Mysterious Blaze Kills 186 in 1944 Connecticut
Bros. officials charged with involuntary
manslaughter and honchos spent about year in jail.
Children of all
ages gawped and gasped as Alfred Court, the famed
French lion tamer, cracked a whip to shoo his big
circus cats into chutes leading out of the spotlight
and into wagons outside the tent.
Merle Evans, the
Toscanini of the Big Top, gave a downbeat, and the
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey brass orchestra
struck up a transitional tune. As the cats exited,
the third act, the Great Wallendas, began ascending
to aerial perches.
It was a wartime
circus matinee on July 6, 1944, a steamy Thursday
afternoon at the Barbour Street Show Grounds in
Hartford’s North End.
circus tent — 425 feet long — was packed with 7,000
people, most of them children enjoying summer
vacation with their mothers.
got the first whiff of trouble, a small flame
licking at the tent canvas near the main entrance. A
single bucket of water might have doused it — if
anyone had thought to have water handy.
cued “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” the old circus
“disaster march” that alerts carnies to a serious
quickly shinnied down poles and slithered down
Some in the
bleachers hesitated, wondering if the smoke and
flames were part of the act. Others surged toward
exits, two of which were blocked by the animal
The emcee urged
calm, but in an instant the flames reached the top
of the tent and spread laterally. The canvas,
waterproofed with paraffin wax that had been
dissolved in gasoline and then painted on, rained
down in glops of fire.
screaming patrons built up at several exits. Some
mothers tossed their small children over the masses
and outside to safety. Boys with pocketknives
slashed the tent sides, saving many lives. A number
of adults imperiled themselves while pushing and
pulling others out of the inferno.
As support ropes
burned through, foot-thick mast poles and support
timbers crashed to the ground, crushing anything and
anyone in their paths.
minutes after the fire began, the tent was gone.
arrived belatedly to find bodies piled at exits,
including one blocked by the cat chute.
6,000 people made it out safely. But 186 perished —
10 men, and the rest women and children — and about
500 were hurt. A third of those killed were younger
the casualties to the Connecticut State Armory,
where they were laid out on cots. That night and the
next day, a pitiful procession trudged past the
cots, peeling back blankets to look for dead loved
Before any real
investigation, the conventional wisdom deemed that
the worst circus fire in American history was caused
by a discarded cigarette.
But there was
plenty of blame to go around. The negligence was
circus had staged none of its fire apparatus for the
matinee show. Fifty fire extinguishers were deep in
storage, and four circus fire trucks were parked a
quarter-mile from the tent.
Even though the
circus was held on city property, no Hartford
firemen were assigned. Chief John King said he had
not been notified that Ringling Bros. was in town.
found “municipal inadequacies,” but the city focused
its fury on the circus.
On the day after
the fire, five Ringling Bros. officials were charged
with involuntary manslaughter: James Haley, a vice
president; general manager George Smith; Leonard
Aylesworth, the chief canvas man; David Blanchfield,
superintendent of rolling equipment, and chief
electrician Edward Versteeg.
agreed to pay financial damages to the fire victims,
eventually awarding about $4 million to 550
claimants, an average of $7,300 each.
lawmakers enacted stringent new fire-safety
requirements for public assemblies.
Bros. officials pleaded no contest and spent about a
year locked up.
Haley, the vice
president, was later pardoned by the Florida
legislature, which declared his conviction “not of
such a nature as to brand him a criminal.”
He went into
politics and in 1953 was elected to the first of 12
terms he would serve as a U.S. congressman from
later, mysteries endure from the Great Hartford
The cause was
never proven, though authors and investigators have
dueled over the issue. Some insist it was arson,
perhaps set in a men’s toilet near where the fire
was first spotted.
Six years after
the blaze, a young man who was an adolescent circus
go-fer in Hartford claimed he set the fire, but he
cause is undetermined.
But the fire’s
biggest baffler concerns the identity of a victim
known as Little Miss 1565, from her morgue ID
A blond girl
about 8 years old, her photograph was widely
published after the inferno as officials tried in
vain to identify her. In the 1980s, sleuths took up
new efforts to give Little Miss 1565 a name, and she
finally got one: Eleanor Cook, a Massachusetts
child whose brother also died in the fire.
mother, who was injured in the fire, said before she
died in 1997 that Little Miss 1565 was not her
Perhaps the girl
should remain enigmatic — as incomprehensible as the
YORK DAILY NEWS Saturday, February 1, 2014 -
David J. Krajicek