By R. J. Brown
The worst tragedy in the annals of circus history occurred during the afternoon show of the Ringling Brothers Circus on July 6, 1944, at Hartford, Connecticut. With nearly 7,000 people enjoying the performance, the big tent suddenly became engulfed in flames. As fire spread up the side walls and raced across the top of the tent, the bandmaster, Merle Evans, swung his band into the song Stars and Stripes Forever -- the circus disaster tune. The sound of this tune moved all employees into high gear. The horses, elephants, the lions and tigers, were quickly led out of the tent out of danger.
People stampeded toward the exit they had entered from. Unfortunately, this was the end on fire. Fire had not spread to the other end yet and employees tried directing them to that exit. In the panic, crowds still stampeded the end on fire. Three minutes later, the tent poles started collapsing and the roof -- what was left -- caved in. In six minutes total, almost all of the tent was burned completely and the entire area was nothing more than smoldering ashes. 168 men, women and children died as a result. Hundreds more were badly injured.
The feeling of responsibility to the victims was uppermost in the circus management's minds. Five of the top management personnel at Ringling's were arrested on changes of manslaughter and subsequently served sentences and were ultimately pardoned by the State of Connecticut. In addition, due to the fire, Ringling's found itself with over four million dollars in damage claims from victim's families.
In the aftermath of this calamity, Ringling management displayed an attitude and integrity that made their circus such an outstanding institution. They did not contest their indirect responsibility in the catastrophe; instead they and the Hartford city officials set up a special court to hear and judge all claims. No contest, circus management said. We will pay the damages.
Due to the integrity that Ringling had in the aftermath of the disaster, an editorial appeared in the April 9, 1945 edition of the Hartford Times. The editorial read in part: "They -- the circus officials who were sentenced for involuntary manslaughter-- are in a sense the victims of circumstances and they are to be sure they will be so regarded. No stigma will attach to their names as a result of their sentences."
Shortly thereafter, their convictions were pardoned and they were released from prison.
In 1954 most newspapers in the country carried a story that the Ringling's had paid off the last of over 600 claims that resulted from the fire. All of the circus profits for the ten years since the fire had been set aside to pay those claims.
Circus people felt particularly sad about the Hartford fire. It didn't help their feelings any when on June 30, 1950, the news services carried the story that a pyromaniac had admitted to deliberately setting the fire, as he had many others in other states. (See separate article in "Circus Listings".)
An important footnote to this fire story is the fact that the circus had tried unsuccessfully to obtain the necessary quantity of a new canvas flame proofing compound that was developed by the Armed Services. It was pointed out by the Army that no civilian concern was allowed the use of the compound. Soon after the fire, however, the Army approached Ringling's and granted them the necessary priority to obtain enough compound to fireproof their tents. From 1945 on, the circus tents were treated with a flame retardant compound.
Photos Taken During the Circus
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