circus fire photoEven after 70 years, the tragedy of the Hartford Circus Fire haunts the city still. Having raged through the July 6, 1944, performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, it remains present in Hartford’s shared culture through writings and memorials.

The emotional losses created by this fire – and the anguished memories of its survivors – have stayed very much alive. Even with Stewart O’Nan’s 2000 nonfiction account, The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy, garnering critical acclaim, stories and books about the fire have continued as recently as this year’s publication The Hartford Circus Fire: Tragedy Under the Big Top.
The terrible and often-repeated details of the fire – that the Big Top had been treated with paraffin and gasoline to make it water-resistant, that animal chutes blocked exits and cost lives, that dozens were burned beyond recognition and that a fearless lion tamer named May Tovar saved many people – have become part of the legend of the circus fire, part of the story we tell and re-tell.
Also part of the legend are the stories of generosity and immediate public responsiveness that Hartford and surrounding communities displayed: off-duty doctors and nurses heading in to work to see if they could help; G. Fox sending blankets and supplies to the Armory; canteens serving food for free, and buses ferrying families and survivors without charge. It was as if what happened to the 7,000 people at the circus that day happened to a whole city.

The deadliest circus fire in U.S. history claimed 168 lives, injured another 700 and left unanswered the question of its cause, though at one point a mentally ill circus worker claimed responsibility. Many of the victims (just over 40 percent) were children under 15. Women of all ages were there with their young children, nieces and nephews. Families were there with their own children and those of neighbors. This group of innocents, looking for a diversion on a hot afternoon, were engulfed in horror.

Survivors, rescuers and the families of the dead kept the story of the circus fire alive.

The Hartford Circus Fire left in its wake profound social change and public protections. The settlements achieved for victims were substantial, and totaled the equivalent, today, of about $40 million (then it was $3.9 million). The landmark arbitration of the 551 claims has been called “a classic study” in alternative dispute resolution. As Lynne Tuohy wrote in The Hartford Courant 20 years ago, a Hartford lawyer came up with a brilliant plan that kept the lawsuits out of court, gave the most money possible to the survivors and the injured, and permitted the circus to stay in business so that it could earn money for the settlement payments. The arbitration became a model for mass litigations of disasters.

Yet the memory of the fire is still deep and potent because this was a profoundly local event. The fire occurred in a cohesive community of working descendants of immigrants. The United States had entered World War II nearly three years earlier and industrial Hartford was humming with war-industry jobs. The bonding created by three years of war had to have been felt in relation to this loss. In a city with a population of about 170,000, the circus fire affected thousands. In addition to the estimated 7,000 on the Barbour Street grounds at the time of the fire, the families of the survivors, the nearly 700 who were seriously injured and their families, as well as hundreds of medical, fire, police, and morgue workers were involved. In real terms, the fire probably affected about 25,000 people. That’s a big number in a city of less than 200,000.
The circus fire has an enduring quality that is very particular. The Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston in 1942, for which there are a lot of materials online, seems to have cut a deep hole in Boston’s psyche. In the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history, 492 died and there was considerable coverage of its 70th anniversary. But Boston was a military port and at that point in the war there were people from all over the country there. Many of the dead were not local. And they weren’t children.

Perhaps the most haunting question around the Hartford Circus Fire is why its memories still hurt so much. What are the keys to this story’s continuing pain?
How do we remember human disasters? From what we hear from another person? From the newspaper or television? Do we conflate all those and add supposition and hearsay? (For instance, one of the stories about the circus fire is that all the animals were freed and posed a danger to the crowds in the fire’s aftermath. Only a few of the big cats were inside the Big Top at the time the fire began and their trainer was able to herd them into their chutes, and then into wagons. Elephants were just outside the tent but herded into their formation and led away.)

Has the memory of the fire changed over time? Because the cause has never been established, do we not have closure on the fire? What would closure on an event like this be? Does the memory of the 9/11 attacks help us think about these questions? Thousands volunteered their time during the days and months following that event. It was a way to connect, to combat or, at least, to acknowledge the pain, the common injury.

Are there ways to think about the Hartford History Center collection on the fire that would teach us about change? Are we really asking questions about human psychology and human nature in re-examining pieces of the collection? When we hold a Hartford Times photo of the blackened earth after the Big Top burned, what do we feel? What do we think?

Only one thing seems certain: We haven’t forgotten the Hartford Circus Fire because we can’t.