My previous read and upcoming review, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, climaxes with a terrible circus disaster. I thought it would be pertinent to look at a real circus disaster. This disaster is not only the worst disaster in the history of the circus, but one of the most dreadful disasters involving a fire in the United States.
This disaster took place on July 6, 1944 in Hartford, Connecticut (the town that I work in). Barnum and Bailey’s circus was hosting their matinee show with a packed house. Very shortly after the show began a small fire began on the side of the tent. As was tradition for the circus, the band launched into Stars and Stripes Forever, the disaster march.
Chaos ensued, people tried to pack out of the entrances that were not blocked by circus gear causing a bottleneck and for people to be crushed. While many of the people escaped, many ran back in looking for their children or others they thought were inside. Some poor souls stayed inside expecting this to be a minor problem and the show would go on.
168 people died in the fire. There was only about 8 minutes to escape the burning tent before it collapsed in on itself. The fire spread so quickly because the traditional method of waterproofing the tent was to coat it with paraffin and kerosene, some VERY flammable materials.
Ringling paid about $5,000,000 in damages to the families of those lost or hurt in the fire. Four officials were convicted on involuntary manslaughter – but were given pardons and were able to continue working on the show. A man named Robert Segee confessed to starting the fire, but he was not believed to be the real arsonist. This case has been reviewed as recently as 2005 to try to find the cause of the fire.
One famous person who was a witness to this disaster was the late actor, Charles Nelson Reilly. He was 13 at the time and he escaped from the crowed big top. As a result of this harrowing escape, he would never sit in an audience again.
There are some great books you can read about this event: Women and Children First:The Horrible Hartford Circus Fire by Donald H. Roy; The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy by Stewart O'Nan; A Matter of Degree: The Hartford Circus Fire & The Mystery of Little Miss 1565 by Don Massey and Rick Davey
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