The disaster got its name from a front-page photograph of Emmett Kelly carried by the Hartford Courant. Kelly was the most famous clown in the most famous circus in an era when circus was big-time. The photograph showed him in full clown make-up, including the comedy big shoes, carrying a pail of water in a desperate effort to put out a fire.
It happened so fast. The Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus had reached Connecticut with their hugely anticipated wartime entertainment. The Great Wallendas high-wire act was in full swing at the matinee. From their vantage point, they signaled to the bandleader, who saw the lick of flame halfway up the side wall of the cavernous big top. Immediately he launched the band into ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ – the signal to staff that a serious crisis was taking place. For a few seconds, the audience contemplated the diversion. Then, with a scarcely audible sigh, flame billowed across the whole roof of the tent above the main entrance and 8,000 women and children and the few men rose as one and scrambled down from their seats, intent on the exit. Grown men elbowed children out of the way and punched women to the ground. Wads of blazing canvas began to shower liquid flame from the disintegrating roof. Circus staff got the big cats out of the arena just in time; but the two caged-animal entrances blocked the only exits not on fire. Now the fire roared, and the six tent poles sagged one by one, and collapsed. Hundreds were still inside. From outside, the burning canvas heaved and rocked, and went still, a ghastly pyre of smoke and flames.
It took six minutes. Witnesses spoke of ‘the awful sound of animals dying’, but no animals were hurt. The agony was human.
When was the Hartford Circus Fire: July 6 1944
Where was the Hartford Circus Fire: Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, Hartford, Connecticut, USA
What was the Hartford Circus Fire death toll: 169 dead and 487 burned, trampled, asphyxiated and crushed, but living. It transpired that the US Army had vetoed the circus’s request for their fireproof compound, so the big top was waterproofed with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline, it acted like napalm.
You should know: Ringlings behaved with total integrity, accepting responsibility and offering compensation. They wanted to do the right thing and managed to stay in business by promising their next ten years’ profit as compensation; everyone got their money. The most poignant story from the fire hit headlines across America. ‘Little Miss 1565’ – named for the morgue number assigned to her – was a young girl whose sweet face was (photogenically) unmarked. Though her picture was briefly one of the best known in the USA, she was never claimed and never identified.