The Hartford Circus Fire: Tragedy Under the Big Top

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A photo taken from across the street from the fire as patrons evacuate
View from Barbour Street of the burning big top, which can be seen beyond the sideshow tent on the left. Handlers rushed the elephants, on the right, out of the area quickly to prevent even more chaos. Photo by Ralph Emerson Sr., from author’s collection.

Who doesn’t love going to the circus? Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, lovingly known as “The Greatest Show on Earth,” has entertained millions across the globe with its sideshow attractions, exotic animals, and death-defying performances. And their traveling big top tent dominated at 200 feet wide by 450 feet long, with a snow-white canvas roof towering five stories high. Underneath, three rings and two stages were surrounded by a 25-foot-wide oval “Hippodrome track” separating the performance area from the spectators. At the Barbour Street circus grounds in Hartford, Connecticut, as many as 7,000 spectators would cram into the festive tent for a single show. Greatest Show, indeed!

A Typical Matinee

On July 6, 1944, the afternoon show featured a parade to kick things off, followed by an opening act of dozens of showgirls in bright yellow military costumes being “trained” by performers in lion costumes. Then came the real animals, including trained lions, polar bears, Great Danes, panthers, leopards, and pumas. Thirty feet up the Flying Wallendas began their famous high-wire act. Just the day before, a Hartford building inspector was satisfied with the Barbour Street circus grounds — the erection of the big top, the exits, and the seats were all installed in their typical fashion. The Hartford Police officers assigned to the site reported no problems and observed no fire hazards.

A photo of people running out of the circus tent that is on fire.
In this image, the paraffin-coated big top canvas has been almost completely consumed by fire. The remaining ropes are about to burn, and the support poles will fall to the ground, crushing everything in their path. Photo by Spencer Torrell, from author’s collection. Image sourced from The Hartford Circus Fire.

“FIRE!”

At about 2:40 P.M., an usher noticed a small fire, roughly five feet off the ground on the canvas sidewall of the circus tent, and dangerously close to bleachers. Three ushers rushed for the nearby water buckets, but the fire was now ten feet up the sidewall and racing towards the canvas tent roof. The evacuation did not commence quickly. Over in the first circus ring, animal acts were concluding as trainers heard screams but saw no fire. As the audience realized what was happening, they pushed and panicked, screaming on the way to the exit. Immediately, animals fled out of the runway, as people were crawling out from under the sidewall. The canvas roof above the entrance was now in flames. Local police that had been on hand, helped the circus workers and ushers clear equipment that obstructed the path out of the tent. As a breeze was feeding the fire, flames shot toward other corners of the big top. A steel animal runway blocked egress at the Hippodrome track. The stairway to it was jammed, but people still tried climbing over the obstacle. Some officers on-site began tossing children over the obstruction. When the flames reached the big top’s center pole, the entire north section of the roof was compromised and collapsed on those poor souls who couldn’t get out in time. Black smoke filled the sky.

A photo of the circus tents shrouded in black smoke as onlookers stand back and watch as people try to escape.
View from the southeast corner of the circus lot near the performers’ dressing tent, looking west, about three minutes after the fire started. Thick black smoke fills the sky as scraps of burning canvas float to the ground. Photo by L.B. Ulrich, from author’s collection. Image sourced from The Hartford Circus Fire.


“People started going down the bleachers throwing chairs left and right as they went. When I got my leg caught, someone fell on me and my mother turned around and pulled me to safety.” — survivor Edmund Hall Hindle


Local firefighters arrived to witness bleachers still burning, and the entire big top canvas consumed. Firemen sprayed water on the ruins and hoped for survivors. Circus employees, policemen, and civilians rallied to remove the victims on boards, and survivors were carried to hospitals. Hartford’s State Armory building was used as a temporary morgue, where officers began the gruesome task of identifying the dead. Bodies were separated into four groups: boys, girls, adult males, and adult females. The official death toll was 168, with others dying months after the circus, bringing the final tally to 170.

The Days Following

Even though contemporary building codes lacked provisions for “circuses,” a permit had been legally issued to Ringling Brothers. In the aftermath of the disaster, nearly all communities required fireproof tents and an increased number of public exits. No smoking was strictly enforced. Even though the state police commissioner was critical of the Hartford Fire Department, he found no negligence. The cause of the fire was probably a discarded cigarette. Arson was not to blame. Reports noted a lack of fire prevention equipment, insufficient personnel, and blocked exits. In a subsequent trial, five circus employees were found liable for the loss of lives in the circus fire.

A photo of a circular memorial on the ground with the names of the victims engraved around it.
The bronze memorial medallion at the Hartford Circus Fire Memorial is embossed with the names of each of the victims of the circus fire. Contributors were allowed to purchase personalized bricks, which surround the medallion, located on what was once the center ring of the big top. Photo by author. Image sourced from The Hartford Circus Fire.

Memorial

The Hartford Circus Fire Memorial Foundation installed a bronze medallion at the site of the circus fire, sixty-one years after the preventable disaster, where the center ring of the big top sat. The memorial reminds the community of the catastrophic fire and those who perished. 

“In loving memory of those who perished on this location fifty years ago, July 6, 1944, and with heartfelt condolences to their survivors.”