What do you think about when you picture a circus? In my mind there are images of clowns, elephants, tigers and smiling kids with their faces all sticky from pink and blue cotton candy and their eyes are wide with excitement. There are lion tamers, men and women flying through the air on the trapeze, bands playing, and the smell of fresh popcorn wafting through the air. There are people hawking cheap souvenirs to remind you of the good time you had and the crumpled up programs that years later might be discovered and cause fits of nostalgia.
These days, I guess the circus doesn’t cause quite the stir of emotions that it used to. With air conditioned video arcades and movie theaters and countless other forms of entertainment, maybe the circus has seen its day in the sun. I’m guessing there was a time though, when parents and kids alike would pack the streets and watch as the circus members paraded through the streets announcing their arrival. I’m guessing that’s how it might have been in Hartford, Connecticut way back in 1944 but this story doesn’t have a happy ending…
The king of them all, the Ringling Brothers & Barnum Bailey Circus had just come to town and over 8,000 people crammed into the big top to take in the festivities. The show had barely begun when all of sudden flames broke out and started to climb the canvas walls of the tent. People stampeded towards the exits but soon pieces of flaming canvas began falling down on their heads creating even more panic. Many were able to escape by clawing their way through the canvas but soon the ropes supporting the roof gave way and the entire big top collapsed. It didn’t take long. It was over in under 10 minutes but the damages were going to last some people a lifetime. When all was said and done and the bodies were counted, 168 people were dead, 100 of them children. Another 682 people were injured and taken to area hospitals.
An investigation was quickly under way and the determination they arrived at was mind-boggling. Circus officials needed to waterproof the tents so they approached the Armed Services and asked them if they could use a new flame retardant canvas that was developed as a result of World War II. The Armed Services Committee turned them down on the basis that all of the canvas was needed for the war effort.
Left to their own devices, circus officials came up with a concoction that consisted of a highly flammable paraffin watered down with, of all things, gasoline.
In the law suits that followed, circus officials admitted their negligence and agreed to pay over 5 million dollars in damages over the coming years. Five members of circus management were even convicted of manslaughter and wound up serving prison terms for their involvement in the tragedy.
Lost amongst the outcry was the burning question of “How had the fire started?” Theories abounded but all was settled when, six years later, in 1950, a man by the name of Robert D. Segee, an ex- circus worker and self admitted arsonist since the age of six, confessed to the crime. In Mr. Segee’s words, he was often visited by an Indian riding atop of a flaming horse, urging him to set the fires. He was quickly convicted and sentenced to two consecutive 22 year prison terms.
Not long afterwards, the State of Connecticut granted pardons to the five circus officials and they were released.
Ringling though, had a steep bill to pay. The cost of the settlement almost drove them into bankruptcy and forced them to shut down. Faced with this prospect, they managed to come to terms with the complainants that allowed them to pay out a portion of their profits over time. It wound up taking them over 10 years but in 1954 the last claimed had been paid and Ringling’s lives on to this day.