Connecticut October 27, 2017
One Of The Worst Disasters In U.S. History Happened Right Here In Connecticut
Sometimes referred to as “the day the clowns cried”, the fire that occured on July 6, 1944 in Hartford at an afternoon performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was one of the worst fire disasters in the United States. The performance was attended by roughly 7,000 people. The Hartford circus fire took at least 168 lives that day and more than 700 people were injured.
In the 1940s, circuses typically traveled from town to town by train. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus arrived in Hartford on July 5, 1944, but the trains were late and two of the shows that day had to be cancelled. Performers and crew were wary because circus superstition says that any missed shows are very bad luck. The performance of July 5th, however, went as planned with no consequences.
The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was special in that it was the largest circus of its time. The huge tent with three performance rings could seat up to 9,000 people. Unfortunately the water proofing method used on the canvas, that was standard at the time, played a part in this devastating fire. The canvas was coated with 1,800 lbs.of paraffin wax which was dissolved in 6,000 gallons of gasoline.
On July 6, 1944, the afternoon show was populated mainly by women and children. The estimate is that there were approximately 7,000 spectators seated for the show. The large cats were the only animals in the main tent as they had just finished performing. The circus bandleader was said to be the first person to spot the small fire that had started on the sidewall of the tent. He directed the band to play the song, ""The Stars and Stripes Forever" which was the common signal to alert all the circus employees that there was a problem of some kind. The flames quickly took on a life of their own as they crawled across the parrafin and gasoline covered canvas.
To complicate matters, two of the entrances to the big top were blocked by the chutes that were used to move the big cats and other dangerous animals from the performing area to the transport cages. People who were trying to escape from the circus tent could not bypass these areas.
As the fire took over, panic ensued and people were trying to escape the blazing tent in any way that they could. Some died from being trampled and others died from jumping off the bleachers to try to escape under the sides of the tent. Paraffin was melting off of the canvas and falling onto the people below as the fire continued to burn. Ultimately after only about eight minutes the roof collapsed, trapping hundreds of spectators underneath.
It is remarkable that the death toll for this disaster is not higher. The number of fatalities is estimated to be around 168 and the number of injuries around 700. However these numbers may not be accurate. Tickets to the show had been handed out around Hartford by circus employees to some poeple that could have been drifters and never reported missing. In addition, it is possible that the combination of fire, parrafin and gasoline might have incinerated some bodies completely so that no remains would be found.
People that survived the fire have carried around the horror of that July afternoon for decades. They all have a unique story of how they escaped - whether it be being rescued by a performer or being protected from the flames by the piles of bodies that fell upon them. Some have never returned to the circus saying that it brings back memories too traumatic to face.
Today, there is a memorial to those that perished in the circus fire located in Hartford where the fire occured. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey did a final Hartford circus performance on April 30, 2017 and performed their final show ever on May 21, 2017 in New York.