masthead for printed page
Articles & Images

The Hartford Circus Fire

The worst disaster in Hartford history occurred on July 6, 1944, during a performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus in the city's north end.

With several thousand people gathered under the "big top," flames appeared on the tent and spread quickly, inadvertantly aided by the mixture of gasoline and paraffin that had been used to waterproof the canvas.

Circus tent ablaze

The fire spread rapidly on the gasoline- and paraffin-soaked canvas. Click here for a larger image. Photo: Corbis.

Panic proved as deadly as the flames. The crowd stampeded to escape the tent, and many were trampled. Others were blocked by obstacles like steel railings along the front of the bleachers and an animal chute blocking a main exit. Meanwhile, hundreds were saved by spectators, circus workers, and passersby who sliced open the tent or lifted children and the injured over the barriers. In the end, however, 168 people died.

Because it was a circus performance, and because it occurred on a Thursday afternoon during World War II, when many adults worked long hours at war-production plants, children accounted for many of the casualties; only 100 of the dead were older than 15. The injured numbered 487.

Several officials of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus served prison terms for negligence in the fire. But no one was ever charged with starting it. Stewart O'Nan devotes a chapter of his book "The Circus Fire" to Robert Dale Segee, whom Ohio authorities arrested in connection with a series of arson fires in 1950. It turned out that Segee had been with the circus at the time of the Hartford fire, as a member of a lighting crew. He initially confessed to setting that fire as well but eventually recanted, claiming Ohio authorities had simply talked him into believing he was guilty. Ohio's refusal to let Connecticut investigators interview Segee didn't help either. After serving four years on the Ohio charges, he was declared a paranoid schizophrenic and committed for a time to a state hospital for the insane. He died in Columbus, Ohio, in August 1997.

The Hartford Circus Fire Memorial

The lot where the circus performed—bounded by Barbour Street, Cleveland Avenue, Hampton Street and Kensington Street—eventually became the site of the Stowe Village housing project.

On July 6, 2005, the 61st anniversary of the fire, several hundred people, including survivors of the fire and relatives of the victims, attended the dedication ceremony for a memorial created in a field behind the Fred D. Wish Elementary school. Laid out to mark the exact location of the tent that burned, the memorial features a "center ring" consisting of four granite benches and a bronze disk bearing names of the victims and their ages. Flowering dogwoods mark the location of the side and end walls of the tent.

The dedication ceremony was the culmination of four years of work by the Hartford Circus Fire Memorial Foundation. Working with city agencies, the Foundation raised about $125,000 from about 700 private donations and helped design the monument, the Hartford Courant reported. (See "Hundreds Dedicate Circus Fire Memorial," in the July 7, 2005 edition, reprinted on HartfordInfo.org.)

Resources

Books

"The Circus Fire: A True Story," by Stewart O'Nan, published in 2000 by Doubleday, New York. Author's site: www.stewart-onan.com

"A Matter of Degree: The Hartford Circus Fire and the Mystery of Little Miss 1565," by Don Massey and Rick Davey, published by the Willow Brook Press.

"The Great Hartford Circus Fire: Creative Settlement of Mass Disasters," legal scholarship on the arbitrated settlement between the circus and survivors, by Henry S. Cohn and David Bollier, published in 1992 by the Yale University Press, New Haven.

"Masters of Illusion," a novel based on the circus fire by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith, published in 1994 by Warner Books.

Video

"The Wrath of God: Fire Under the Big Top," one of the "Wrath of God" documentaries on disasters appearing regularly on the History Channel. A DVD of the 50-minute program can be purchased at HistoryChannel.com.

"The Hartford Circus Fire of 1944," a production of Connecticut Public Television. Using film footage and photos of the fire as well as "interviews with the people who were there," the documentary "recalls the horrors of the fire, the search for its cause, and the aftermath of the tragedy on the community and the circus industry," according to the CPTV Web site. Check the station's listings for the next air date. For now, this work is unavailable for purchase.

Web Sites

Hartford Fire Department page on the Memorial

Ringling.com: the official site of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The history section is extensive but apparently contains no information on the fire.

Curtiseller.com: the site for Curtis Eller's American Circus, a New York City band that performs a song about the fire, "Hartford, CT." Read the lyrics here.