Thursday, July 6, 2017

Ringling Bros. Horror—The Hartford Big Top Fire

Patrons flee the Big Top in panic as it goes up in flames in Hartford.

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 Wallendas 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. 

The Flying Wallendas in the 1940's.
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 bottom 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.  

Posters like this attracted families not just from Hartford but from many small surrounding towns making identification of victims very difficult.
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.  

The Big Top was totally consumed in just eight minutes and burned so hot that some of those caught under it were litter ally cremated.
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.  
Performers like Emmett Kelly, the most famous American clown of all time, pitched in to aid in fighting the fire and in the rescue efforts.
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. 

The compelling mystery of the identity of the young victim labeled "Little Miss 1565"  haunted authorities for years.  Two candidates emerged years later but the body was disinterred and sent to the Cook family in Massachusetts.  Both that family and most historians now believe that was yet another tragic mistake.
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 Bros.  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 last of the Big Top shows, 12 years after Hartford, made headlines.
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.  But not yet the end of the show.
Ringling Bros. continued touring major towns and cities for another 61 years, almost all of that time with two full units in the field every season.   There were ups and downs until a series of blows, rising expenses, and declining ticket sales over the last decade doomed the show.  The introduction of arty boutique circuses like many productions by Canada’s Cirque du Soleil—now the largest producer of theatrical events in the world, and spectacular imported shows from China made the old three ring show look dated and obsolete.  Relentless attacks by animal rights activists took their toll leading to the retirement of the show’s signature elephants last year.  The scary clown fad tarnished another circus cornerstone and left a generation of children terrified by the acts that had charmed their grandparents.
But most critically, children who grew up on GCI superhero movies, adventure flicks, and video games were no longer impressed by the daring do of trapeze artists, lion tamers, death defying acrobats, or high wire acts like the Wallendas.  In fact they found the once dazzling show boring.

Ringling Bros. promoted their final tour, but despite nostalgia shows did not sell out.
On May 23, 146 years after P.T. Barnum first launched his “Greatest Show on Earth” Ringling Bros. put on their last performance at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale,   New York.  The show will not go on again and its assets will be sold off.
There will still be traveling circuses. In fact there are dozens of medium size, small, and regional shows on the road.  You know the kind—they show up in your town for a day or two and flood it with “half-off” passes at gas stations and super markets.  They once were a farm team of talent for Ringling Bros.  Now they will be the refuge of one time circus superstars.  Other acts will try to catch on with the likes of Cirque du Soleil or Las Vegas attractions.  Many will return to Europe where circus is still a live and lively entertainment tradition.
As for the Walendas, the most famous circus families of all, after decades of triumph punctuated by tragedy new generations keep up the act.  They made headlines themselves by announcing plans to continue performing despite the collapse of their steadiest circus home. 

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