Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Ringling Bros. Circus Fire

After writing about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire earlier this year, I got to thinking about the most famous fire I ever heard of:  The Ringling Brothers Circus Fire.  I grew up just a few miles from the site of this fire &, whenever my class did a local history unit it was bound to come up.

On July 6, 1944 between 7,000 - 8,600 people were in the big top of the Ringling Brother Circus in a large field that was later, when I was a child, the Stowe Village Housing Project in Hartford, CT. Attendance numbers are hard to come by; the circus had arrived late & missed a show so more than the usual number of free tickets were given away in the hope of reigniting interest.  After the fire, there was no way to find out how many had been redeemed & most victim identification began with a missing persons report.  In addition to being the state capital, Hartford was a major stop between Boston & New York which meant someone might be reported missing in two other states before anyone thought to look in the makeshift morgue.

There a re many theories how the fire started, but a lot of realities combined to make it the disaster it was.  First, gasoline was a common form of waterproofing; the tent canvas was saturated with it over & over again to keep out the wet weather.  second, the big cat cages were, at that stage of the show, blocking many of the exits.  Whatever the reasons, despite the confessions & the theories no specific cause, deliberate or otherwise has ever been established.  By the time I was alive & walking around Hartford County, the most notable thing about the fire was the still unclaimed body of Little Miss 1565.

I will give you the highlights:  An eight year old girl was killed (I am guessing trampled, reading between the lines) & no one knew who she was.  There were other unidentified victims, but in this case her body was found without any burns & with her face recognizable, if only the right person would look at it.  They never did.  Many, many years later an identification was made (& a reason given: those who could have identified her were themselves injured), but there are still questions & people who doubt the identification, based largely on more modern forensic identification techniques.

let me just say Little Miss 1565 haunted my childhood.  I blame the local history buffs who came to  school every year for a presentation about local history.  Not much happens/happened in Hartford County that was ever as big as this & they played it for all it was worth.  To this day I practically need a valium to light a match to a pile of wood in a well maintained fireplace.

I thought that would be it, really as far as my geographical connections went, but it turns out I was wrong.  The late James A. Haley, Representative from the State of Florida was one of five to plead "no contest" to involuntary manslaughter (more than 150 people died in the fire).  He served less than a year, returned to Florida, where ha had been at he time of the fire, & was pardoned.  The reason for the charge was the general state of business safety practices at the circus, of which he was an officer.

There is one last thing about the circus fire; I could not find any direct on-line references but I remember from those childhood presentations:  given that black patrons were generally seated in less desirable places (higher up, further from safety & closer to the canvas that ignited), there should have been more black victims -there were plenty don't get me wrong, just not as many as would have been predicted.  The credit goes to one man, a minister at a local black church, who kept his head, kept his section calm & got most of them out safely, including children (many of the children who died got separated from their escorts & were lost in the panicking crowd). 

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes I think we went to different schools; I do not remember this ever being discussed. Could be why I am perfectly comfortable lighting a gas stove/propane grill with a short match, and heat my house almost entirely with wood