On a hot July day in 1944, many people gathering under the Big Top for a performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus that had been set up in a lot bounded by Barbour Street, Cleveland Avenue, Hampton Street and Kensington Street in the North East neighborhood. Because it was during WWII and many adults worked long hours in factories, children made up large numbers of the 7,000 in attendance.
It has not been definitively proven what caused the fire, but when it broke out, it rapidly spread throughout the tent, which was coated with a mixture of gasoline and paraffin that had been used to waterproof the canvas. Panic and a stampede quickly ensued as the flames shot up. Egress was hampered by blockages in pathways, and despite the efforts of circus workers, spectators and at least one passerby, hundreds were injuried. 168 persons died, scores of which were children under the age of 15.
One bodied was never claimedthat of a young girl who became known simply as "Little Miss 1565" for the morgue number assigned to her body. It took 47 years for the girl's identity to surface and the discovery is credited to a determined Hartford firefighter and arson investigator who wasn't even born when the fire occurred.
On the 61st anniversary of the fire, survivors, relatives of the victims, officials and many others gathered to dedicate a memorial constructed on the site. Now a field behind Wish Elementary School, the memorial includes a center "ring" consisting of four granite benches and a bronze disk bearing names of the victims and their ages. Flowering dogwoods mark the location of the side and end walls of the tent and the story of the circus fire is told by a series of tablets at the site.
The Hartford Circus Fire of 1944 remains one of the worst catastrophes in the state's history and the worst tragedy in the annals of circus history. It has been called "The Day the Clowns Cried."
For more information on the circus fire, visit these sites:
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