Ringling Brothers Circus Fire

Hartford 1944

 

Mysterious Blaze Kills 186 in 1944 Connecticut Circus Horror

 

Ringling Bros. officials charged with involuntary manslaughter and honchos spent about year in jail.

 

Thousands ran to safety when a July 1944 circus blaze in Hartford, Conn., claimed 186 lives.

 

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.

 

The gigantic circus tent — 425 feet long — was packed with 7,000 people, most of them children enjoying summer vacation with their mothers.

 

Bandleader Evans 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.

 

Evans quickly cued “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” the old circus “disaster march” that alerts carnies to a serious problem.

 

The Wallendas quickly shinnied down poles and  slithered down ropes.

 

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 chutes.

 

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.

 

Bottlenecks of 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.

 

Just seven minutes after the fire began, the tent was gone.

 

Firefighters arrived belatedly to find bodies piled at exits, including one blocked by the cat chute.

 

Miraculously, 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 than 10.

 

Rescuers carted 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 ones.

 

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 breathtaking.

 

Inexplicably, the 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.

A commission 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.

 

Ringling Bros. agreed to pay financial damages to the fire victims, eventually awarding about $4 million to 550 claimants, an average of $7,300 each.

 

Connecticut lawmakers enacted stringent new fire-safety requirements for public assemblies.

 

The Ringling 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 central Florida.

Seventy years later, mysteries endure from the Great Hartford Circus Fire.

 

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 recanted.

 

Officially, the cause is undetermined.

 

But the fire’s biggest baffler concerns the identity of a victim known as Little Miss 1565, from her morgue ID number.

 

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.

 

But Cook’s mother, who was injured in the fire, said before she died in 1997 that Little Miss 1565 was not her daughter.

 

Perhaps the girl should remain enigmatic — as incomprehensible as the fire itself.

 

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS Saturday, February 1, 2014  - David J. Krajicek

 

 

 


 

 


 

 


 

 


 

 


 

 


 

 


 

 


 

 


 

 


 

 


 

 


 

 


 

 


 

 


 

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