Pictures on July 6th 1944 were taken  just hours before the Hartford Circus Fire




Above photographs courtesy of Rocky Harahan Wilmington Mass © All rights reserved


Images from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus Fire July 6th 1944

HARTFORD, Conn., July 7. (UP) – Five officials of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus were charged with manslaughter today while state, county, and municipal authorities pushed a searching investigation into the disaster of fire and panic under the big top in which 139 persons, 80 of them children, died. While authorities questioned through the night canvas-men, performers, roustabouts, and members of yesterday's matinee audience of 10,000 that saw an acre and more of canvas dissolve into flame above its head, 20 or more of the 214 injured crowding all local hospitals were in dying condition and it was feared that the ultimate death toll would reach 150. Police Prosecutor BURR LEIKIND ordered a charge of manslaughter lodged against J. A. HALEY, vice president of the circus; EDWARD VERSTEEG, chief electrician; DAVID W. BLANCHFIELD, chief wagon and tractor man; GEORGE W. SMITH, general manager; and LEONARD AYLESWORTH, boss canvas man. LEIKIND said the five men were arrested by Hartford police during the night. Coroner FRANK D. HEALY subpoenaed the five officials plus 15 executives to an inquest Tuesday when he intends fixing responsibility for the disaster. Under Connecticut law, the coroner has charge of the investigation of violent deaths in the pre-grand jury stage.


Makes Charges Mayor WILLIAM H. MORTENSEN headed a committee of nine officials conducting an investigation paralleling the coroner's and early today he issued a public statement making two charges: (1) The circus tent, the largest in the world “had been sprayed with paraffine which had been melted in gasoline,” (2) a steel runway, used to bring animals in and out of the big top “closed off an entire end of the oval, obstructing exits.” Approximately 60 bodies were found jammed against the runway, he said. State Police Commissioner EDWARD J. HICKEY conducted a third investigation independent of but paralleling the other two. LEIKIND refused to make public the evidence upon which he based the charge of manslaughter and, under his orders, police were secretive. LEIKIND said the five men were being “held at the police station.” The captain on duty there said he knew nothing about it. Officials of the circus would not comment. Later, HALEY and SMITH were released in $15,000 bail each and VERSTEEG, BLANCHFIELD and AYLESWORTH in $10,000 each. Authorities, it was learned, were concentrating upon the spotlights perched high in the corners of “the biggest tent in the world” belonging to “the greatest show on earth,” which at the instant the fire broke out were illuminating “The Flying Wallendas,” a high wire aerial act, in their white, hot glare. A number of witnesses said the fire first appeared directly above one of the spotlights which were so high they appeared to be almost touching the slanting roof of the tent.


Crowd In Panic At first the fire was merely a red spot, tiny in comparison to the great sweeping acres of canvas to which it was an uncontrollable destructive force. One second later it had grown to the size of the roof of one of the small, white cottages of the typical Connecticut countryside which so many in the audience had left to see a dazzling array of death defying performers and laughing clowns and were never to return. With an audible swishing sound it raced toward the center poles and 50 feet below 10,000 men and women momentarily went insane, stamping, kicking, and climbing over one another, and, tragically, hundreds of small children occupying as children will at a circus, the very front seats. It was all over in 15 minutes – that rapidly did the flames spread over the acres of canvas and dump their ashy remnants down to set the tiers of seats on fire. Then performers and audience alike rushed into the flame-encircled arena to carry out the bodies of the dead, the dying and the injured.


Sad-faced EMMETT KELLY, one of the circus three top clowns, mourning “the little children who have for so many years give me my living” carried out many of their bodies. CARL and HERMAN WALLENDA carried out “many, so very many” and some were dead. FELIX ADLER, “the king of the clowns” carried out more and tears streaked his make-up. But the first thing he did was remove his pet pig from the dressing tent to a place he deemed safer. LOU JACOBS, the third of the circus stellar clowns, was spared the ordeal of his brothers. He was in New York becoming an American citizen. Almost all of the dead were believed to have died in the panic of suffocation, of shock induced by acute fright, and of being knocked down and stomped under the feet of the thousands stampeding for the exits.


All Could Have Escaped Though the fire swept over the top of the tent with speed of an eye blink there was enough time for all 10,000 to have escaped unharmed if they had responded to the efforts of the circus people to calm them. The circus band, directed by that renowned circus maestro, MERLE EVANS, played on until the part of the audience that hadn't been converted into piles of corpses, had fled safely from beneath the sagging sky of flames. And several ring masters shouted: “Let's all sing” and bravely sang away at the first bars of “Old Black Joe” themselves until it was apparent that no one but they intended singing. Even then there was ample time for the singers to escape because the big huge center poles stood, though they were sagging holding up the flaming canvas. The center poles sagged more and more until at last they were flat on the ground, but they didn't collapse because their support ropes and braces burned unevenly and though they were scorched, they were not burned and will be used again. The tent itself, 600 feet long, the length of a city block, 220 feet wide, weighing 20 tons, was so completely destroyed that reporters on the scene several hours later couldn't find a piece of it more than three inches square, in the mounds of gray ash.


Children Victims The greatest tragedy, was centered in the bodies of 80 children laid out on army cots in the local armory of the Connecticut National Guard – on some of the cots, two little bodies – all covered with olive drab blankets from which little feet, some of them bare, some in the well scuffed shoes of active little boys and the party shoes of good little girls, protruded. Parents, fathers and mothers, moved along the rows of cots. A blanket would be pulled back, revealing a white, inanimate face, a mother's lips would sag and her facial muscles would tighten and with a scream, perhaps, but more often, with a dry sob that barely was audible, she would turn away and a coroner's assistant would ask her the name and age and address, write it on a green card and attach the card to the blanket with wire. This is a big war industry town, in the heart of industrial New England, and parents don't have time to take children to the circus. Therefore, many of the children had gone unescorted, but in a number of cases the bodies of the father or mother or uncle or family friend, who had taken a child to the most thrilling afternoon a child can have, were on cots nearby.


Many Unidentified When authorities closed the armory at 1 a. m., many of the 135 remained unidentified. The score or so of bodies of children still not identified were believed to have dead parents nearby. From shortly after the disaster at 2:42 p. m., until the doors were closed, there had been an unending procession of sorrowing men and women up and down the aisle fringed by cots and it resumed when the armory reopened at 8 a. m.


Circus Cancels Tour Authorities indicated that neither the circus nor any of its property would be removed from the circus grounds until all investigations are completed and that my be weeks. Circus officials were busy canceling scheduled appearances in 20 towns – today it was to have performed in Springfield, Mass. They said that when it could, the circus would return to Sarasota, Fla., its winter quarters, to be refitted for what will remain of its summer tour. The circus lost only its big top and three-fourths of its wooden seats. The menagerie was drown up in an oval 20 feet from the big top and and a little to the right of the main entrance and the inmates of the scores of heavy cages mounted on big wheels and parked end to end, were not disturbed. Their attendants insisted that they weren't even aware of what was happening behind them. The backs of the cages were covered by canvas and behind them strips of canvas, called “sheets” rose on poles for a height of 12 feet. The performers tent in which the hundreds of riders, aerialists, clowns, jugglers put on and take off their tights and spangles, though only 20 feet behind the big top, wasn't touched. Very few of them were aware of the disaster until it was over. The “Flying Wallendas” had been scheduled for a 20-minute performance and they got through only seven minutes of it. Circus officials have said the tent cost $60,000 and its guys, ropes and poles were worth $20,000 more. Except for the center poles, all were lost. It was understood that the circus carries $500,000 liability insurance and fire and storm insurance on all its equipment.


The Lowell Sun Massachusetts July 6th 1944


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