Monday, June 1, 2009

Find A grave

Hartford Circus Fire Memorial

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Unpublished private photos of fire for sale (use zoom on your computer screen to see them better).


An oustanding unpublished set of three original photographs of the famous Ringling Bros.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
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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.

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