 evening show ran as planned, many circus employees may have been on their guards, half-expecting an emergency or catastrophe.
It is commonly believed that the number of fatalities is higher than the estimates given, due to poorly kept residency 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 in the paraffin and gasoline could have burned people completely, as in cremation, leaving no substantial physical evidence behind.
Additionally, free tickets had been handed out that day to many people in and around the city, some of whom appeared to eyewitnesses and circus employees to be drifters, who would never have been reported missing by anyone if they were killed in the disaster. The number of people in the audience that day has never been established with certainty, but the closest estimate is about 7,500 to 8,700.
While many people were burned to death by the fire, many others died as a result of the ensuing chaos. Though most spectators were able to escape the fire, many people were caught up in the hysteria and panicked.
Witnesses said some people simply ran around in circles trying to find their loved ones, rather than trying to escape the burning tent. Some escaped but ran back inside to find family members. Others stayed in their seats until it was too late, assuming that the fire would be put out promptly, and the show would continue.
Because at least two of the exits were blocked, by the chutes used to bring the large felines in and out of the tent, people trying to escape could not bypass them. Some died from injuries sustained after leaping from the tops of the bleachers in hopes they could escape under the sides of the tent, though that method of escape ended up saving more people than it killed. Others died after being trampled by other spectators, with some asphyxiating underneath the piles of people who had fallen down 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 these piles, protected by the bodies that were on top of them when the burning big top ultimately fell down on those still trapped beneath it.
The emotional toll on performers and spectators should not be underestimated, and because of a picture that appeared in several newspapers of sad tramp clown Emmett Kelly holding a water bucket, the event became known as "the day the clowns cried."
The first investigation
On July 7, charges of involuntary manslaughter were filed against five officials and employees of Ringling Bros. Within days of these charges being filed, the circus reached an agreement with Hartford officials to accept full financial responsibility and pay whatever amount the city requested in damages.
This resulted in the circus paying out almost US$5,000,000 to the 600 victims and families who had filed claims against them by 1954. All circus profits from the time of the fire until then had been set aside to pay off these claims.
Although the circus accepted full responsibility for the financial damages, they did not accept responsibility for the disaster itself. The five men charged were 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.
In 1950, a Circleville, Ohio, man named Robert D. Segee claimed he was responsible for setting the Hartford Circus Fire. He 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. It was said Segee fit the description of a serial arsonist right out of a psychiatrist's textbook.
Segee also knew intimate details of the incident, which some believed only the real arsonist could have known. For instance, it was never made public that the circus had two smaller fires of undetermined origin prior to the tragedy. Segee admitted setting both of them as well. These statements, Segee added, were in response to a later dream he'd had of a woman standing in flames urging him to confess.
In November 1950, Segee was convicted in Ohio of unrelated arson charges and sentenced to more than 40 years of prison time. However, Hartford investigators raised doubts over this man's confession, as he had a history of mental illness, and it could not be proven he was anywhere within the state of Connecticut when the fire occurred.
Connecticut officials were also not allowed to question Segee, even though his alleged crime had occurred in their state. Additionally, Segee, who died in 1997, denied setting the fire, as late as 1994 during an interview. Because of this, many investigators, historians, and victims believe the true arsonist—if it had indeed been arson—was never found.
Little Miss 1565
The most well-known victim of the circus fire was a young, blonde girl wearing a brown dress. She is known only as Little Miss 1565, named after the number assigned to her body at the city's makeshift morgue. Oddly well preserved even after her death in the fire, her face has become arguably the most well-known image of the fire. The Offspring mentioned her in their 1989 song Jennifer Lost the War. John & Mary wrote a song called "July 6" (included on their 1990 CD "Victory Gardens") that was about her and the whole tragedy.
Her true identity has been a topic of debate and frustration in the Hartford area since the fire first occurred. Despite massive amounts of publicity and repeated displays of the famous photograph in nationwide magazines, she was never claimed and eventually was buried without a name in Hartford's Northwood cemetery, where a victims' memorial also stands.
In 1991, arson investigator Rick Davey (along with co-writer Don Massey) published A Matter of Degree: The Hartford Circus Fire and Mystery of Little Miss 1565, in which he claims the girl's name was Eleanor Emily Cook and that she was 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. Prior to writing the book, Davey spent six years researching the case and conducting his own experiments as to how the fire may have really started. He has professed the original investigation was both flawed and primitive, though he did not work on the original case.
Various assertions put forth in A Matter of Degree have been fiercely disputed by investigators who worked on the case, as well as by other writers, most notably Stewart O'Nan, who published The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy in 2001. O'Nan points to the fact that Little Miss 1565 had blonde hair, while Eleanor Cook was a brunette. The shape of Little Miss 1565's face and that of Eleanor Cook are dissimilar, and the height and age of the two girls do not match up.
Perhaps most significant, when shown a photograph of Little Miss 1565, Eleanor's mother Mildred Corintha Parsons Cook immediately stated that this was not her daughter. She 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'd been told that Eleanor was not in any of the locations where bodies were kept for identification. She believed that Eleanor was one of two children who had been burnt beyond recognition and remain unidentified. O'Nan thinks she may be Little Miss 1503. He further points to the differences in the dental records of Eleanor Cook and the records made of Little Miss 1565 after her death.
Due to the many supposed errors in Davey's work, A Matter of Degree is considered by some to be a work of revisionist history or journalistic sensationalism, with some victims and reviewers accusing Davey of using the book to further his own career and notoriety.
As O'Nan and others have pointed out, the most likely scenario is that a family claiming a body early on mistakenly identified Eleanor Cook for their own child and she is buried under that child's name. Even when "Little Miss 1565's" picture ran in the papers, they failed to recognize her as their own due to their desire to put the traumatic event behind them. While DNA analysis could end this debate definitively, the logistics of exhuming all the likely candidates for this mix-up rule this out.
With the questions over whether or not Eleanor Cook is the true identity of Little Miss 1565 still unanswered in the eyes of many, the body was exhumed after the release of A Matter of Degree and buried in Southampton, Massachusetts, next to the body of Edward Cook, the brother of Eleanor Cook and a victim of the circus fire himself (another brother, Donald, survived and worked with Davey to establish Miss 1565's identity).
In 1992, her death certificate was officially changed from the previous identification of "1565." Since then, the Cook family has raised questions over whether or not the body is indeed that of Eleanor Cook, and some investigators have come to believe that Eleanor's body may have been another of the unclaimed bodies from the fire and not Little Miss 1565. As of 2005, the Connecticut State Police Forensic Science Lab is reviewing the case.
Hartford and the circus today
While the circus was banned from Hartford and other parts of Connecticut for years after the Hartford fire, it began to make a comeback in the 1970s. Laws passed in Connecticut shortly after the fire made it illegal for big tops to be used, so the Ringling Bros. circus has traditionally been held in the Hartford Civic Center when it visits the city.
While attendance has gotten stronger over the past 3 decades, many people, especially those who were alive when it happened, refuse to attend based on what happened in 1944. Some people believe Ringling Bros. should not be allowed to visit the city altogether, citing what they view as insufficient sympathy and assistance on the part of the company after the disaster. For a time, Ringling Bros. trains passing through Connecticut, on their way to other states, had police escorts from the time they entered the state until they exited it, but these measures are no longer felt necessary.
Though many of those present at the fire have not returned to circuses since then, others have gone back. In May of 2004, Dorothy Carvey and her son, Tighe, were given free passes for their family by Ringling Bros. to attend a show at the Hartford Civic Center. For Dorothy Carvey, this was her first time back at a circus since the fire occurred. The story of their visit, as well as what happened to them in 1944, was written about in The Hartford Courant.
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.
The Great Hartford Circus
Fire Background Information
An earlier fire
The article mentions the unusual difficulties the circus faced because of shortages created by WWII. These shortages took many forms. Engines needed to pull the trains carrying the vast quantities of equipment, animals, and people of the circus were in short supply. Key experienced personnel were off fighting the war, and it was difficult to hire the large number of workers in each town required to set up and take down the big top. Some of the “little people” had been requisitioned by the war industry to work in tight spaces on aircraft assembly lines. The circus was designed to run like clockwork, and usually did, but during this period delays became increasingly commonplace.
On Aug. 4, 1942, about two years before the Hartford fire, the circus was playing Cleveland. Around 11:30 am, just before lunch, a fire broke out in the menagerie. As workers rushed to the scene they could hear the elephants, tied to the ground by stakes, trumpeting. The fire quickly spread as burning pieces of canvas fell and ignited the straw and hay contained in the animals’ habitat.
Despite the smoke and flames, the highly trained and disciplined elephants refused to move until their trainer came. He and his men bravely entered the flaming compound, freed the elephants from their shackles and directed them to tear their stakes out of the ground, which they did. At his command, they marched out in a line, each using his trunk to grab the tail of the elephant in front. Some were so horribly burned that flesh hung from their bodies, yet they left as directed and without stampeding.
Other animals made it out, but many didn’t. Some escaped, but were so badly burned that they had to be putdown. The camels and big cats took the worst of it. The final toll consisted of four elephants, all thirteen camels, all nine zebras, five lions, two tigers, two giraffes, two gnus, two white fallow deer, two Ceylon donkeys, one axis deer, one puma, one chimpanzee and one ostrich.
There were no human fatalities, but it was an omen of what was to come.
The Hartford fire
Two shows had been scheduled for July 5, 1944, but the matinee had to be cancelled. The circus arrived late and couldn’t be set up in time. Missing a show was considered to be a bad omen in the superstitious world of the circus.
As the article points out, the big top that was set up for the evening performance had been waterproofed with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline. Incredibly, it had required eighteen thousand pounds of paraffin and six thousand gallons of gasoline to complete the job. The paraffin had been melted in cauldrons and then thinned with the gasoline. It was then spread onto the canvas with brooms.
Although setting up a performing circus required numerous arrangements with the town of Hartford, none ofthese involved the Hartford Fire Department. No inspections were required or requested, and the Fire Department later would testify that neither memory nor records gave any indication that protective measures had ever been provided in the past.
The evening show went off without a hitch. The highest applause was saved for the famous Wallendas high wire act, while clowns that included Emmett Kelly, perhaps the most famous clown the world has ever known, entertained the crowd and helped them to forget the hardships and deprivations brought on by the war.
July 6, 1944 was hot and humid. There was a good crowd for the matinee performance. Pictures taken that day appear to indicate that some ushers, in an effort to make a few extra dollars, had added extra chairs to manyrows. This could be done by overlapping the legs of the chairs so a few more could be fit in and then charging customers who wished to improve their seating arrangements.
The number of people in attendance that day has never been established with certainty. At a later commissioner’s hearing, the circus vice president presented an attendance figure of 6,789 (a number that obviously ignores significant figure rules). The head usher estimated that about 6,000 people were present.
Some testified that the performance was a sellout. Others said that there actually were sections with half-empty rows. It is almost certainly safe to say that somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 people were at the performance that day. The official capacity of the tent supposedly was 9,160, but more could easily have been fit in. An accurate attendance figure will never be known, but photographs taken that day and testimony fromeyewitnesses seem to indicate that perhaps around 8,700 people had come to see the show—about 5,500 in the grandstand and perhaps 3,200 in general admission seats, called the “blues”.
The show started at 2:23 pm, eight minutes late.
For the first warm-up act, a man dressed in a lion suit ran out. He was quickly followed by a dozen girls dressed in skimpy, by 1944 standards, “lion tamer” costumes. In a reversal of roles, the “lion” produced a whip and proceeded to put the “tamers” through some acrobatic tricks. It was a prelude to the real lion tamer acts, of which two performed at the same time.
As soon as the big cats were done performing, attention shifted to the famous Wallendas and their high wire act.
The fire began on a sidewall behind the southwest blues. It went unnoticed for a few seconds. As is typical insuch situations, eyewitness accounts conflict. Some said it was only about the size of a silver dollar. Others said it was the size of a baseball or basketball, or larger. They disagreed on its shape. The only thing upon which there was agreement was that initially it was small and most people were not aware of its existence.
Numerous studies (including some videotapes) of people’s reactions to the beginning of a natural disaster such as a fire have shown conclusively that there is a strong tendency to initially ignore the peril. People tend to continue to go about their normal activities of the moment. They will often even look at the fire yet somehow the obvious danger will fail to register. Perhaps most of us can recall the horrible fire that took place at the Station nightclub in West Warwick Rhode Island on Feb. 21, 2003 and the news footage showing patrons still enjoying the band Great White and ignoring the growing flames for several seconds after the fire begins to rage out of control.
One police detective testified, “I remained silent, hoping that no one else would notice the flame before it was extinguished, as I had no doubt that it would at that time. I had every confidence it would be put out.”
Others noticed it as well. One girl asked her mother if the tent was supposed to be on fire. One person, returning to the bleachers after purchasing some refreshments, did yell “fire,” but even then most of the spectators continued to watch the Wallendas rather than respond to the growing threat.
The fire had started on a sidewall, not the roof of the tent. The sidewalls of the big top were not treated with the waterproofing, so they were not as flammable. Fire buckets were kept under the stands in case a dropped cigarette should ignite any grass under the seats.
Three ushers from the north side cut behind the blues and grabbed the fire buckets. There were four buckets, each filled with four gallons of water.
All four buckets were thrown at the fire, but had no effect. The fire was at about eye level, perhaps a yard wide and five feet high by that time. The ushers then tried to pull down the sidewall.
It was too late. The flames had reached the roof.
While some people began to try to exit, many others still failed to react. Some thought it must be part of the show. They were at a circus to enjoy themselves and be entertained. They couldn’t immediately switch from that mood and anticipation and grasp the reality that was about to engulf them. Others assumed that some circus employee would certainly arrive to put out the fire so their day of fun wouldn’t be spoiled.
The band had been playing a quiet waltz as the Wallendas built their pyramid on the high wire. Now they stopped, then switched to “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Playing this song was designed to alert circusemployees that a serious problem existed. The Wallendas stopped their act and began to break down their pyramid and exit. One of their bikes fell to the sawdust below.
By now the flames had reached the roof and the horrible reality of what was happening set in.
During the fire at the Station in Rhode Island, most of the people in the panicked crowd rushed to exit the same way they entered, ignoring other exits towards the sides of the stage. Psychologists tell us that this is typical behavior in a panic situation. It is also usual for some people to become completely individualistic and antisocial—an “every man for himself” reaction.
This behavior can then spread through the crowd. People will often fight to get towards an exit chosen by a few individuals, ignoring other, better options. And as happened in the Station fire, many will run to try and exit the same way they came in, often passing several easier exits along the way.
Many nearest the flames bolted. The lucky ones were in the lower seats and made the choice to quickly run towards the performer’s entrance. Those who hesitated were trampled by panicked and terrified people coming down from higher seats. Some tripped and got caught in the spaces between the seats only to be crushed by the growing stampede. Others remained frozen, just sitting there as if nothing was happening. Psychologists refer to this as “collective disbelief.”
The fire reached the top of the centerpole and then split in three different directions. The announcer at center stage urged people not to panic and instead to leave in an orderly manner, but he was silenced as the power went out.
For those near the top, the best chance was to exit over the back. Some shimmied down poles. Some children jumped into the arms of people outside who tried to catch them. Some adults held the sidewall so children could slide down the wall like a chute. As in many life-and-death situations of this type, there were many stories of people pushing and attacking others so they could escape and many stories of individuals bravely risking their own lives and chances of escape to try and assist others who were weaker or for some other reason unable to make it out by themselves.
The band continued to play the “Stars and Stripes” over and over again. Ushers continued to urge people not to panic. Many rushed children to safety and then returned to try and save more, while some circus employees smashed people’s cameras, trying to prevent photographs from being taken.
Some children who had escaped but could not locate their parents rushed back into the fire.
Some of the big cats were still in the chutes through which they exited after each performance. Panicked people tried to exit over the top of the chutes. Some attendants tried to stop them. Fathers urged their children to ignore the attendants and continue. One woman fell and dropped a child, whose arm dangled into the chute. His arm was clawed by a cat still in the chute.
The Wallendas headed for the performer’s exit, but quickly realized that it was too crowded with people. They climbed over a cage that lined the exit. Herman Wallenda later stated that this was easy for them to do—they were performers. But the general public was not capable of exiting that way.
The band continued to play.
The heated paraffin from the big top not only burned, it also melted and rained on the people inside like napalm, badly burning many.
As the top burned violently, it was as if the people were inside a broiler. Most were not burned by direct flames. Instead, they were literally cooked by the heat from the flames above.
Many in the crowd soon began to realize that they could never escape out the exits, so they ran back to the top of the seats and jumped. The jump was only about 10-12 feet, but that was sufficient to cause many injuries to both the jumpers and the brave souls trying to catch them. Some slid down poles, tearing the skin off their hands and arms. Some broke their ankles, and unable to move, suffered more severe injuries as others jumped and landed on top of them.
Many escaped by simply squeezing under the sidewalls, but in some spots the walls were tied down so tightlythat that was impossible. Men and boys, some inside, some already out, opened up small knives and tried to cut holes in the sidewall to allow people to slip through.
The fire continued to rage and the tent collapsed on those still trapped inside. Several survivors stated that they would always be haunted by the horrible screams of the animals inside being burned alive.
There were no animals inside. They had all been led to safety.
The first signal box came in at 2:44 pm. Three Engine Companies and two Truck Companies rushed to the scene. Soon more alarms sounded and more men and equipment sped towards the fire.
Engine Company 7 arrived first, but was blocked from getting as close as it wanted. They were forced to lay about 1000 feet of hose from a hydrant in order to try and fight the fire.
The scene inside was horrendous beyond description. Oddly enough, some survived simply because they had been the first to fall, and the mass of horribly burned bodies on top of them had sufficiently shielded them from the flames to at least keep them from dying on the spot.
In most fires, the most common cause of death is asphyxiation. Victims are overcome by smoke. They typically lapse into unconsciousness and subsequently breathe in extremely hot air and/or poisonous gases produced by the fire. This causes the release of large quantities of fluid into the person’s lungs. Death is caused either byasphyxiation or drowning.
This didn’t happen in the circus fire. The big top acted like a chimney, the hot gases exiting out the top. Most victims burned to death. The intensity of the fire was so great that many bodies were burned completely beyond recognition—mothers holding children sometimes being literally fused together. In many cases not even the victim’s gender could be determined.
Identifying the dead was a horrible task. Bodies were taken to a local armory and separated into male, female, and uncertain. Children constituted a separate group. Friends and relatives lined up to try and identify the dead. Often dental charts had to be
used. Gold melts at 1,945 oF (1,063 oC), and dental fillings even higher, since they are an alloy.
Early on, a circus representative was publicly stating that nothing combustible had been used on the circus big top, even though this was in conflict with reports published in the press indicating that the top had actually been coated with flammable waterproofing. Officials from Ringling Brothers stated that the top actually had been treated with a fireproofing material, and although it wasn’t fireproof, it was fire resistant. Robert Ringling was quoted as saying, “Every test we put that through showed that it would resist fire. A fire might endanger some of the equipment but would never endanger human life.”
Later, as stated in the article, the circus would maintain that they were unable to obtain adequate fireproofing materials because they were needed for the war effort.
This position is open to serious challenge. After the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston, all decorations in restaurants and nightclubs were required to be fireproof. Several different materials had been sanctioned for this purpose and had passed tests. At least two other circuses advertised that their big tops were treated with fireproofing materials.
Former Ringling Bros. employees working for these circuses testified that claims that appropriate materials could not be obtained were false. Another circus had failed a burn test the previous June and subsequently had spent $6,000 to flameproof their main tent.
The circus remained closed for a period of time. As the article points out, before they reopened, they fireproofed their tents with Hooper Fire Chief fireproofing. It had been invented in 1936, but evidently was not, in fact, made available to civilians because of wartime priorities, although other materials were available. The first show after the disastrous fire took place on Fri, Aug. 4, 1944 in Akron, Ohio. The weather was terrible—cool and rainy, and there were only about 2,000 people in the audience.
The final totals
The final death toll came to 167 people, 67 of them children under the age of 15. It was concluded that nonedied from their crush injuries and none from asphyxiation. That may not be completely true, but it does appears that almost all of the victims had burned to death. The number of injured is not known with accuracy. A figure of 487 injured is sometimes presented, but as the article points out, the actual number is probably greater. Many people simply walked or drove home rather than seek medical care.
Six bodies were never identified. Three were children. One, called “Little Miss 1565,” had suffered some burns to her face, but they were relatively minor, which would have made her easily identifiable. Nevertheless, no one identified or claimed her.
Of course thousands of children escaped unharmed, at least physically, and the article presents one of their stories.
Lawsuits and settlements
Of course lawsuits were filed. In Connecticut at that time, the maximum accidental death benefit was only $15,000. The board who determined death benefits did not think that most of the victims were worth that much. They devised a formula that considered the age of the deceased, probable future earning power, and especially for women, education and social responsibilities. Most children were valued at $6,500. A sixty-nine year oldwoman was only given $5,000, a seventy-five year old woman $5,000.
Those who were alive but terribly injured received more. The largest award was $100,000. The circus took years to pay the claims.
There were also criminal indictments. Six circus defendants were charged with ten counts of involuntary manslaughter. The lawyers representing the circus pleaded “nolo contendere,” which means “no contest.” The defendant basically accepts punishment for the charges but denies any responsibility. It differs from a guilty plea in that it cannot be used against the defendant in another course of action. The circus basically threw themselves on the mercy of the court. Lawyers for the accused evidently expected the judge to dismiss the charges. They argued that a long trial would keep the defendants from being able to prepare the circus for the following season.
The judge didn’t buy it. He found all six defendants guilty. Ringling Bros. was fined $10,000. Sentences for the convicted ranged from six months to 2-7 years.
The circus appealed, and later the sentences were reduced. Five did go to prison for several months. Upon their release they all immediately went back to work with the circus.
The very last claim was paid in 1969.
The circus did not return to Hartford until 1975.
A mentally disturbed person, Robert Dale Segee, was arrested six years after the fire occurred. He confessed to setting several fires over the course of several years, including the Hartford fire. At the time of the fire he would have been only fourteen years old. He was sentenced to two terms of 2-20 years, to run consecutively. He served his sentence and was released. Later he maintained that he was innocent and had confessed, as he stated, “If you was hassled as much as I was, you’d tell them anything to get them off your back.” There remain a lot of conflicts surrounding both him and his confession, with no clear proof in regard to his guilt or innocence.
The identity of “Little miss 1565” remained a mystery for many years. Rick Davey, a Hartford arson investigator, became obsessed with solving the mystery. He continued the investigation on his own time. In 1991 heconcluded that the girl was Eleanor Cook. There had been three Cook children at the circus. The youngest, Edward, had died in the fire. The oldest, Donald, had escaped. The mother, Mildred Cook, had been told thatEleanor’s body was not at the morgue or armory. The body was “identified” as Eleanor. It was disinterred and reburied in a new white coffin beside her brother Edward.
But according to author Stewart O’Nan, doubts remain. The dental charts don’t match. Eleanor was eight years old, but the teeth of Miss 1565 are those of a much younger child. In addition, the height and weight do notappear to match. The clothes on the girl at the armory did not match the clothes Eleanor had been wearing.O’nan thinks that another badly charred body, #1503, is probably Eleanor Cook, but perhaps neither is. Currently the State Police Forensic Science Lab is reviewing the case.
In 1994, a reunion was held in Hartford. Over 200 people attended. Many brought their old circus programs.
In 1997 both Mildred Cook and Robert Segee died. His home town at the time, Columbus, Ohio, didn’t even run an obituary. The Hartford Courant failed to note his passing.
To this day many survivors who escaped unharmed still suffer psychological effects. They stay on the bottom floor of hotels and nervously check where the exits are. The sound of a fire truck can produce high emotional distress. Some are still unable to stand inside of any tent. Others cannot bear to watch a circus. Some say that they have memorized the detailed features of their children’s teeth. Some still have recurrent nightmares sixty years later. They say the memory never goes away.
An American Circus Tragedy: The Day the Clowns Cried
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, son of the one Ringling sister, Ida, as management head of the circus; in his place was Robert Ringling, 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.