Exhumation planned for two Circus Fire victims

Grace Fifield, a 47-year-old woman visiting Wethersfield from Newport, Vermont went to the Ringling Brothers Circus in Hartford’s North End on July 6, 1944 and never came home. Her family has assumed all these years that she was among the 168 people killed in the fire that swept through the big top that day. But because none of the bodies recovered that day were identified as hers, it could never be more than an assumption.

That may change as a result of a request Chief State Medical Examiner James Gill submitted last week to Hartford State’s Attorney Gail Hardy. According to the Hartford Courant, Gill wants a judge’s permission to exhume two of the five bodies that were never identified. He hopes technological advances made over the past 75 years will help him identify one of them–both female–as Fifield’s.

The newspaper says the move stems from its own investigation:

[Gill] started researching exhuming the bodies after the Courant began asking questions whether it would be possible, given the advances in DNA science, specifically genetic testing, to identify the unidentified circus fire victims. Rather than dig up all five unidentified bodies, Gill has targeted the two that could match the DNA of a surviving relative of a missing fire victim that the Courant located.

Fifield had brought two of her children with her to the circus; both of them survived.

The five unidentified bodies lie under numbered grave markers in Northwood Cemetery, on the Hartford-Windsor line.

The Courant has supplemented its article with a sidebar summarizing the fire, the worst disaster in Hartford history and one of the worst fires in American history. Here is HartfordHistory.net’s page on the fire.

Hear Susan Campbell talk about her new Frog Hollow book

Susan Campbell got to know the city’s Frog Hollow neighborhood as a longtime reporter and columnist for the Hartford Courant. Now she has poured that expertise into a new book that delves into the neighborhood’s long history as a hotbed of industrial, political, and cultural change. You can meet Campbell and buy a copy of her book, “Frog Hollow: Stories from an American Neighborhood,” at the Barnes & Noble UConn Hartford Bookstore today from 6 to 8 p.m.

If you can’t make it to B&N, you can still hear Campbell discuss her book on “Where We Live,” the Connecticut Public Radio talk show. Here’s the recording  of today’s show, on which she was a guest.

Publisher Wesleyan University Press gives this description of the book:

Frog Hollow: Stories from an American Neighborhood is a collection of colorful historical vignettes of an ethnically diverse neighborhood just west of the Connecticut State Capitol in Hartford. Its 1850s row houses have been home to a wide variety of immigrants. During the Revolutionary War, Frog Hollow was a progressive hub, and later, in the mid-late 19th century, it was a hotbed of industry. Reporter Susan Campbell tells the true stories of Frog Hollow with a primary focus on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the inventors, entrepreneurs and workers, as well as the impact of African American migration to Hartford, the impact of the Civil Rights movement and the continuing fight for housing. Frog Hollow was also one of the first neighborhoods in the country to experiment with successful urban planning models, including public parks and free education. From European colonists to Irish and Haitian immigrants to Puerto Ricans, these stories of Frog Hollow show the multiple realities that make up a dynamic urban neighborhood. At the same time, they reflect the changing faces of American cities. Features 40 illustrations.

You may also buy the book on Amazon.

A Willie Pep movie? Set in Hartford?

Several Hartford-area executives already have invested in the project, which has a projected budget of $1.5 million, according to the Journal. The investors hope this movie, named “Pep,” will raise Hartford’s profile the way another boxing movie, “Rocky,” did for Philadelphia in the 1970s.

Willie Pep vs Albert "Chalky" Wright

Willie Pep, left, fights Albert “Chalky” Wright in New York City, Nov. 20, 1942.
Source: Flickr stream of Rogelio A. Galaviz C.

The Hartford Business Journal reports that a New York-based production team is raising money to create a film on the life of Hartford boxer Willie Pep, with shooting to take place in the city.

“We have so many people speaking negatively about the state,” investor Manon Cox told the Journal. “It’s important for Connecticut to start creating some buzz, and whatever we can do to make that happen is good.”

Willie Pep was the professional name of featherweight boxer Guglielmo Papaleo, who was born in Middletown but trained to fight in Hartford. Starting in 1940, he won 63 straight fights. He held the featherweight title for six years, finishing his career with a record of only 11 losses out of 242 bouts. He achieved that record despite having to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II and suffering serious injuries in a 1947 plane crash. Pep died at a Rocky Hill nursing home in 2006. Read more about him here, here, and here.

A Hartford landmark needs your help

Upon its construction on Charter Oak Avenue in 1876, Temple Beth Israel became Connecticut’s first purpose-built synagogue. With its twin domes and arched doors and windows, it also became an architectural jewel of the neighborhood. The congregation moved to West Hartford in 1935, but with the Charter Oak Cultural Center now operating there, the place remains as vibrant as ever, hosting everything from art exhibits and performances to free after-school programs for local kids.

But there’s a problem. As fund raisers put it: “The Rose Window, or more accurately the installation of multiple windows that form a visual centerpiece for our Bimah, is in serious disrepair. Nearly a century-and-a-half of harsh weather conditions have led to a potentially irreversible degradation of the stained glass, the frame, and the Bimah’s structural integrity. In short: it is in danger of collapse!”

A GoFundMe page has been set up for those interested in helping to restore the windows. Donations go to the Charter Oak Temple Restoration Association Inc., a certified charity.

MLK and Hartford

Martin Luther King Jr., just 30 years old but already recognized nationally as a leader of the civil rights movement, walked onto the stage of Bushnell Memorial Hall on May 7, 1959.

Martin Luther King Jr. being arrested in Montgomery, Alabama in 1958, the year before his speech in Hartford.
Martin Luther King Jr. being arrested in Montgomery, Alabama in 1958, the year before his speech in Hartford. Police accused him of loitering outside the courtroom where his friend and fellow activist, Ralph Abernathy, had been appearing for a trial. (Associated Press [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In a speech entitled, “The Future of Integration,” King pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling five years earlier that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional:

“As a result of that decision, we stand today on the threshold of the most creative and constructive period of our nation’s history. To put it in Biblical terms, we’ve broken loose from the Egypt of slavery, we’ve moved through the wilderness of ‘separate but equal,’ and now we stand on the border of the promised land of integration.”

Since King’s talk was part of lecture series organized by the University of Hartford (itself just two years old at the time), the University has kept these audio excerpts from that night on its website.

King began his talk by recalling how he came to Connecticut in the summer of 1944 to pick tobacco in Simsbury. It was his first time outside the segregated South, and the way he was treated–especially on his weekend trips into Hartford–was far different than what he experienced at home. In a letter to his mother at the time, he wrote: “I never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere but we ate in one of the finest restaurants in Hartford. And we went to the largest shows there.” (For more on King’s time in Connecticut, see this 2014 Associated Press article.)

The Bushnell wasn’t King’s only stop in Hartford that day in 1959. He also spoke at an interdenominational brown-bag lunch at the Asylum Hill Congregational Church and met with editors of the University of Hartford’s student newspaper. The editors included Reid MacCluggage, who went on to become managing editor of the Hartford Courant, publisher and editor of The Day of New London, and a U of H regent.

“I came away from that day knowing I had been in the presence of a great man,” MacCluggage recalled for the University in 2006, adding that “to many of us in the 1950s, the civil rights movement was only a Southern issue. Dr. King corrected that impression. Civil rights was a human issue.”

This week’s trivia question

What city institution—still with us—was founded in response to a steam boiler explosion that killed 21 and seriously injured as many as 50 on March 2, 1854, at the Fales and Gray railroad-car factory near Dutch Point?

What city institution—still with us—was founded in response to a steam boiler explosion that killed 21 and seriously injured as many as 50 on March 2, 1854, at the Fales and Gray railroad-car factory near Dutch Point?


Catching up

Here’s some news that got lost in the holiday hub-bub.


The Hartford Courant reported that the 160-year-old Lewtan Building on High Street, just off Bushnell Park, will join the many downtown buildings undergoing conversion into apartments. (This Google Maps photo shows it in relation to the park.)

As reporter Ken Gosselin put it:

For nearly 160 years, people went to work at 28 High St. in downtown Hartford, employed in everything from silver plating and paper-box manufacturing to furniture making and, finally, turning out promotional products like the “Mighty Grip” jar opener.

Now, a developer is betting people will find the five-story building near Bushnell Park the place where they want to come home.

The Lewtan originally was known as the Batterson Building, named after the man who constructed it in 1860, James G. Batterson. Owner of  a highly successful cemetery monument business headquartered on Main Street, Batterson is best-known today as one of the founders of the Travelers Cos., as well as its first president. Learn more about his extraordinary life here.


The new owner of the National Hockey League’s Carolina Hurricanes is having his team play a couple of games this year in the uniforms of its previous iteration, the Hartford Whalers. The New York Times used the occasion to take a look at Hartford’s longing for its old team–and the very mixed feelings around here about the throwback games. The story,  headlined “The Whalers Are Back in the N.H.L. Sort Of,” includes interviews with former Whalers, including Ray Ferraro:

“I really liked living there,” said Ferraro, now an N.H.L. analyst for Canada’s TSN. “The insurance industry was still big, downtown was vibrant, the restaurants were packed. Plus, a lot of the players were in the same stage of our lives, in our early 20s. I liked everything about Hartford.”



The Connecticut Trolley Museum in East Windsor is leading an effort to restore the “Isle of Safety,” the trolley stop and shelter that stood at the corner of State and Main streets from 1913 to 1976.

The isle, with its distinctive red-tiled roof, was nearly destroyed in 1976, when State House Square was paved over, but it was rescued by the Knox Foundation and later re-erected at the Connecticut Trolley Museum, according to the Hartford Courant. But since then, it has fallen into disrepair; hence the recent announcement of a drive to raise $175,000 for the restoration.

“We are preserving not only a significant portion of Hartford’s history, but Connecticut’s history as a regional transportation hub,” Michael P. Speciale, chair of the development committee at the Connecticut Trolley Museum, said. “Tens of thousands of passengers were served by the Isle of Safety for seven decades, until the trolleys were replaced by buses. It became a common place for travelers to gather and seek shelter, all in the shadow of the historic Old State House.”

The museum says the work will include replacing all of the terra cotta tiles on the roof of the Isle of Safety. The same company that made the tiles in 1913 is still in business and has the mold to create new authentic tiles.

You can learn more about the Isle of Safety and contribute toward its restoration here.


Anyone who cares at all about Connecticut history needs to follow Today in Connecticut History, a daily posting by state Historian Walter Woodward and Connecticut Humanities. You’ll actually learn something new every day–and often about Hartford History. The December 26 post, for instance, concerns Morgan G. Bulkeley. As Woodward writes:

While the state — and colony — of Connecticut has been helmed by a number of colorful personalities over its long history, few of them can compare to the widely-accomplished Morgan G. Bulkeley: Civil War veteran, financier, insurance executive, baseball enthusiast, and strong-arm politician who earned himself the nickname “the Crowbar Governor” while in office.