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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

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