In mid-20th Century America, a typical circus traveled from town to town by train, performing under a huge canvas tent (“The big top”). The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was no exception: what made it stand out was that it was the largest circus in the country. Its big top could seat 9,000 spectators around its three rings. The tent’s canvas had been coated with 1,800 pounds (820 kg) of paraffin wax dissolved in 6,000 US gallons (23,000 l) of gasoline, which at the time was a common waterproofing method.
On July 6th,1944 a fire began as a small flame after the lions performed, on the southwest sidewall of the tent, while the Great Wallendas were performing. Circus Bandleader Merle Evans is said to be the person who first spotted the flames, and immediately directed the band to play “Stars and Stripes Forever”, the tune that traditionally signaled distress to all circus personnel. Ringmaster Fred Bradna urged the audience not to panic and to leave in an orderly fashion, but the power failed and he could not be heard. Bradna and the ushers unsuccessfully tried to maintain some order as the panicked crowd tried to flee the big top.
An estermated 185 people lost their lives and over 700 people injured.
Because of the paraffin wax waterproofing of the tent, the flames spread rapidly.and many people were badly burned by the melting paraffin, which rained down like napalm from the roof. The fiery tent collapsed in about eight minutes according to eyewitness survivors, trapping hundreds of spectators beneath it. While many people were burned to death by the fire, many others died as a result of the ensuing chaos. Though most spectators were able to escape the fire, many people were caught up in the hysteria and panicked. Witnesses said that some people simply ran around in circles trying to find their loved ones, rather than trying to escape the burning tent. Some escaped but ran back inside to find family members. Others stayed in their seats until it was too late, assuming that the fire would be put out promptly, and the show would continue.
Because at least two of the exits were blocked, by the chutes used to bring the show’s big cats in and out of the tent, people trying to escape could not bypass them. Some died from injuries sustained after leaping from the tops of the bleachers in hopes they could escape under the sides of the tent, though that method of escape ended up killing more people than it saved. Others died after being trampled by other spectators, with some asphyxiating underneath the piles of people who had fallen down over each other.
|sad tramp clown Emmett Kelly|
“the day the clowns cried.”
Because of a picture that appeared in several newspapers of sad tramp clown Emmett Kelly holding a water bucket, the event became known as “the day the clowns cried.”
The best-known victim of the circus fire was a young blonde girl wearing a white dress. She is known only as “Little Miss 1565”, named after the number assigned to her body at the city’s makeshift morgue. Oddly well preserved even after her death, her face has become arguably the most familiar image of the fire. Her true identity has been a topic of debate and frustration in the Hartford area since the fire occurred. She was buried without a name in Hartford’s Northwood cemetery, where a victims’ memorial also stands. Barber and Lowe spent the rest of their lives trying to identify her. They decorated her grave with flowers each Christmas, Memorial Day, and July 6. After their deaths, a local flower company continued to decorate the grave.
Laws passed in Connecticut shortly after the fire made it illegal for big tops to be used (though at the time of the fire big tops were being phased out anyway), so the Ringling Bros. circus has traditionally been held in the XL Center when it visits the city.
While the circus was banned from Hartford and other parts of Connecticut for years after the Hartford fire, it began to make a comeback in the 1970s. The Ringling Brothers continued to perform in buildings, or arenas that could accommodate the size of their circus, as well as under the tent. On July 16, 1956, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania the big top was struck for the last time .The circus then went from using their own portable tents to using venues, such as sports stadiums that had the seating already in place.
The cause of the fire remains unproven. Investigators at the time believed it was caused by a carelessly flicked cigarette but others suspected an arsonist. Several years later, while being investigated on other arson charges, Robert Dale Segee (1929–1997), who was an adolescent roustabout at the time, confessed to starting the blaze. He was never tried for the crime and later recanted his confession.
In 2002, the Hartford Circus Fire Memorial Foundation was established to erect a permanent memorial to the people killed in the fire. Ground was broken for the monument on July 6, 2004, at the site where the fire occurred.