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‚Äôs 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.

Circus fire show airs Friday

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the 1944 Hartford circus fire. If you want to learn about it, there’s no better place to start than the audio documentary aired a few years ago by WWUH-FM, radio station of the University of Hartford. The station will re-air the program the program tomorrow at 12:30, the approximate time the fire started. You can listen online or at 91.3 on the FM dial. There’s also an event page on Facebook.

Here’s our page on the fire.

Photo of tent burning at Hartford circus fire, 1944.