Circus Fire: The Day the Clowns CriedPosted: July 28, 2010
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)