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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Hartford Circus Fire – “The Day the Clowns Cried”

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

Copyright © 2009-2011 by The Maiden’s Court


  1. This post was a great idea - thanks. I read Water for Elephants a while back, but I do remember the disaster scene ... imagining myself in that situation is simply horrible. It is even worse when you realize that things like this happened to real people. Tragic.

  2. What a tradegy! I did not know about this before. Thanks Heather.

  3. Heather, the image you're using of Emmet Kelly carrying water isn't from the movie "The Day the Clowns Cried", which movie was not about the incident pictured, of course, and was never released. The photo is now in the public domain because it was published in a newspaper report at the time of the fire, in '44. It's also used as the "cover" photo in my collection of selected poems I've titled "The Great Hartford Circus Fire", which I posted on my website some time before you used the same photo and the same title for your blog. You've done your research well. I guess we must have a cosmic connection. ;)

    1. Thanks for your comments. My reference to "The Day the Clowns Cried" wasn't in reference to any film actually (I quite frankly wasn't even aware that there was a film by that same name, and having now looked that up I agree that it wouldn't be about the Circus Fire. It looks like the unreleased film was called The Day the Clown Cried, vs Clowns cried.) I had come across Emmett Kelly while perusing The Circus Fire 1944 website and looked him up on Wikipedia to see more about him and then linked over to the page for the fire itself, and I believe that is where my first exposure to it being called The Day the Clowns Cried came from. It is quite the iconic image. That's really cool that you wrote a poem about the event - I'm not a big poetry reader myself.


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