How circus big top became deadly inferno in ‘the day the clowns cried’

The ‘worst fire in circus history’ took place in 1944

In 1944, many American young men were overseas fighting the Nazis during the final years of World War Two.

It meant mainly women and children were left behind, and free to spend an afternoon at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Connecticut, US

Explosions and fires were common in the cities bombed on both sides in Europe, but not in Hartford where the country’s biggest circus had just pitched its tent.

Eighty years ago today, though, on July 6, 1944, the audience of around 7,000 witnessed a disaster just as horrific as wartime terrors.

At least 167 people were killed, with hundreds of others injured, in the flames and the crush to escape when the whole thing burnt down, trapping them beneath the burning cavas.

The audience had been sat on bleachers watching acrobats perform on the high wire. Lion tamers had just finished their routine, and the big cats were being ushered back to their cages using contraptions which blocked some of the exits.

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When the first flames began flickering up the sloping roof of the tent, musicians were ordered to play ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’, a tune which signifies distress to circus performers.

Fire spread terrifyingly quickly across the canvas as it had been treated with paraffin and gasoline, a concoction which made the structure waterproof but extremely flammable. 

Most were able to get out, including a man who cut through the side of the tent using his pocket knife.

But within around ten minutes, those who had not yet made it out were trapped when the burning tent crashed down on top of them. 

The disaster was international news at the time, and remains a terrible scar in history. 

Emmett Kelly, dressed as ‘Weary Willie,’the famous clown for Barnum Bailey Circus (Picture: Bettmann Archive)

Flames spread quickly due to the flammable waterproofing used on the tent’s canvas (Picture: AP)

The fire also led to crushes as people rushed to escape (Picture: Bettmann Archive)

A report of the disaster in the New York Times, 1944 (Picture: Rex)

Grace Fifield has been listed as missing since the tragedy, and authorities hoped exhuming the bodies could finally give closure

Northwood Cemetery, where bodies were exhumed decades later to try and identify bodies of those who died in the blaze (Picture: AP)

The cause of the fire is still unknown, with initial investigators believing it was caused by a carelessly discarded cigarette.

In 1950, Robert Dale Segee, who had worked for the circus as a teenager, confessed to arson saying he had seen a vision of a Native American on a ‘flaming horse’ who had told him to set the fire.

But he later recanted the confession, and it could never be proved whether Segee, who had a history of mental illness, was even in the state at the time.

The circus paid out millions of pounds in compensation to those who were injured and their families. 

Even now, the disaster still looms large with questions remaining about five people reported missing, presumed likely to have died in the fire but never confirmed.

In 2019, bodies were exhumed from two of five graves of unidentified circus victims in Northwood cemetery after surviving relatives gave DNA samples, with the hope of finally matching them to the missing people.

But tests were inconclusive, with medical examiner Dr James Gill saying high bacterial content of the remains made identification difficult.

One image from the day of the disaster proved symbolic of the tragedy, showing celebrity clown Emmett Kelly, who played the downtrodden ‘tramp’ character Weary Willie’ holding a water bucket as he rushed towards the fire.

The brave attempt to help using something painfully insufficient came to symbolise the disaster as ‘the day the clowns cried’.

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