Everyone loves a day at the circus – and the 7,000 people who showed for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus on July 6, 1944 were ready for an amazing show. The town of Hartford, Connecticut, was playing host to the famous circus, and people of all ages were gathering beneath the tent to get out of the heat and enjoy the performances and human circus attractions.
Sadly, the day did not go according to plan. In the official reports, the Hartford circus fire claimed a total of 167 lives, most of them children. A small fire broke out near the edge of the tent; the canvas roof was quickly engulfed in flames; and it all went down in under 10 minutes.
Investigations tried to pinpoint a cause and determine who was responsible, but it was all too late for the Hartford circus fire victims and their loved ones. They spent the next days searching through rows of bodies in a makeshift morgue, some of which were never positively identified.
Pictures of the Hartford circus fire, as well as those of "Little Miss 1565" and "sad clown" Emmett Kelly carrying water in a futile attempt to stop the blaze, created a tragically unforgettable view of one of the worst tragedies in performing arts history – "The Day the Clowns Cried."
Causes Of Death Included More Than Just Burns
According to ConnecticutHistory.org, when it came to official causes of death: "Most died from exposure to the fire and smoke, but a significant number were also trampled." The exposure to the fire alone would have been painful and deadly, but to make matters worse, chunks of flaming canvas were falling from above, with hot wax melting off of the waterproofed tent. The circus goers who were trampled to death were trying to escape through one of only a small handful of exits, heavily blocked by the 7,000 people trying to escape. Two of the exits were blocked by tunnels for the animals to be able to travel in and out of the big top, which caused deadly delays.
Some People Managed To Survive By Being At The Bottom Of A Pile Of Bodies
Donald Gale, a 10 year old, and seven-year-old Elliot Smith were attending the circus with family and friends when they became trapped near different exits. Elliot got stuck near the exit where the animal chutes were blocking the path, and he never lost consciousness as people fell on top of him. Donald, near another exit that had bottlenecked just before the roof collapsed, passed out as bodies fell – and kept him safe from the flames.
Both boys were rescued by firemen who were putting out what remained of the fire and were taken to the hospital, where they shared a room for their nearly half-year recovery. They talked about their experiences with the program Disasters of the Century decades after the traumatic event.
Because Of A Wide-Spread Photo Of "Sad Clown" Emmett Kelly Holding A Bucket Of Water, The Event Was Known As "The Day The Clowns Cried"
Emmett Kelly created his sad clown character "Weary Willie" when he was trying to make it as a cartoon artist in the early 1900s. He ended up in the circus instead, working first as a trapeze artist and then bringing "Weary Willie" to life as a full-time clown. He was present for the Hartford circus fire, and he did what he could to help people escape and put out the flames. A photo of Kelly carrying a bucket of water became very widespread and led to the event being nicknamed "The Day The Clowns Cried."
According to his grandson, Kelly loved children and carried the pain of hearing their screams as they died for the rest of his life.
The Actual Casualties Were Most Likely Much Higher Than The Numbers Reported
Although sources give several different numbers for exactly how many people died the day of the fire, the most agreed upon number is 167. The number of people injured was around 700, although that figure only included the injuries that were reported and treated. Many sources admit that the true number of victims of the fire may never be known.