Dear friends, I’m at the National Genealogical Society’s 2012 Family History Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio. There is much wonderful information and insight to study and ponder here — overwhelming, really.
In fact, it’s almost as overwhelming as my hotel wireless connection is underwhelming, leaving everything I load image-challenged. Mr. Archaeologist assures me that back home, my images are just lovely, so I’m going to take it on faith that the photos on this post are showing up. Sort of like the courtiers in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” I guess.
From Day One: Here are some contrasting views. First, the Big Exhibit Hall with all the genealogy bells and whistles:
And next: Guess what! The genealogists are sharing space with the gymnasts! That’s the Men’s Junior Olympic Nationals going on across the hall.
It was fascinating watching the twists and turns and somersaults for a few minutes, before returning to the mental gymnastics in the conference seminar rooms. The lectures have been lively, humorous and thought-provoking. My only gripe is that I want to go to all of them, and I cannot figure out how to clone myself. Many lectures will eventually be available on CD-ROM via a link on the NGS conference page, which is a comfort.
As ever when I attend an event like this, at day’s end I am tempted to bang my head on my hotel-room desk with all the fresh realizations of things I coulda/woulda/shoulda done in my research. But only momentarily. The dominant chord is always excitement. Yesterday’s shoulda-dones are just that … done. The future, on the other hand, is looking good, what with all these bright new shiny genealogy ideas to play with.
I’m looking forward to April 16. You’re probably saying, “Who isn’t?” But not only is April 16 the day after Tax Day, it’s also the day for this:
It’s taking place practically in my own backyard, at Drew University in Madison, N.J. Check out the speakers and topics. Excellent stuff!
* Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, “Right Annie, Wrong Annie”
* Professor Christine Kinealy, “The Famine is only part of the Story. Why your ancestors came to America”
* Dr Anne Rodda, CG, “Immigrant Imprints: American and Irish records that tell the story”
* Claire Keenan Agthe, “Offbeat records for New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia”
* Judy Campbell, “Family History Search Catches a Tammany Tiger”
* Alan Delozier, “Family History from a Religious Perspective”
* Julie Sakellariadis, “Imagining the Past: Using Historical Resources to Find Stories from the Past”
* Dr Thomas Callahan Jr., “Looking For Katie: The McCormack Family in America”
The link takes you to the website of the Genealogical Society of New Jersey, which is co-sponsoring the event with Drew’s Caspersen School of Graduate Studies. You can download a .pdf file of the conference brochure and registration form, if you are in the area and might like to attend.
Years ago someone at a family party mentioned that my great-aunt Anna Haigney had nursed burn victims from “that big fire up in Hartford — you know, the one at the circus.” I didn’t really know, which shows how the passage of time can dull the notoriety even of the most awful events.
More than 6,000 people (some estimates say as many as 8,700) had thronged the big top set up by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Hartford, Conn. on July 6, 1944. How the fire started remains a controversy. Early on, a carelessly discarded cigarette was the theory. In 1950, an Ohio man claimed to be the circus arsonist. He later recanted, and his confession is further clouded by his history of mental illness and officials’ inability to determine with certainty whether he was in Connecticut at the time.
Once the fire started, it spread with terrifying speed due to the construction of the tent — canvas coated with paraffin for waterproofing purposes, a common method at the time but a recipe for an inferno. Two of the regular exits were blocked by chutes that had been brought out for transporting the large felines who had just finished performing when the fire broke out. (They escaped with minor burns.) Many circusgoers were trampled and/or burned to death.
The official death toll is 167. With so many men away fighting overseas, this was largely an audience of women and children, and onlookers never forgot the horror of seeing so many young victims. A news photo of the eminent circus performer Emmett Kelly holding a water bucket by the smoldering ruins led to the disaster being known as “the day the clowns cried.”
Author Stewart O’Nan interviewed many survivors and witnesses for his 2001 account The Circus Fire: A True Story of An American Tragedy. It’s a must-read starting point for anyone interested in learning more about the fire.
One of the young circusgoers that day grew up to become the comic actor and theater director Charles Nelson Reilly. Here is a 1997 interview in which he explains how the memories of the fire affected him for the rest of his life:
Other links of interest:
The Hartford Circus Fire — July 6, 1944 (including an extensive collection of survivor accounts)