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 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.....