When the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus band suddenly struck up The Stars and Stripes Forever in the middle of a matinee performance by the Flying Walendas on July 6, 1944 in Hartford, Connecticut circus folk knew that something was wrong. The song was a traditional signal of trouble. And there was big trouble.
Band leader Merle Evans may have been the first person to see smoke or flames from a corner of the Big Top tent. As the band continued playing Ring Master Fred Bradna urged the crowd, estimated to be about 8,000, to remain calm and make an orderly evacuation by the marked exits. But the fire seemed to go from a small blaze to a roaring inferno in moments, fueled by the paraffin dissolved in kerosene or gasoline (both were commonly used) that had been applied to the giant canvas as waterproofing. In places flaming melting paraffin rained down burning victims like napalm.
Two exits were blocked by chutes for the lions and other performing animals. In a panic many jammed the remaining exits and when some fell piles of people were caught and trampled or suffocated. Oddly some on the bottoms of the piles survived, protected from the fire and collapsing tent by the bodies on top of them.
Some were injured trying to jump from the tops of bleachers and others were caught trying get under the tent walls.
Contributing to the loss of life and the difficulty in fighting the fire was the fact that the circus was severely under manned due to the war and that many of the roustabouts were teenagers—many of them under 16 years of age—and untrained in handling the kind of emergencies that a veteran crew might have managed.
In eight minutes the whole Big Top was consumed in flame and collapsed trapping beneath it anyone who could not escape. Fueled by the paraffin and gasoline plus highly flammable straw and wooden bleachers, temperatures were high enough to completely incinerate some bodies, one of the reason’s a full death toll may never be known. Even official estimates of deaths vary, but 168 is the most commonly accepted number of confirmed dead, although many victims were numbered by just concluding that a pile of charred bones constituted a body. Other bodies may have been literally cremated.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that nearby rural towns kept scant records and some whole families might have died without leaving anyone to report a loss. Free tickets had also been distributed including some to “transients” who would not be reported as lost. Some investigators believe that the true death toll could be as much as 20% higher.
Over 700 received some medical or first aid attention in Hartford, but many others returned to their home communities for treatment or treated themselves and were never counted.
Hartford officials first believed that a discarded cigarette caused the fire, but arson became suspected. Five circus officials were charged with involuntary manslaughter and quickly convicted. The convicted men were allowed to return with the circus to its home in Sarasota, Florida to help the company recover from the disaster. They returned to serve eight month prison sentences. One of the men, James A. Haley, went on to serve seven terms in Congress as a Democrat from the Sarasota area.
In 1950 Robert Dale Segee who was serving time for arson in Ohio claimed he had set the fire after being instructed to do so in a dream. At the time of the fire he was a 14 year old roustabout with the circus. Ohio officials never allowed him to be interviewed by skeptical Connecticut investigators and in 1994 Segee denied involvement. Historians of the event are divided on whether he was the true culprit, although most now believe that arson was the cause.
Another mystery of the disaster was the identity of the body assigned the designation Little Miss 1565. She evidently died of suffocation or asphyxiation—likely one of those buried in a pile at the exits. She was a small girl with blonde curls in a white dress, photos of her body were widely circulated but no one ever came forward with identification. Authorities theorize that here entire family may have perished or that the remains of another child may have been misidentified and that she was one of the named victims.
In 1981 the widow of one of the original investigators told an interviewer that the victim was eventually identified but that the family wanted no publicity. In 1987 a note was left on her grave reading, “Sarah Graham is her Name! 7-6-38 DOB, 6 years, Twin.” Similar notes were left on the nearby marked graves of her twin brother and other relatives.
Ten years later author Rick Davey claimed that she was Eleanor Emily Cook of Massachusetts. Another body had been identified as Eleanor, but a surviving brother claimed in a forgotten statement to police in 1955 that the girl in the picture was indeed his sister. Despite discrepancies—photos show Eleanor as a brunette with a different shape of face and before she died her mother denied it was the same child—authorities allowed Little Miss 1565’s remains to be moved to Southampton, Massachusetts where she was laid next to Eleanor’s brother Edward, another fire victim. In 1992 Little Miss’s death certificate was officially changed to identify her as Eleanor. Despite this, members of the Cook family now doubt that the remains are Eleanor’s.
The fire had a profound effect on Ringling Brothers. The company quickly assumed full financial responsibility for the disaster. By court order all profits from subsequent seasons were sequestered until all claims were met. The circus paid out almost $5 million to the 600 victims and families who had filed claims against them.
The fire led to the eventual demise of the Big Top for the nation’s premier circus. The burden of paying off the fire debt contributed the show’s problems, but so did competition from television and changing public entertainment tastes. After a brief boost in attendance caused by the release of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, gate receipts continued their long slide. On July 16, 1956 the show held its last performance under the Big Top at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Futures tours would have to bypass smaller cities and towns and set up only where there were large enough indoor arenas to accommodate the show. It was the end of an era.