Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tragedy that Mesmerizes

(NOTE! To View any picture that is cut off due to size, CLICK on it for a separate view page in full).

The summer of 1944 included winning the war in Europe, a shortage of men and gas and food and everything else, and one of the largest tragedies in American history.
I have been fascinated by this sad day, and have read and re-read the books on it.

A series of events- most of them completely avoidable- ended with piles of charred bodies and a nation creating new rules and changing the way we gathered in public.

This is not for the squeemish, nor the casual reader. It is a part of circus life, and fires have always played a HUGE part in the history of circus and travelling shows since their inception.
I would like to think of this as a clearing house of information, with the links to all the official sites, and a place to store my collected pics of both the events of that day, and the larger files of circus photos I have.

This photo from the far North-Eastern corner of the tent, was taken almost 8 min. after the fire was first seen as a foot wide burn on the far tent wall. It burned so hot and so fast that over 150 people never got out. At this point, all the ambulatory victims had fled the tent and many inside were still alive, screaming, but unable to escape.
Most of the photos that day that survive were taken by Ralph L. Emerson, an attendee. Most other photos and films being made were destroyed by circus members at the scene trying to protect the victims from being exploited during the tragedy. Other media and reporters were asked to not publish their media by the police and the circus out of respect for those that died, and those requests were honored.

A circus clown carries a bucket of water amid attempts to put out the fire.

A circus clown (possibly Emmett Kelly. The makeup is correct for him) carries a bucket of water amid attempts to put out the fire. Ralph L. Emerson

Circus Fire Picture #1

Informational pages include
Hartford History Pages
"This is a resource page on the fire that broke out during a performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus in the north end of Hartford on July 6, 1944. One hundred sixty-seven people died as a result of the blaze, which broke out while several thousand were under the big top for an afternoon performance. Flames spread instantly along the canvas of the tent, since it had been waterproofed with a mixture of gasoline and paraffin. The spectators' stampede to escape proved as deadly as the fire; hindering the escape of many were steel railings along the front of the bleachers and an animal chute blocking a main exit. The circus fire remains the worst disaster in city history. Because it was a circus performance, and because it occurred on a Thursday afternoon during World War II, when many adults held down one or more jobs at war-production plants, children accounted for many of the casualties; only 100 of the dead were older than 15. "

The Wikipedia Page for The Circus Fire

"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 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. 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 Hartford Circus Fire.
An amazing web site with documentations, photos, and lists. Flash needed to enjoy all the bits and pieces.

Historians Corner. Another great site with lots of information and background. He includes:
" In 2002, the Hartford Circus Fire Memorial Foundation was established to create a permanent memorial at the site, for those killed in the fire. It would serve as a more visible and permanent reminder than the small plaque then standing in the adjacent Fred D. Wish School and the small memorial marking the graves of five unidentified victims interred in Northwood Cemetery (also known as Soldier’s Field Cemetery). Ground was broken for the memorial in 2004, and completed for the unveiling ceremony on the anniversary of the tragedy on Wednesday 6 July 2005. More than 100 people attended, including visiting dignitaries, firemen, financial donors, family of victims and survivors of the fire. The $125,000 memorial was impressive in its permanence and simplicity. At the center ring of the Memorial (where the center pole of the main tent stood), four granite benches and inscribed bricks surround a large bronze disc that rises up from the ground. The names of the victims and their ages are inscribed upon it. Several brief inscriptions appear on the red bricks, one of which states simply: “As close to hell as I want to get.” On the north side of the Memorial winds a path toward the center ring. Several granite pedestals along the way tell the events of that fateful day, along with a timeline. Black and white photos of the tent fire are engraved upon sheet metal squares atop two of the pedestals. Dogwood trees were planted to mark the locations of the side and end walls of the tent.

The small park and Circus Fire Memorial can be seen and visited today. It is located behind the Wish School at 350 Barbour Street. "

Photos the above site has of a visit to the memorial are HERE.

Home page for Stewart O'Nan, author of "The Circus Fire".

The NPR story of one of the Survivors, Maureen Krekian.
This site also has an audio link.

Hartford Circus Fire.
While this site CLAIMS to be : "the only site dedicated to the 1944 Hartford Circus Fire, one of the worst public tragedies in American history. ", it is not (obviously) nor is it particularly full of information. It is the site of the authors of the book " The Mystery of Little Miss 1565".

The official Ringling Brothers Site:
Hard to navigate, but using the bottom and history pages you can find bits and pieces including bio's of some of the circus folk who saved lives that day. The site does NOT reference the fire in any way.

Merle Evans

(This article about legendary Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® musical director Merle Evans was published in 1962 in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine & Program celebrating the 92nd Edition of The Greatest Show On Earth®.)


“Circus Dead at 153; Inquires Pushed,” The New York Times, July 8, 1944

“Hartford’s Worst Calamity,” The Hartford Courant, July 7, 1944

“Hartford’s 100 Worst Fires,” The Hartford Courant, December 31, 1961

“Roustabout Says He Set Circus Fire,” The Hartford Courant, July 1, 1950

“Text of Coroner’s Fire Finding,” The Hartford Courant, January 12, 1944

“139 Die, More Than 225 Hurt in Circus Fire, Five Arrested on Manslaughter Charges,” The Hartford Courant, July 7, 1944

“139 Lives Lost in Circus Fire at Hartford,” The New York Times, July 7, 1944

Goldberg, Karen, “The Hartford Circus Fire,” The Concord Review, Inc., 1990

Grant, Ellsworth S. Connecticut Disasters; True Stories of Tragedy and Survival. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 2006. Pg 123-132.

Silitch, Clarissa M., ed. Danger, Disaster and Horrid Deeds. Dublin, NH: Yankee, Inc., 1974. Pg 98-102.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

More Photos and info on the Fire

The site with the most extensive collection of photos (all out of copyright and OK to reproduce) is
These people have done a phenomenal job of collecting information.

Circus Fire Picture #2

Circus Fire Picture #3

Circus Fire Picture #4

Circus Fire Picture #17

Circus Fire Picture #5

Circus Fire Picture #20

Circus Fire Picture #6

Circus Fire Picture #15

Circus Fire Picture #19

Circus Fire Picture #30

Circus Fire Picture #34

The victims were found burned, piled upon each other, the heat inside the canvas tent so high that reports state it was capable of crematory levels of heat.

The paraffin pouring like water out of the overheated canvas above was liquid flame- and the people trapped inside were difficult to identify at all.

Circus Fire Picture #9

The funerals and burials brought the entire city together in their worst moment.

Circus Fire Picture #62

Circus Fire Picture #63


The Baraboo Wisconsin home of the Circus, Circus World, has a large historical data base of information and photos relating to circus history. The original area where PT Barnum first located outside of NY, this is a collection point for American Historical Circus at it's finest.

Circus Museum

With thousands of vintage circus posters and items, this is also the largest repository of surviving artifacts from the 1944 season for Ringling Brothers.
It includes a miniature of a classic circus layout- which is VERY close to the layout of the tent site on July 6th.
Circus Museum

The Circus Fans of America Site is also full of information and background that will enhance understanding and appreciation of the circus and the fire that changed the way the country views events. Buildings replaced tent shows, and new standards made the canvas sided portable building a thing of the past.
Site includes a photo of survivors attending the memorial service and dedication in 2005.

Circus History . Org is another great site to find information.

LINKS of amazing circus information and history of all kinds.

TIME magizine July 17, 1944

Time Magazine - July 17, 1944 - Page 19

Time Magazine - July 17, 1944 - Page 20

Circus site info on firefighters with pictures.

Circus Fire 1944's Firehouse Mag. layout with pictures of the aftermath of the fire.

Floorplan from Firemen Magazine 1944

Big Top floor plan

GREAT Photos at

Conn. State Library Lists of References

NY Times article about reburial of victim alleged to be identified.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Sunday, June 14, 2009

News articles found on the web

Hartford, CT Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus Fire - Jul 1944

Hartford CT circus fire.jpg


80 Children Among Dead In Big Tent Holocaust

20 of 200 Injured at Hartford May Die; Five Circus Officials Held by Probers

HARTFORD, Conn., July 7. (UP) “ Five officials of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus were charged with manslaughter today while state, county, and municipal authorities pushed a searching investigation into the disaster of fire and panic under the big top in which 139 persons, 80 of them children, died.
While authorities questioned through the night canvas-men, performers, roustabouts, and members of yesterday's matinee audience of 10,000 that saw an acre and more of canvas dissolve into flame above its head, 20 or more of the 214 injured crowding all local hospitals were in dying condition and it was feared that the ultimate death toll would reach 150.
Police Prosecutor BURR LEIKIND ordered a charge of manslaughter lodged against J. A. HALEY, vice president of the circus; EDWARD VERSTEEG, chief electrician; DAVID W. BLANCHFIELD, chief wagon and tractor man; GEORGE W. SMITH, general manager; and LEONARD AYLESWORTH, boss canvas man. LEIKIND said the five men were arrested by Hartford police during the night.
Coroner FRANK D. HEALY subpoenaed the five officials plus 15 executives to an inquest Tuesday when he intends fixing responsibility for the disaster. Under Connecticut law, the coroner has charge of the investigation of violent deaths in the pre-grand jury stage.

Makes Charges
Mayor WILLIAM H. MORTENSEN headed a committee of nine officials conducting an investigation paralleling the coroner's and early today he issued a public statement making two charges: (1) The circus tent, the largest in the world “had been sprayed with paraffine which had been melted in gasoline, (2) a steel runway, used to bring animals in and out of the big top “closed off an entire end of the oval, obstructing exits.
Approximately 60 bodies were found jammed against the runway, he said.
State Police Commissioner EDWARD J. HICKEY conducted a third investigation independent of but paralleling the other two.
LEIKIND refused to make public the evidence upon which he based the charge of manslaughter and, under his orders, police were secretive. LEIKIND said the five men were being “held at the police station.” The captain on duty there said he knew nothing about it. Officials of the circus would not comment.
Later, HALEY and SMITH were released in $15,000 bail each and VERSTEEG, BLANCHFIELD and AYLESWORTH in $10,000 each.
Authorities, it was learned, were concentrating upon the spotlights perched high in the corners of “the biggest tent in the world” belonging to “the greatest show on earth,” which at the instant the fire broke out were illuminating “The Flying Wallendas,” a high wire aerial act, in their white, hot glare. A number of witnesses said the fire first appeared directly above one of the spotlights which were so high they appeared to be almost touching the slanting roof of the tent.

Crowd In Panic
At first the fire was merely a red spot, tiny in comparison to the great sweeping acres of canvas to which it was an uncontrollable destructive force. One second later it had grown to the size of the roof of one of the small, white cottages of the typical Connecticut countryside which so many in the audience had left to see a dazzling array of death defying performers and laughing clowns and were never to return. With an audible swishing sound it raced toward the center poles and 50 feet below 10,000 men and women momentarily went insane, stamping, kicking, and climbing over one another, and, tragically, hundreds of small children occupying as children will at a circus, the very front seats.
It was all over in 15 minutes – that rapidly did the flames spread over the acres of canvas and dump their ashy remnants down to set the tiers of seats on fire. Then performers and audience alike rushed into the flame-encircled arena to carry out the bodies of the dead, the dying and the injured.

Sad-faced EMMETT KELLY, one of the circus three top clowns, mourning “the little children who have for so many years give me my living” carried out many of their bodies. CARL and HERMAN WALLENDA carried out “many, so very many” and some were dead. FELIX ADLER, “the king of the clowns” carried out more and tears streaked his make-up. But the first thing he did was remove his pet pig from the dressing tent to a place he deemed safer. LOU JACOBS, the third of the circus stellar clowns, was spared the ordeal of his brothers. He was in New York becoming an American citizen.
Almost all of the dead were believed to have died in the panic of suffocation, of shock induced by acute fright, and of being knocked down and stomped under the feet of the thousands stampeding for the exits.

All Could Have Escaped
Though the fire swept over the top of the tent with speed of an eye blink there was enough time for all 10,000 to have escaped unharmed if they had responded to the efforts of the circus people to calm them. The circus band, directed by that renowned circus maestro, MERLE EVANS, played on until the part of the audience that hadn't been converted into piles of corpses, had fled safely from beneath the sagging sky of flames. And several ring masters shouted: “Let's all sing” and bravely sang away at the first bars of “Old Black Joe” themselves until it was apparent that no one but they intended singing. Even then there was ample time for the singers to escape because the big huge center poles stood, though they were sagging holding up the flaming canvas.
The center poles sagged more and more until at last they were flat on the ground, but they didn't collapse because their support ropes and braces burned unevenly and though they were scorched, they were not burned and will be used again.
The tent itself, 600 feet long, the length of a city block, 220 feet wide, weighing 20 tons, was so completely destroyed that reporters on the scene several hours later couldn't find a piece of it more than three inches square, in the mounds of gray ash.

Children Victims
The greatest tragedy, was centered in the bodies of 80 children laid out on army cots in the local armory of the Connecticut National Guard – on some of the cots, two little bodies – all covered with olive drab blankets from which little feet, some of them bare, some in the well scuffed shoes of active little boys and the party shoes of good little girls, protruded. Parents, fathers and mothers, moved along the rows of cots. A blanket would be pulled back, revealing a white, inanimate face, a mother's lips would sag and her facial muscles would tighten and with a scream, perhaps, but more often, with a dry sob that barely was audible, she would turn away and a coroner's assistant would ask her the name and age and address, write it on a green card and attach the card to the blanket with wire.
This is a big war industry town, in the heart of industrial New England, and parents don't have time to take children to the circus. Therefore, many of the children had gone unescorted, but in a number of cases the bodies of the father or mother or uncle or family friend, who had taken a child to the most thrilling afternoon a child can have, were on cots nearby.

Many Unidentified
When authorities closed the armory at 1 a. m., many of the 135 remained unidentified. The score or so of bodies of children still not identified were believed to have dead parents nearby. From shortly after the disaster at 2:42 p. m., until the doors were closed, there had been an unending procession of sorrowing men and women up and down the aisle fringed by cots and it resumed when the armory reopened at 8 a. m.

Circus Cancels Tour
Authorities indicated that neither the circus nor any of its property would be removed from the circus grounds until all investigations are completed and that my be weeks. Circus officials were busy canceling scheduled appearances in 20 towns – today it was to have performed in Springfield, Mass. They said that when it could, the circus would return to Sarasota, Fla., its winter quarters, to be refitted for what will remain of its summer tour.
The circus lost only its big top and three-fourths of its wooden seats. The menagerie was drown up in an oval 20 feet from the big top and and a little to the right of the main entrance and the inmates of the scores of heavy cages mounted on big wheels and parked end to end, were not disturbed. Their attendants insisted that they weren't even aware of what was happening behind them. The backs of the cages were covered by canvas and behind them strips of canvas, called “sheets” rose on poles for a height of 12 feet.
The performers tent in which the hundreds of riders, aerialists, clowns, jugglers put on and take off their tights and spangles, though only 20 feet behind the big top, wasn't touched. Very few of them were aware of the disaster until it was over. The “Flying Wallendas” had been scheduled for a 20-minute performance and they got through only seven minutes of it.
Circus officials have said the tent cost $60,000 and its guys, ropes and poles were worth $20,000 more. Except for the center poles, all were lost. It was understood that the circus carries $500,000 liability insurance and fire and storm insurance on all its equipment.

The Lowell Sun Massachusetts 1944-07-06


Most Of Victims Reported To Be Women, Children.

Hartford, Conn. -- AP – While grief among parents, relatives and friends grew hourly deeper, officials placed the list of dead at 146 today as they counted and recounted the victims of the greatest fire in circus history which yesterday turned the big top Ringling Brothers Circus into a flaming inferno.
At least 250 other victims, many of the seriously burned and trampled were scattered about the city's hospitals.
Identification of the dead continued slow as sorrowing friends and relatives of missing persons trooped mournfully through the huge State Armory where the dead, many of them charred beyond possibility of visual recognition, lay in somber aisles.

Toll Recedes
The death toll – which at one time was feared might reach 200 – receded slowly as duplicating identifications were corrected but the condition of many in the hospitals indicated it might rise sharply again.
Meanwhile investigators sought the origin of the blaze which was variously asserted by some to have started from a discarded cigarette but by others to have first appeared high above the crowd in the lofty tent top, as 6,000 carefree spectators watched enthralled the opening act of the big show.
Held in high bail today on charges of manslaughter were five officers of the circus company as Mayor WILLIAM MORTENSEN announced he was considering the probability that the city would have to bury many of the prospective unclaimed dead.
While a quickly mobilized emergency corps went about the poignant task of counting the full cost of the tragedy, believed to have been caused by a carelessly tossed cigarette, eye witnesses piled one detail of horror upon another.
Everyone, among them some who had succeeded in cheating death at the scene where all had been laughter and gaiety, seemed to get relief from the shock of the tragedy by relating their experiences.
There was MRS. ROSE DUNN of Hartford, who with her two children counted themselves among the fortunate even though they suffered numerous scratches and burns.

Shocked by Scene
Said MRS. DUNN, still shocked by the scene:
“I was sitting only a short distance from where the fire broke out. I immediately sensed something was wrong, and even though I was about 10-feet high, tossed my 5-year-old son, HERBERT, down to the ground, after telling him to remain there.”
“Then I lifted my 3-year-old daughter, BETSY, over my shoulder and jumped with her. Grabbing HERBERT and carrying BETSY I crawled under several animal cages, meantime stepping over a few bodies, and managed to get outside. I still don't know how I did it.”
A physician and his wife, listening to the booming of the loud speaker on a State Police car, suddenly broke out in a nervous smile as they learned that their two children, who had left the house for the circus, had changed their minds and gone instead to a neighborhood movie, where they were found.

Seek Reason
Meanwhile investigators seeking to establish a reason for the startlingly rapid spread of the blaze which all eye-witnesses agreed mushroomed with incredible speed from a tiny finger of flame near the main entrance to a gigantic inferno of smoke and fire.
Police Court Prosecutor JAMES F. KENNEDY announced that his preliminary investigation had established that the huge canvas then had been coated with a water-proof solution of gasoline and paraffin before the circus left its winder quarters at Sarasota, Fla., early in the year.
Many witnesses to the appaling[sic] scene commented upon the thick, oily nature of the billowing flames and smoke.
Among other agencies investigating were the state's attorney's office, the FBI and a special committee appointed by Mayor WILLIAM MORTENSEN.
In contrast to the stories of various persons present when the fire broke out yesterday, shortly after the opening of the afternoon performance that the blaze originated low in the tent, HAL OLVER, circus press representative said today:
“The fire definitely started at the roof of the tent.”
And he added: “We have a theory, but we're not making it public now. We expect to make an announcement later.” He further declared that “absolutely no credence was being given any theory of incendiarism or sabotage.
As Mayor MORTENSEN indicated that the city might be called upon to provide common burial for the unidentified and unclaimed, War Manpower Area Director WILLIAM G. ENNIS announced that employment ceilings for all persons needed as undertakers helpers, cemetery workers and various relief agencies had been lifted.
MORTENSEN said: “I am told that a large number of bodies are beyond recognition. The dead are still in the custody of the coroner but it may be impossible to keep the bodies in their present condition much longer.”
For the third successive day a sweltering heat wave gripped this city. Because of it many woman and children, who comprise the majority of yesterday's victims, were lightly clad in flimsy attire with few identifying marks as they trooped gaily to the circus grounds.

Only Half Identified
At the Armory morgue alone today, where 142 bodies lay, only half had been identified.
Mayor MORTENSEN, who toured the hospitals, described the scenes in the various institutions as “heart breaking.”
He stopped into one room just as a young girl died.
Back on the circus lot under a baking sun, the scent of wild animals drifted across the scorched terrain as roustabouts and performers alike wandered fitfully about. Police still fended away the curious and the morbid. At the performers quarters life went on listlessly, women washed and hung out clothing to dry, artists examined the spangled contents of their costume trunks or sat idly and dully about.
The fire, acknowledged to be the greatest disaster in American circus history, reduced the show's main tent to ashes within less than an hour yesterday and brought injury to at least 225 of the estimated 6,000 spectators at the afternoon performance.
State police on duty at the temporary morgue estimated that two-thirds of the dead were children and said most of the adult victims were women.
A chilling quiet prevailed at the morgue, broken only occasionally by the sudden sob of a mother recognizing some whisp[sic] of her child's clothing on a twisted and blackened figure.
But there was no hysteria as fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers, husbands and other relatives walked silently from cot to cot. Many searched futilely among the small bodies burned beyond recognition. They will return again today – still hoping, yet dreading, to recognize some piece of jewelry, a shoe, a charred scrap of a dress.
Confusion was absent in the rescue work and at the morgue. The state civilian defense organization was prepared.
On first word of the fire, all Connecticut's emergency resources had been mobilized. The morgue was set up within two hours after the fire.

Governor At Scene.
Governor RAYMOND E. BALDWIN was at the scene quickly and remained until late in the night. Nurses aides and volunteer workers toiled through the night, aiding both the injured and the grief-stricken survivors.
Cause of the blaze remained undetermined today, but an investigation was started immediately under the governor's direction.
Only the first act, the performance of the trained animals, had been completed when the blaze, at first so small that, as one witness said, it could have been extinguished with a bucket of water, was seen near the main entrance of the big top.
Survivors agreed that the circus staff had tried valiantly to prevent panic. The first move toward the exits was orderly and many of the children making their was from the tiers of seats were seen laughing excitedly.

But when the flames roared with terrifying speed to consume the entire canvas roof, the audience became a fighting, screaming terror-stricken mass.
Some children dropped to the ground were trampled unconscious by others jumping behind them. Others were tangled in the blazing canvas.
The performing animals had been safely herded through the caged runway back to their trucks when the blaze was first seen and only five circus performers, the “Flying Wallendas,” were in the arena.

Trapped In Runway
It was the animal runway, spectators said, which trapped many of the audience under the fiery canvas as it fell.
The scene was described by FELIX ADLER, the show's famous clown, as the most horrible ever witnessed by a circus performer.
“We heard a roar like applause,” ADLER said, describing what happened in the performers dressing room. “Only we knew the animal act was over and there shouldn't be applause. We knew that something was wrong. Then we smalled smoke, x x x I thought the menagerie fire in Cleveland (in August, 1942, which injured three circus employees and killed 40 animals) was the worst thing I could every see, but no one in the circus business has ever seen anything as horrible as this.”
The circus' future remained doubtful today, although most of its staff agreed that it would return to its Sarasota, Fla., winter quarters as soon as authorities here would permit removal of the remaining equipment.
HERBERT DUVAL, circus adjuster, declared, “We're out of business.” But ROLAND BUTLER, general press representative, predicted that the show would return to the road later this summer perhaps using last year's tent which he said “still is in pretty good shape.”
BUTLER reported that all the show's animals were saved and that none of the performers had been injured seriously.
Estimates of the fire loss ranged from $75,000 to $300,000, but no authoritative report on damage had been issued by the management.

Kingsport Times Tennessee 1944-07-07

Spectator at Circus Tells of Panic

Pandemonium Comes as Flames Break Out in Circus Tent

By Edward Bunn
HARTFORD, Conn., July 6 – (INS) – There were seven in my particular family group at the circus when the flash fire consumed the main tent. We were sitting in the fourth row from the top tier. The animal act had just finished, about 15 minutes after the matinee performance began. We sat back to watch for the next entrance, when suddenly there was a cry of “fire.”

Instantly the crowd took up the shout. Pandemonium broke loose. Right off the main entrance, a section of the tent about five feet square was ablaze. While I glanced in the direction of the fire it spread past the main entrance, ever wider and ever upward and within five to six minutes it seemed that the whole main tent was a fiery canvas.
A capacity crowd filled the big tent and thousands rushed toward the main entrance, which by now was being used as the main exit right through the flames. I'm sure most of the casualties were caused there, for the people trampled over one another.
Circus attendants tried their best to maintain order, but with the big tent fast turning into a fiery shroud it was a case of everyone for himself. Try as the attendants did, and they really did make an effort to maintain order, there was no holding back the crowd to divert them to better exits where exit would have been more tacile[sic].
By now the canvas behind me had begun to blaze furiously. I gathered my group about me and we clambered to the top drop from where all of us jumped about 15 feet and squeezed under the guy ropes to safety.
It was a narrow escape for us and I wonder now why others in the upper rows did not attempt the same manner of escape instead of surging around among the thousands in the arena.

The Lowell Sun Massachusetts 1944-07-06

Here Is a Partial List of Dead in Ringling Circus Tragedy.

HARTFORD, Conn., July 7 – (AP) – A partial list of dead in the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus disaster yesterday follows:
BIRCH, SHIRLEY ANN, 9, Meridan; BIRCH, ARLAND, Meridan; BOOTH, SARAH, 67, Martford; BRADLEY, HELEN, 30, Simsbury; BRYAN, FRED, Hartford; CARRIER, JACQUELINE, 4, Hartford; CLARK, E. B., 20, Hartford; CONLON, EVELYN L., Elmwood; CONNOLLY, EDWARD F., 11, Hartford; COTY, DOROTHY, 16, Bristol; CURLEE, WILLIAM, 29, Hartford; DELAVERGNE, ELIZABETH, 34, Meridan; DEMARTINO, ANN, 37, Hartford; DENEZZO, JOSEPH A. JR., 4, Hartford; DENEZZO, MRS. KATHERINE, J., 35, Hartford; DINEEN, WILLIAM, 8, Hartford; DUHAMEL, ALICE, 25, Hartford; ELLIOTT, JANE M. M., Wethersfield; GALLUCCI, MARY, 6, Hartford; GALLUCCI, MRS. ROSE, 55, Hartford; GOFF, MAURICE, 24, Hartford; GOLDSTEIN, MRS. SYLVIA, Hartford; GOLDSTEIN (first name unknown), 3, Hartford; GRANT, MRS. HULDA, East Hartford; HAGER, AUDREY, 22, Marlborough; HESS, MINNIE, 42, Brooklyn, N. Y.; HIGNES, PETER, Lakeville; KAVALIER, CYNTHIA, West Hartford; KELLIN, SHIRLEY, 17, West Hartford; KUHNLY, MRS. DOROTHY, Bristol; LAPUK, SEYMOUR, 8, Hartford; LOFF, MURIEL, 4, Hartford; MASON, HARRIS W., Hartford; MATHER, LOLA, 40, Hartford; MATHER, SARAH E., Hartford; MATISON, THERESA, 45, Meriden; MARMAN, LILLIAN C., Hartford; METCALFE, MARJORIE K., Rockville; MURPHY, CHARLES W., 4, Plainville; NOGAS, VALARIE JANE, 5, Unionville; NORNS, AGNES, Middletown; NORTH, IRENE, 56, Rockville; O'CONNELL, DORIS JEAN, 5, Unionville; O'CONNELL, MRS. EVELYN, 32, Unionville; POGLITSCH, LILLIAN, 34, New Britain; POGLITSCH, FRANK, 8, New Britain;
PUTNAM, ELIZABETH, 40, Storrs; SMITH, MRS. THYRA, 40, Canton; SMITH, JOAN, 8, Bloomfield; SNELLGROVE, RALPH, 48, Plainville; SNELLGROVE, MRS. RALPH, 42, Plainville; TOTH, JOAN, 9, Hartford; VIERING, PAUL C., 4, Hartford; APATHY (ABATTI), DONALD, no age, Hartford; ALERAND, KALINE, no age, Hartford; BARRY, GAIL, 6, Hartford; BERMAN, JUDITH, 3, Wethersfield; BERMAN, MRS. ROSE, 39, Wethersfield; BURDICK, EDITH, 10, East Hartford; BERUBE, ANNE L., 5, Plainville; BOYEJEAN, STEPHEN, Hartford; BOYEJEAN, ALICE, Hartford; BURDICK, EDITH, East Hartford; CONNELLY, RITA ANN, 13, Hartford; DULLUS, MRS., 37, Hartford; EDSON, ELLEN, 3 ½ , South Manchester; ELLIOTT, RICHARD, 6, Wethersfield; GOFF, MURIAL, 4, Hartford; GORSKY, KENNETH, Hartford; GOULKE, ELIZABETH, 22, Great Hill, N. Y.; LEONARD, STANLEY, 37, Simsbury; MATHEWS, DOROTHY S., 34, Rocky Hill;l MATHEWS, ROSLYN, 5, Rocky Hill; MURPHY, WALTER, D., no age, Plainville; PISTOPIE, MRS. CARMELLO, 39, Hartford; ROBERTS, MRS. THEODORE, Winsted; STEINBURG, LOUISE, 74, Hartford; TOTH, REGINA, 11, Hartford; VIERING, MRS. MILDRED, 27, Hartford.

Kingsport Times Tennessee 1944-07-07

More Arrests Due in Probe of Hartford Circus Tragedy.

Negligence Claims Investigated – Death Toll Revised Today, Shows Total of 152.

HARTFORD, Conn., July 8 (UP) – Additional warrants charging manslaughter were issued by investigating officials today as the death toll from the worst fire in circus history reached 152 with 15 of the bodies still unidentified. Most of the victims were children.
Police Commissioner JAMES F. KENNEDY said no arrests had been made under the new warrants but State's Attorney HUGH M. ALCORN, JR., disclosed that evidence had been uncovered which he believed indicated criminal negligence.
Five circus officials already have been arrested on technical charges of manslaughter and were released on bail.
As the death toll from the flaming “big top” mounted almost hourly, State War Administrator HENRY B. MOSLE announced that 28 persons were listed as missing. The 15 unidentified victims, he said, may be among them.
Identification experts were called in to assist in establishing the identity of the 15 as state, county and city officials continued three parallel investigations into the fire which turned Thursday's matinee of the “biggest show on earth” into a charred mass of bodies.
Some 200 injured, most of them children, remained in hospitals and a dozen of them still were in critical condition, kept alive by sulfa drugs and plasma.
While KENNEDY refused to elaborate on the new warrants, ALCORN, after a conference with State Police Commissioner EDWARD J. HICKEY, said “that if the evidence already in our possession is substantiated, prompt prosecution will follow.”
ALCORN said he had information “tending to indicate” that the tent had been treated with paraffin, thinned with gasoline, “enough to make it highly inflammable.” He added that all his information was being checked carefully.
Flags on state buildings fluttered at half staff as bodies of the victims still unclaimed were removed from the improvised morgue in the state armory to the refrigerated morgue at the Hartford Municipal hospital. Persons with relatives still missing were to view them later.
All day yesterday, grief-stricken little processions of fathers and mothers shuffled through the armory seeking their missing little sons and daughters.

The Lowell Sun Massachusetts 1944-07-07

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Eyewitness to History

THIS is a link to the audio of Maureen Krekian talking about being in the tent as it went up:

AND THIS is eyewitness Charles Nelson Reilley.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Web site of interest

Excerpts from a great web site (click the title above to take you there).

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 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......

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.

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....

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."

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.

Noted Villains of the Day

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?

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 NorthJohn 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.....

MANY thanks to Wheeler the Clown for a great site-- go read the whole story!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


Video movies available on YOUTUBE

And a teaser vid with interview from O'nan:

Original log version:

And here is a vid from 1959 (15 years later) of a circus fire in Japan (so the general conditions are about the same as the US)

Surviving Fireman:

Dan Kelley - retired - Hartford Fire Department.

He is the last survivor of the HFD who was at the July 1944 circus fire. He is shown

with the museum's 1928 American LaFrance pumper that was also at the circus fire.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Find A grave

Hartford Circus Fire Memorial

Image is scaled. Click image to open at full size.

Photos of the groundbreaking ceremony for the memorial.

Unpublished private photos of fire for sale (use zoom on your computer screen to see them better).


An oustanding unpublished set of three original photographs of the famous Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus tent fire which claimed 168 dead and 487 injured in Hartford on July 6, 1944 when the paraffin-soaked tent suddenly caught fire and quickly burned, trapping hundreds within. According to the description, each of these 6 1/2" x 5" b/w photos were taken at one minute intervals with the first being taken less than a minute after the fire erupted. Photographer and circus buff Leo Ulrich notes on the verso of each image: "Less than a minute after fire first was seen. Notice at far left men holding out side wall. Man nearest open door of big circus canvas wagon is catching a child as it is slid down from back of top row of seats...About two minutes after start of fire...About 3 min. from start of fire, notice no one near it. Terrific heat. I still look cooked on my arms". Three startling and very rare photos, in fine condition.

interesting piece

Man Confesses to Setting Circus Fire

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.

Prepared Statement

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.


1944 Hartford Circus Fire Remembrance

By Pauline Slopek
Email the author

July 6, 1944 dawned as a beautiful, very hot, summer day. My twin sister Charlene and I were so excited because our parents were taking us to see the circus. Our three month old sister Marcia was to stay with a family friend and her two young children were to come with us. We, the twins were almost seven years old.
It was wartime and my dad had the day off from United Aircraft. To even think of using gasoline to drive to Middletown to Hartford and back clearly showed us what a special day it was for us. Once in Hartford, my dad parked the car and we all walked over to the circus grounds. I remember it being very hot and very dusty and that we walked by a truck with buckets along the side. We went inside and took our seats way up in the bleachers in what I now know was the Southwest side of the tent within sight of an exit. We were four or five rows from the top of the tent so that we could see really well. Along side of the area we were sitting was a section of wounded servicemen, each with an attendant.

The band started playing and the circus animals started doing their act. Where we were sitting we could see the left ring very well--the center ring some what and the last ring, just barely. (The circus band was all the way down past the last ring.) The cats had finished in our area and the flying trapeze artists had started their ascent to the top of the tent when we turned around due to a bad smell to see that the whole back of the tent behind us was in flames. The fire was burning really fast and heading towards the top of the tent. My dad said we had to leave very quickly. I turned around to move and ran smack into my friend’s head. Both of us ended up with major bumps on our heads. My dad grabbed the two friends and me and started down the bleachers. My mom, who was bringing down my twin, yelled to him that my sister wasn’t moving very well (she had been overcome by heat and smoke.) Dad told her to drop her between the bleachers and he caught her. He hustled us four children out of the same exit we had just come in and told us to stay together in one place. There were people running in every direction. He turned to go back for my mother who was making her own way out of the tent alone with no one walking around her. Dad and I saw her coming through an exit and he pulled her to where we were then hustled us all across the street.

We stopped at a house briefly where I saw a man bleeding badly from having fallen onto a Coke bottle when he jumped down between the bleachers as we were walking out of the tent. The homeowner was trying to help him stop the bleeding by wrapping his arm in a towel.

My dad made the decision to get us out of town. He somehow was able to get the car out of where it was parked. As we drove away we could see the elephants walking in a line, each holding on to the tail in front of him. Dad drove very fast back toward Middletown where we lived. I remember being scared because he was driving so fast. Unbeknownst to us my mom was badly burned and dad knew she needed medical attention. I honestly believed he hoped to get stopped by the police so that he could get help for my mom and to tell what happened. He got to Middletown, stopped at the police station and told them about the fire. He then dropped all of us children at their friend’s house where my baby sister was and drove my mom to the hospital. He was treated for minor burns on his arms, but she was admitted. Due to the severity of her burns she was hospitalized for quite a while. My grandmother came to stay to take care of all of us. She was with us for quite a while, as after mom got out of the hospital she could not hold my baby sister for the longest time due to the burns.

Mom had skin grafts on her arm due to third degree burns and was told to bowl as part of her physical therapy so as not to lose the use of her arm. She bowled for many, many years. The sight of her badly scarred arm was a reminder of that day for the rest of our lives. The burns on the top of her head amazed us as she always wore a hat when dressed up . She had worn a hat made of straw that day -- the hat was nor burnt but her scalp was due to the terrible heat generated by the fire. We use to rub oil on her head, but I’m not sure why.

I recollect it was Middletown Day at the circus, although I never quite knew what that meant. Charlene and I were students at St. John’s RC school in Middletown. The little girl who sat in front of me at the circus died. Her name was Agnes Norris and she, along with her sister and parents, perished that day. Mary Kay Smith was also in my class and she, along with her sister, were badly burned but they did survive.

We finally figured out many years later that my need to sit at the end of a row and not far from an exit was due to my being involved in the circus fire. The need to always be able to find an exit and get out has never left me. I never went to the circus again until I was twenty years old and that was in Madison Square garden, which I felt would not burn down.

We lived in the South Farms area of Middletown.

Those who survived that day were:

  • William and Alice Tibbals
  • Twins Charlene and Paula Tibbals
  • And our two little friends whose names I don’t remember
  • Per a news article, two friends were Betty Lou and Jimmy Mokoski
In remembrance, Pauline Tibbals Slopek


Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Circus Fire

A silver shield protects the beating heart,
Like the gas-soaked canvas protects the rings
The unmarked grave under the birch tree
is covered with the dry leaves of autumn
colored like candy apples.

Snow scours the top of the grave in June
and the world turns upside down
as the flaming tent turns inside out.
Animals roar as the flames lick the corners
and humans are animals as well.

She stood looking down, contemplating jumping
her heart beating silver against her chest
No one noticed her until she was under the white sheet
one arm sticking out, lost of promises
long after the animals deserted.

After reading, researching, and crying a bit, the one thing that came to me was a question..
why didn't the people OUTSIDE the tent just CUT the damned walls down/ open?
No one needed to die- once the fire was started, the entire tents walls could have come down in 30 seconds if someone had CUT them down- cut the ropes at the edges, sliced down the canvass, just ripped the sides open- everyone could have been out in seconds, the heat would have been dispersed, and no one needed to die.
The human condition of mentally being unable to see the tent as a TENT and not as a solid structure is what killed so many. Just sheets of canvas, but no one could fathom cutting down the tent.