The acclaimed author of A Prayer for the Dying brings all his narrative gifts to bear on this gripping account of tragedy and heroism the great Hartford circus fire of Halfway through a midsummer afternoon performance, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus s big top caught fire The tent had been waterproofed with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline in seconds it was burning out of control, and than , people were trapped inside Drawing on interviews with hundreds of survivors, O Nan skillfully re creates the horrific events and illuminates the psychological oddities of human behavior under stress the mad scramble for the exits the hero who tossed dozens of children to safety before being trampled to death Brilliantly constructed and exceptionally moving, The Circus Fire is history at its most compelling


10 thoughts on “The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy

  1. WILLIAM2 WILLIAM2 says:

    This book about a community tragedy the Hartford circus fire of 6 July 1944 is one grim read It starts with an overview of the Cleveland fire of 1942 in which many animals died The cats looked up at Dr Henderson , licking their burned paws, wisps of smoke still rising from their fur The doctor asked a detective for his pistol The Coast Guardsmen were there with their rifles for the larger animals Together they had to shoot three camels, three lions, and a puma The thing he would never fo This book about a community tragedy the Hartford circus fire of 6 July 1944 is one grim read It starts with an overview of the Cleveland fire of 1942 in which many animals died The cats looked up at Dr Henderson , licking their burned paws, wisps of smoke still rising from their fur The doctor asked a detective for his pistol The Coast Guardsmen were there with their rifles for the larger animals Together they had to shoot three camels, three lions, and a puma The thing he would never forget, Dr Henderson said later, was how, throughout, the animals were completely silent Before they went defunct last year, Ringling Brothers decided to stop putting elephants in their shows And Sea World is closing in 2019 That s because we know so muchtoday about how animals think and feel they are sentient creatures The studies are extensive What follows are a few of thepopular books on the subject There s Irene M Pepperberg s Alex Me How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process about her extensive studies of an African gray parrot See also Mason and McCarthy s When Elephants Weep The Emotional Lives of Animals this one came out in 1995 but still contains much awe of truth for the reader The Dolphin in the Mirror by Diana Reiss is muchrecent The mirror test for dolphins and elephants demonstrates their ability to recognize a live image of themselves, thus proving the animal s self consciousness, a sign of advanced cognition Dolphins are actually the only animals on earth who have brains bigger than ourselves See encephalization quotient The Cleveland fire was a warning unheeded by the circus In very flat language, O Nan assembles the seemingly disparate facts that will combine to create tragedy on July 6, 1944 one month after D Day We learn about the particular topography of the lot in Hartford and how it dictated the configuration in which the circus s animals cages, big top, dressing tent, sideshow tent etc were laid out We learn how the big top had been waterproofed beforehand with a mixture of six thousand gallons of white gasoline and eighteen thousand pounds of paraffin, and was then filled almost to capacity with 10,000 people on a miserably hot summer day We learn about some of those in the audience members there on that day We follow them across town on busses to the fairground We watch them enter the big top and find their seats Frankly, I want to avert my eyes But I m as much a rubbernecker as the next person The white shrouded corpses will soon to be littering the highway median, the ambulances flashing meaninglessly, the first responders standing helpless amid so much death.As the fire consumes the big tent like a candle burning its wick, O Nan cites unnamed psychologists on the nature of panic and mobs Which psychologists The lack of citation, even though this is not a scholarly work, seems a mistake At one point a little earlier when the audience members are being shown to their seats, O Nan mentions some wounded servicemen there in uniform One orare still dealing with the effects of what he calls a dose of malaria The word stopped me One doesn t get a dose of malaria he must be thinking of the clap Anyway, it was a strange lapse and when the generic psychologists are mentioned later I found myself wondering how manysuch untowardnesses were to come The book fortunately contains few howlers.That said, O Nan s moment by moment reconstruction of the action can be impressive He quotes a number of survivors in effect moving the reader around the very large tent as the fire advances Some audience members stay put when told that the fire will be extinguished shortly A terrible bit of patriarchy there The men in charge can t or won t admit that things are out of control As O Nan notes, it s wartime and the voice of male authority is the pervasive one Generally speaking, those who lived were those who ran Many people were crushed under the rushing tide of running people, often mothers trying to save their children Maniacally, the band kept playing The Stars and the Stripes Forever Panic was rampant O Nan describes the crawl of the fire from the west side of the tent, where it originated, to the east Outside some quick thinkers were able to raise the tent s vertical canvas walls, which had not been fireproofed, so people could escape directly outward from where they sat on the high end of the grandstands, thereby avoiding the murderous crush in the exits below In some instances, men waited below to catch children tossed down to them adults however had to slide down splintery poles or contrive to use the side canvas as a kind of slide Many simply were pushed over or jumped Once outside it was quickly evident that many people were terribly burned.Rich black smoke rolled up from the canvas Pieces fell and caught in women s hair, ignited their light summer dresses The unpyrolized paraffin became a flaming liquid that rained down like napalm, burning skin on contact, staying aflame until the fuel was gone It sizzled as it hit the skin of children in sunsuits, blisters dotting their arms like chickenpox p 90 The coroner s portion of the tale is the hardest to get through The odyssey of every burned body is followed from its first discovery at the scene until it is claimed in the morgue by distraught loved ones The plight of the hospitalized burn victims is closely followed Sometimes they rise from their beds and go home, or someplace they might call home, for often their immediate families were also claimed by the blaze Those who do not go home go to the morgue This is a grim part of the book and difficult to stomach However, this account of enormous human suffering is meant to serve as a public record of an event that until now existed only in disparate form in newspaper morgues, interview transcripts and other archival materials The book s writing and publication therefore become a noble clarification of a regional tragedy just as it is about to vacate human memory forever Moreover, the book is a tribute to the community that came together around the circus fire, and is deserving of exalted praise.The book closes with the inconclusive investigation A sad fellow, Segee, clearly pathological, is tagged with the crime in which some 165 people died, mostly children The evidence is based mostly on his ambiguous rambling confessions, which were never fully substantiated Nonetheless he was jailed for four years After serving his time he was declared psychotic and committed to an institution for the criminally insane


  2. Connie G Connie G says:

    The circus tent had been waterproofed with six thousand gallons of white gasoline and eighteen thousand pounds of paraffin a disaster waiting to happen The circus played to an afternoon crowd of 7,000 people in Hartford, Connecticut It was July 6, 1944, and the circus and the city workers were both shorthanded since so many men were away fighting in the war The largest exits were blocked by animal chutes where the lions and other big cats were exiting A small fire of unknown origin quickly The circus tent had been waterproofed with six thousand gallons of white gasoline and eighteen thousand pounds of paraffin a disaster waiting to happen The circus played to an afternoon crowd of 7,000 people in Hartford, Connecticut It was July 6, 1944, and the circus and the city workers were both shorthanded since so many men were away fighting in the war The largest exits were blocked by animal chutes where the lions and other big cats were exiting A small fire of unknown origin quickly turned into an inferno raging out of control The crowd, mostly women and children, was in a panic and over 168 people were killed from burns and being trampled Manywere hospitalized with painful burns and other injuries The disaster preparations that the state had made for the war were put to good use Plasma had been stocked, stretcher crews had been trained, and hospitals were stocked with a large supply of bandages.In the book Stewart O Nan also covers some earlier fires, the legal aspects including compensation, the police investigations, and the unidentified victims The only good things to come out of this horrible event were better regulations to prevent fires in the future.The book has an enormous amount of documentation with hundreds of names It follows chronological order so you might see the name of someone escaping from the circus, then encounter it again fifty pages later when they are in the hospital, then again seventy pages later when they receive compensation from the circus So it s a book best read in a concentrated chunk of time so the reader remembers the people involved in the story In some ways O Nan has given a gift to historians by gathering up so much detailed historical information into this book But a little less detail would have let the story floweasily The black and white photographs were terrific, illustrating important scenes without being lurid Overall, I found it to be an interesting and moving book.Several years ago, I was at an anniversary event remembering the Hartford Circus Fire where O Nan was one of the featured speakers I was impressed with his knowledge of the event and his compassion for the families who will never forget July 6, 1944


  3. Tooter Tooter says:

    4 stars Another great O Nan read.


  4. Matt Matt says:

    On July 6, 1944 one month after the Allies landed in Normandy some 9,000 people turned out to watch the Flying Wallendas in the Big Top of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus The Big Top had been waterproofed with 24,000 gallons of white gasoline and paraffin Somehow, a fire started, and the potently flammable tent went up like a Roman candle There was a rush to escape Merle Evans, the band leader, like some latter day Wallace Hartley on the Titanic, cued Stars and Stripes F On July 6, 1944 one month after the Allies landed in Normandy some 9,000 people turned out to watch the Flying Wallendas in the Big Top of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus The Big Top had been waterproofed with 24,000 gallons of white gasoline and paraffin Somehow, a fire started, and the potently flammable tent went up like a Roman candle There was a rush to escape Merle Evans, the band leader, like some latter day Wallace Hartley on the Titanic, cued Stars and Stripes Forever and played it over and over Sousa s tune is known among circus types as the disaster march Big Bill Curlee, a vendor inspector, bravely handed kids over the animal chute, until his foot slipped off a bar and he was trampled by the crowd As Stewart O Nan notes drily Several survivors said the one thing they will never forget about the circus fire as long as they live is the sound of the animals as they burned alive But there were no animals.When it was all over, 167 people had been killed only ten were men Nearly 500 people had been injured O Nan is a marvelous novelist His books are spare, low key, and exceedingly precise He has a wonderful sense of detail, which he has turned on middle class America His heroes are normal people the kind who work at Red Lobster or sell real estate The Circus Fire is O Nan s stab at tackling a historical event, and the result is extraordinary As a connoisseur of fire history, this is a standout It combines elements of meticulous resarch with a vivid, at time thrilling narrative, which eventually turns into a mournful, melancholy mystery The first 200 pages are dedicated to the fire how it might have started what happened after it started and the heroism and cowardice of those terrifying moments when the world seemed to be on fire The second half of the book, roughly 150 pages, is dedicated to the aftermath of the Hartford Fire Specifically, O Nan delves into the mystery of Little Miss 1565 From the coroner s notes, Little Miss 1565 was a 6 year old female, white, blue eyes, 3 10 , 40 lbs., moderately well developed, head circumference 20 1 2 , blond or light hair, shoulder length Curly hair All baby teeth present except lower central incisors, the incisal edges of which are even with the occlusal plane of the lower lateral baby incisors Brown shoes pair flowered dress.In a photograph taken at the morgue, Little Miss 1565 appears peaceful, in repose Her body is remarkably preserved, save for a hideous 3rd or 4th degree burn on the left side of her face Her eyes are closed mouth slightly ajar She might have been napping It seems a body such as this, in such good condition, should ve been claimed right away Yet in the immediate aftermath of the fire, no one came forward to take the body no one came forward to give Little Miss a name What follows is an old fashioned detective story, as investigators try to piece together the identity of this young victim The story in enthralling There are wrong turns There are false leads There are seeming breakthroughs that then fall through There are reverse Anastasia s, with families trying to claim this girl as their own, even though you can t be sure, as though it were possible to not know your own daughter As well done as the fire scenes are rendered, this latter section, where you d expect narrative tension to fall, actually gripped me all the stronger I came to feel the same obsession of the investigators and of O Nan who refused to let the case go cold The continued search doesn t make any logical sense, not in the way that logic is defined, as though discovering this girl s name could in any way turn back time or otherwise benefit the world Yet there is an internal logic all its own the logic of human understanding and the balance between dread and wonder In this way, The Circus Fire is favorably compared with the greatest fire book of them all, Norman Maclean s Young Men and Fire To paraphrase Maclean This is the story of a catastrophe and there is tragedy in it but tragedy is only a part of the story, as tragedy is only a part of life


  5. Karen Karen says:

    Review posted December 13, 2013 This is the true story of how hundreds were injured or killed during the July 6, 1944, performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus in Hartford, CT The author provides an immense amount of detail, painting a vivid picture of events before, during, and after the fire This is one of the most heartbreaking books I ve ever read Certainly, the fire was an important historic event in New England not unlike The Station fire in Rhode Island in 2003 Review posted December 13, 2013 This is the true story of how hundreds were injured or killed during the July 6, 1944, performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus in Hartford, CT The author provides an immense amount of detail, painting a vivid picture of events before, during, and after the fire This is one of the most heartbreaking books I ve ever read Certainly, the fire was an important historic event in New England not unlike The Station fire in Rhode Island in 2003 , and perhaps eventragic because so many of the victims were children From the Hartford Courant, April 5, 2019 Medical examiner seeks to exhume two victims of the Hartford Circus Fire in hopes of identifying them after 75 yearsChief State Medical Examiner James Gill is seeking to have at least two of the bodies exhumed in hopes of answering a question that has haunted a family for years whatever happened to Grace Fifield, a 47 year old woman from Newport, Vt who went to the July 6, 1944, afternoon performance of the Ringling Brothers Circus and was never seen again The Medical Examiner will attempt to match two of the Circus Fire victims to a descendant s DNA If that s not successful, they will use online genealogy databases to attempt a match not unlike the research process used to identify the Golden State Killer.https www.courant.com news connecti From The Hartford Courant, 6 27 2019 75 years later The living survivors of the Hartford circus fire still carry the scars from the tragic day Hear their stories in this interactive oral history The Hartford Courant, Sept 11, 2019 With hopes of unraveling a 75 year old mystery, medical examiner s bid to exhume two unidentified victims of the Hartford Circus Fire gets OK from judgehttps www.courant.com news connecti From The Hartford Courant, October 7, 2019 State medical examiner says 10 7 exhumation of two circus fire victims was successful, DNA testing is next step.https www.courant.com news connecti From The Hartford Courant, July 7, 2020 Connecticut Chief State Medical Examiner James Gill said Tuesday that experts were unable to extract viable DNA from the exhumed bones of Hartford Circus Fire victims, leaving the identities of five souls buried in a Hartford cemetery a mystery.They had been buried under one memorial that said Their Identity Known but to God


  6. ☕Laura ☕Laura says:

    This book was so well done in every way It was thorough without being tedious and affecting without being melodramatic There is an abundance of interesting information in here, from the details of the tragedy itself to background material on the workings of the circus and the treatment of burns Through vivid descriptions of the mayhem that occurred under the big top in July 1944, of unimaginable injuries and deaths, of parents who lost children and of children who lost parents, the events of This book was so well done in every way It was thorough without being tedious and affecting without being melodramatic There is an abundance of interesting information in here, from the details of the tragedy itself to background material on the workings of the circus and the treatment of burns Through vivid descriptions of the mayhem that occurred under the big top in July 1944, of unimaginable injuries and deaths, of parents who lost children and of children who lost parents, the events of so long ago are made very real, and I am quite sure I will make myself well aware of the nearest exit the next time I find myself at a large public event


  7. Chrissie Chrissie says:

    I have listened to almost four hours total 11 hours 17 minutes of Dick Hill s narration of this audiobook It is unbelievably gruesome Four hours focused upon the description of maimed, burned and dead bodies, human bodies Not one circus animal was killed Now I have had it That s enough It isthan I can bear.


  8. Tamora Pierce Tamora Pierce says:

    This is the absolutely harrowing story of a major American fire, one that took place in Hartford, Connecticut in 1944, in the big top of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus 8,000 people were trapped inside 167 people died of burns, and many, manysuffered scarring and injuries, physical and psychological It was the beginning of the end of the tent circus, which was finished off by the arrival of television Author O Nan conducts an exhaustive investigation into the lives of th This is the absolutely harrowing story of a major American fire, one that took place in Hartford, Connecticut in 1944, in the big top of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus 8,000 people were trapped inside 167 people died of burns, and many, manysuffered scarring and injuries, physical and psychological It was the beginning of the end of the tent circus, which was finished off by the arrival of television Author O Nan conducts an exhaustive investigation into the lives of those who lived and died, in the town and in the circus the circus had only 3 casualties He details the police s painstaking search for a possible arsonist, the attempts of the victims to take the circus to court and the resulting court testimony, verdict, and rendering of payment, and the battles to place blame inside the town s political structure and that of the circus He is best at showing us individuals, the real people who were there that day, without being over sentimental or uncaring The reader feels like s he is there He is a bitkind to the circus the ownership, not the circus people, who I think he treats fairly than I would have been The ownership didn t invest anymoney in bleachers, rails to keep people from jumping into the ring, fire extinguishers, or fireproofing there wasn t any, and the waterproofing of the tent was a combination of paraffin and white gasoline than they had to And his portrayal of one of the hospitals, the one for the poor, is nauseating.Still, it s a read as gripping as any novel I read it in a day and a half, with interruptions for things like meals and sleep I m lucky I didn t dream about the book If you re interested in such things, this is one of the best books I ve read on the subject


  9. Chaybyrd Chaybyrd says:

    Bottom Line A grueling bore about a tragic event The biggest flaw with O Nan s telling of the Hartford circus fire is how he tells the story As other reviewer s have stated the book is super choppy to such an extent that it becomes unreadable He jumps from event to event in such a way that it s impossible to follow the survivor s incredible stories Terms and events are left unexplained and characters are thrown in without creating the proper context.The silver lining I hear O Nan is a go Bottom Line A grueling bore about a tragic event The biggest flaw with O Nan s telling of the Hartford circus fire is how he tells the story As other reviewer s have stated the book is super choppy to such an extent that it becomes unreadable He jumps from event to event in such a way that it s impossible to follow the survivor s incredible stories Terms and events are left unexplained and characters are thrown in without creating the proper context.The silver lining I hear O Nan is a good novelist and a friend gave me his book Last Night at the Lobster Maybe he ll be redeemed


  10. Heather C Heather C says:

    Growing up in Connecticut I have been interested in the Hartford Circus Fire since I first found out about it It was surprising to be that at the time I had first learned of this disaster there were no books published that were just about this incident Stewart O Nan, a well known novelist, took on the grueling task of writing this non fiction account of the historic circus disaster and hit it out of the park The first thing that really catches the eye of the reader in this book is the forward Growing up in Connecticut I have been interested in the Hartford Circus Fire since I first found out about it It was surprising to be that at the time I had first learned of this disaster there were no books published that were just about this incident Stewart O Nan, a well known novelist, took on the grueling task of writing this non fiction account of the historic circus disaster and hit it out of the park The first thing that really catches the eye of the reader in this book is the forward by the author He proceeds to explain exactly why he decided to write this book and what the story means to him This instantly connected my experience to that of the author being unable to find any books about this subject and living in the close vicinity of the disaster itself It really helps the reader to understand how important it was for him to tell this story I also really liked the layout of the book The author brings you through the history of previous circus disasters and uses this to really set the tone and in a way foreshadow the events that would take place in Hartford on June 6, 1944 It also opened a whole new world of historical information and events that I just had to go check out after He then spends time really helping you get to know many of the people who would eventually become victims, survivors, and heroes of this tragic day By spending time connecting the reader to these people their ultimate fate during the fire becomes important to you and makes you feel the eventthan just reading some statistics O Nan then takes you through the events of the fire as seen from different perspectives and then moves into the aftermath at the hospitals, the morgue, police station, fairgrounds He then continues the story up until the time the book was written following the mystery of Little Miss 1565 I really don t think that the author missed any angles at which to look at this event you get a completely well rounded view of the fire Reading this on audiobook ended up making this such a surreal experience for me I work just a couple of miles from the site of this disaster and as I would be driving along to or from work it would happen that the narrator would be talking about sites that I was driving past various hospitals, the armory, various streets and it made it so easy to connect with the world of this book And if I thought it was surreal seeing the places that I was hearing about, imagine my shock when my place of employment ended up in this book I also seemed to have a physical reaction every time the narrator said the words Stars and Stripes Forever I would just get a shiver This certainly speaks to the power of the narrator Dick Hill put a lot of emotion into the words he was reading and at times it felt like I was listening to a well written news account I could see the world vividly in front of me The only thing that I think would have made this audiobook better would have been if they could have included the song Stars and Stripes Forever it would have completed the experience.I whole heartedly recommended this book or audiobook to all I have both copies myself