This relatively benign-looking field in Hartford, Connecticut, shaded by trees and a modern school, is the site of a horrific event that occurred 69 years ago today. On the afternoon of July 6, 1944, during a performance of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus whose tent had been established in this field, a fire broke out. The canvas of the “big top” was treated with highly flammable paraffin and gasoline–not a very good idea–and the whole tent, in which 7,000 people, mostly women and children, were spectators, went up like a Roman candle. In the stampede for the exits, at least 169 people were horribly burned, crushed or trampled to death. Many of them were small children. The death toll was probably higher, as many of the deaths, incredibly, were probably unreported.
It is not entirely clear how the fire started, though it is widely believed that it was arson. Decades later a man who was 14 years old and a circus hand at the time supposedly confessed to starting the fire. He seems to have had psychological problems.
The impact of this disaster cannot be overestimated. This tragedy happened during wartime, when many of the spectators’ husbands, brothers and sons were off fighting in France or the Pacific. The circus was supposed to be a pleasant, diverting escape, especially for the children trying to grow up in this mean and scary time. Instead it became an inferno of death.
The negligence of Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey beggars the imagination. Who in their right mind would soak the canvas of a circus tent in paraffin and gasoline? The circus ended up paying out $5 million to the victims, but those truly responsible got off with a slap on the wrist.
Among the survivors of the fire was a boy named Charles Nelson Reilly, who later became a noted gay actor. He was a staple on the old Match Game show in the 1970s and 1980s.
Read more about the disaster here, but it’s not very pleasant reading.