The Hartford Circus Fire, which occurred on July 6, 1944 in Hartford, Connecticut, was one of the worst fire disasters in the history of the United States. The fire occurred during an afternoon performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus that was attended by approximately 6,800 people.
The fire began as a small flame about twenty minutes into the show, on the southwest sidewall of the tent, while the Great Wallendas were on. 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.
Sources and investigators differ on how many people were killed and injured. Various people and organizations say it was 167, 168, or 169 persons (the 168 figure is usually based on official tallies that included a collection of body parts that were listed as a "victim") with official treated injury estimates running over 700 people. The number of actual injuries is believed to be higher than those figures, since many people were seen that day heading home in shock without seeking treatment in the city. The only animals in the big top at the time were the big cats trained by May Kovar and Joseph Walsh that had just finished performing when the fire started. The big cats were herded through the chutes leading from the performing cages to several cage wagons, and were unharmed except for a few minor burns.
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.
Because the big top tent had been coated with 1,800 lb (816 kg) of paraffin dissolved in 6,000 US gallons (23 m³) of gasoline (some sources say kerosene), a common waterproofing method of the time, the flames spread rapidly. 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.
The circus had been experiencing shortages of personnel and equipment due to World War II. Delays and malfunctions in the ordinarily smooth order of the circus had become commonplace. Two years earlier, on August 4, 1942, a fire had broken out in the menagerie, killing a number of animals. Circus personnel were concerned about the 1944 Hartford show for other reasons. Two shows had been scheduled for July 5, but the first had to be cancelled because the circus trains arrived late and could not set up in time. In circus superstition, missing a show is considered extremely bad luck, and although the July 5 evening show ran as planned, many circus employees may have been on their guards, half-expecting an emergency or catastrophe.
It is commonly believed that the number of fatalities is higher than the estimates given, due to poorly kept residency records in rural towns, and the fact that some smaller remains were never identified or claimed. It is also believed that the intense heat from the fire combined with the accelerants in the paraffin and gasoline could have burned people completely, as in cremation, leaving no substantial physical evidence behind. Additionally, free tickets had been handed out that day to many people in and around the city, some of whom appeared to eyewitnesses and circus employees to be drifters, who would never have been reported missing by anyone if they were killed in the disaster. The number of people in the audience that day has never been established with certainty, but the closest estimate is about 7,500 to 8,700.
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 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 large felines 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 saving more people than it killed. Others died after being trampled by other spectators, with some asphyxiating underneath the piles of people who had fallen down over each other.
Most of the dead were found in piles, some three bodies deep, at the most congested exits. A small number of people were found alive at the bottoms of these piles, protected by the bodies that were on top of them when the burning big top ultimately fell down on those still trapped beneath it.
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 in the fire, her face has become arguably the most well-known image of the fire. The Offspring mentioned her in their 1989 song Jennifer Lost the War. John & Mary wrote a song called "July 82" (included on their 1990 CD "Victory Gardens") that was about her and the whole tragedy.
Her true identity has been a topic of debate and frustration in the Hartford area since the fire occurred. Despite massive publicity and repeated displays of the famous photograph in nationwide magazines, she was never claimed and eventually was buried without a name in Hartford's Northwood cemetery, where a victims' memorial also stands.
In 1991, arson investigator Rick Davey (along with co-writer Don Massey) published "A Matter of Degree: The Hartford Circus Fire and Mystery of Little Miss 1565", in which he claims the girl's name was Eleanor Emily Cook and that she was from Massachusetts. Davey also contends that there was a conspiracy within the judicial system to convict the Ringling defendants, and that Segee was the arsonist. Prior to writing the book, Davey spent six years researching the case and conducting his own experiments as to how the fire may have really started. He has professed the original investigation was both flawed and primitive, though he did not work on the original case.
Various assertions put forth in "A Matter of Degree" have been fiercely disputed by investigators who worked on the case, as well as by other writers, most notably Stewart O'Nan, who published "The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy" in 2001. O'Nan points to the fact that Little Miss 1565 had blonde hair, while Eleanor Cook was a brunette. The shape of Little Miss 1565's face and that of Eleanor Cook are dissimilar, and the height and age of the two girls do not match up.
Perhaps most significant, when shown a photograph of Little Miss 1565, Eleanor's mother Mildred Corintha Parsons Cook immediately stated that this was not her daughter. She firmly maintained that stance until her death in 1997, age 91. Badly injured in the fire, Mrs. Cook had been unable to claim her two dead children, and was too emotionally traumatized to pursue it later. She'd been told that Eleanor was not in any of the locations where bodies were kept for identification. She believed that Eleanor was one of two children who had been burnt beyond recognition and remain unidentified. O'Nan thinks she may be body number 1503. He further points to the differences in the dental records of Eleanor Cook and the records made of Little Miss 1565 after her death.
As O'Nan and others have pointed out, the most likely scenario is that a family claiming a body early on mistakenly identified Eleanor Cook for their own child and she is buried under that child's name. Even when "Little Miss 1565's" picture ran in the papers, they failed to recognize her as their own due to their desire to put the traumatic event behind them. While DNA analysis could end this debate definitively, the logistics of exhuming all the likely candidates for this mix-up rule this out.
With the questions over whether Eleanor Cook is the true identity of Little Miss 1565 still unanswered in the eyes of many, the body was exhumed after the release of "A Matter of Degree" and buried in Southampton, Massachusetts, next to the body of Edward Cook, the brother of Eleanor Cook and a victim of the circus fire himself (another brother, Donald, survived and worked with Davey to establish Miss 1565's identity). In 1992, her death certificate was officially changed from the previous identification of "1565." Since then, the Cook family has raised questions whether the body is indeed that of Eleanor Cook, and some investigators have come to believe that Eleanor's body may have been another of the unclaimed bodies from the fire and not Little Miss 1565. As of 2005, the Connecticut State Police Forensic Science Lab is reviewing the case.
One of the survivors of the fire, Maureen Krekian, discussed her ordeal in 2007. She was 11 at the time, and lived on the same road where the circus was held. On the day of the event, she was supposed to go to the circus with a woman next door and her daughter. When she went to their house, she found that they had already left without her. She decided to go to the circus on her own, where she seated herself in the bleachers.
"I remember somebody yelling and seeing a big ball of fire near the top of the tent. And this ball of fire just got bigger and bigger and bigger. By that time, everybody was panicking. The exit was blocked with the cages that the animals were brought in and out with. And there was a man taking kids and flinging them up and over that cage to get them out. I was sitting up in the bleachers and jumped down — I was three-quarters of the way up. You jump down and it was all straw underneath. There was a young man, a kid, and he had a pocketknife. And he slit the tent, took my arm and pulled me out."
As she was being pulled out, Krekian grabbed another little girl's arm and pulled her out as well.
Actor and theater director Charles Nelson Reilly, who was thirteen years old at the time, survived the fire and dramatized it in the film of his stage show, "The Life of Reilly". In a 1997 interview, Reilly said that he rarely attended the theater, despite being a director, since the sound of a large audience in a theater reminded him of the large crowd at the circus before the disaster.