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.

1 comment:

  1. That is Emmett Kelly, Sr. in the picture you show above. He was in costume ready for the show when the fire started. He grabbed a bucket of water in clown alley and headed toward the Big Top and realized the futility of his efforts when he saw the blaze. He was one among many heroes on that sad day in 1944. My wife is his daughter Stasia and it was a day Emmett never forgot. We recently creted a Facebook fan page for Emmett (Emmett Kelly, Sr.) and I'll put a link up soon back to this page. Thank you for your efforts to document this tragic day in circus history.