The full story below:
It was a hot summer day…
On Thursday, July 6th, 1944, a sultry summer’s day, thousands of people gathered on Barbour Street in Hartford to be entertained by the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. A matinee performance lured them into the 500-foot-long big top tent.
Following a performance by the French lion tamer, Alfred Court, famous trapeze artists, the Great Wallendas, took their positions inside the big top and began their routine. Little did the spectators know, however, that a fire had been ignited – supposedly because of a carelessly discarded cigarette butt.
It will become one of the worst disasters in Connecticut history.
What can go wrong… will go wrong.
When one of the performers saw the fire, they screamed out, “The tent’s on fire!” Merle Evans, the bandleader, then led his musicians in a performance of “Stars and Stripes Forever” – a signal to all circus personnel that something was terribly wrong.
As the flames intensified, patrons scrambled to reach the exit. However, they found themselves blocked by animal cages that were being moved in and out of the tent. Panic spread as patches of burning canvas fell from above, raining down on the screaming circus-goers. People began pushing and shoving their way toward any available exit while others cut holes in the tents to escape. Chaos reached its peak as more and more people fought for survival.
The ushers and other circus staff hurriedly sprinted toward the fire with buckets of water, but there was nothing they could do. In only ten minutes, the blaze had destroyed the poles and support ropes holding up the 19-ton big top, causing it to collapse onto those who did not manage to get out in time.
The death toll was staggering.
When the firefighters managed to put out the fire, the death toll was a staggering 170 people. Many had succumbed to smoke inhalation and flames, but just as many were trampled in the chaos.
Among the many casualties of the terrible fire was an unnamed little girl, identified only as Little Miss 1565 (the number assigned to her at a local morgue). Although numerous people have attempted to claim her, no one has proven she belonged to them. She was buried without a name in Northwood Cemetery in Hartford. Decades later she was exhumed and reburied in Southampton, Massachusetts once identified as Eleanor Emily Cook. However, her identity is still being debated.
Side note: The exact number of casualties was likely higher than officially recorded. This is because there were many people in attendance who were not residents of Hartford. These people included people from surrounding towns and drifters who got free tickets. In addition, those from outlying areas may have returned to their homes without medical care, leading to an underestimated count of injured individuals.
Who started the fire?
The fire was ruled an unfortunate accident, and no one was held responsible for starting it. However, the people in charge at Ringling Brothers were not exempt from accountability. Four individuals were charged with negligence.
The investigation into the incident showed that circus management had not prepared properly for any possible fire-related incidents. The extinguishers that could have stopped the blaze were tucked away in a storage unit. The fire trucks were located at least a quarter of a mile from the circus grounds. In addition to these oversights, no one alerted the Hartford Fire Department to their arrival and performance.
The four circus authorities entered a plea of no contest and were jailed for nearly twelve months before receiving pardons. The circus was also required to pay over five million dollars to bereaved families.
The story doesn’t end there.
A strange twist surfaced six years after the tragedy. Police in Ohio arrested Robert Dale Segee for several fires he caused in 1950. After a great deal of questioning, Segee, an ex-circus worker who was present at the 1944 Hartford show, admitted to lighting the fire as well as other infernos in Maine and New Hampshire, and even four homicides. Believing him to be suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, the authorities transferred Segee (who claimed a ghostly Native American riding on a flaming horse ordered him to start these blazes) to a state hospital for treatment.
Years later, though, he recanted his confession, claiming Ohio authorities had simply talked him into believing he was guilty. He died in Columbus, Ohio, in August 1997.
The consequences of the Hartford Circus Fire in 1944 prompted Connecticut to implement stricter fire safety laws for public shows. On July 6, 2005, the 61st anniversary of the fire that claimed so many lives, hundreds of individuals gathered to pay their respects. Survivors of the inferno and loved ones of the victims arrived to attend a solemn dedication ceremony for a memorial. A “center ring” distinguished four granite benches with a bronze plate inscribed with all the victims’ names and their ages. Dogwood trees marked where the tragic tent’s sides and ends once stood and fell.
There are quite a few YouTube videos on this tragedy, and I am going to link a few of them here.
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