July 6th of 1944 in Hartford, Connecticut-
The Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus had been in town; this was the largest and best circus in the country, between 6,000 and 8,000 people crowded around the monsterously sized Big Top which could accommodate 9,000 to see the big show.
It has been theorized that at the beginning of the show, someone carelessly dropped a lit cigarette on the very dry grass; this may have been what started the fire in the men’s restroom area. Whatever happened, you can imagine how quickly a canvas tent would go up in flames. Back then the way they waterproofed these things, it was only a matter of time before disaster struck; the tent was coated in 1,800 pounds of wax dissolved in 6,000 gallons of gasoline. Not very smart, not smart at all!
So, about twenty minutes into the show, while the Flying Wallendas were performing, band leader Merle Evans noticed flames. He began to play a song which would signal trouble to the other performers, the song was “stars and stripes forever”; apparently this particular tune had been the universal song for disaster among circus performers. The ringmaster told people to exit the tent, but there was a power failure so many didn’t hear his warning. When people realized what was going on, it was pure pandemonium; people were running, screaming, some were running in circles trying to locate their loved ones. Many were stomped to death; others simply sat in their seats thinking the fire would soon be put out and the show would continue. Dozens who ran towards the wrong exit were trapped by large animal cages; others used pocket knives to cut through the tent in order to get to safety. Whilst all this was going on, that scalding hot paraffin wax which coated the tent was raining down on people; a large number of those who were fortunate enough to escape were still badly burned.
Between 167-169 people were killed, and more than 700 more were injured. Since it was a Thursday afternoon, the majority of the circus goers were women and children; 63 of the deceased were children under the age of 13.
In the aftermath, doctors, dentists and even professional jewelers came together to help identify the charred remains of the dead; 3 adults and 3 children who perished in this horrible fire remain unidentified.
We already spoke on the belief that a cigarette could’ve caused this, and maybe it did. That said, in 1950 a man named Robert Dale Segee decided to take credit for the disaster after he was caught setting several more and sent to a mental institution. Robert would’ve been 14 at the time of the circus fire, and he had actually been working for Ringling Brothers at the time! Robert later said he only confessed because he was mentally ill; he claimed he’d made it all up. There was never any proof that he started this fire so criminal charges were not pressed.
In 2005 a memorial for the victims was erected in a park. It bears the name of the 168 individuals who did not survive.