Hartford Circus Fire

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.

For six weeks Ohio police and medical authorities listened at first with disbelief and the with increasing horror as a stoop-shouldered 20-year-old youth named Robert Dale Segee unfolded a grisly tale of arson and murder. Accustomed to fake confessions of unstable, publicity-seeking people, officials came to believe Segee's story through a mass of corroborative evidence, particularly a series of crayon drawings he made. With them Segee told of a life of crime which began with a murder when he was 8 years old, and reached a terrible climax in 1944 when he set a match to the big top of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Hartford, Conn. and started the holocaust which in six minutes killed 169 spectators.

The Hartford Circus Fire took place during a Ringling Brothers’ Barnum and Bailey Circus performance in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1944. The tent was coated with a mix of paraffin and gasoline (some sources say kerosene), which was a common waterproofing method of the time, and when a side wall of the tent caught on fire this combination caused the flames to spread rapidly. More than 100 of the 168 people killed were younger than 15.

The fast spread of the fire caused the tent to collapse, trapping circus spectators beneath the burning debris. Of the inadequate number of exits, many were blocked, and this, along with the overcrowding of the tent, made escape difficult.

July 6,1944 dawned a hot, humid day in Connecticut. My family and a close neighbor were anticipating an excursion to the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, which was playing in Hartford. This was a special treat for us as World War II was still on. Gasoline, being in limited supply, was reserved for necessary trips only. The thirty mile drive to Hartford did not meet that criteria. Our neighbor had bought a car from a draftee. Along with the car came gasoline ration stamps. There was our ticket to go! Nine of us piled into their extra car and headed for Hartford. We ranged in age from 5 to 47 years old. My Mother had four of her children along, and the neighbor had three of hers. My 16 year old sister was working for the "War Effort" in the tobacco fields in the Connecticut River Valley that summer and did not accompany us. The motto was, "Lucky Strike Goes To War". The neighbor's baby did not go either. He was at home tended by a war refugee, who was stranded in the states when the war in Europe broke out. She spoke no English.

WHEN he was 14 years old and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to town in July of 1944, John Stewart Jr. of Hartford was already an old circus hand of sorts. After carrying water for the elephants for four years in a row, young Stewart was elevated to supervising other teen-agers hired to do chores during the circus's annual two-day run at the Barbour Street circus grounds.

On July 6, the matinee performance had begun and a capacity crowd of about 7,000 people -- mostly women and children -- was jammed into the 550-foot-long Big Top on a scorching hot, humid day. John Stewart was still at work outside, as he had been for parts of two days. He planned to use his two passes -- the remuneration for his labor -- at the performance that night.