July 6: TheSaddest Day in Hartford History

What began as an innocent day at the circus ended in one of the worst fire disasters in U.S. history, today in 1944.

In early July of that year, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus had set up one of their largest “Big Top” tents in a field in Hartford’s North End — a massive, 500-foot-long canvas tent that encompassed all three rings of the famous traveling circus and could seat up to 9,000 people. On the afternoon of July 6, an estimated crowd of 6,000 – 8,000 people, mostly women and children, were seated inside when flames were spotted in the southwest corner of the tent, 20 minutes into the show.

The source of the fire was likely a carelessly discarded cigarette, but a perfect storm of circumstances converged to create a rapidly spreading, hellish inferno. The tent itself was completely coated in paraffin wax that had been thinned with gasoline — a common method of waterproofing canvas at the time — which accelerated the spread of the fire so quickly it completely consumed the massive tent in mere minutes. Several tent exits were partially blocked, creating a deadly bottleneck of panicked spectators inside the engulfed tent. Flaming chunks of paraffin-soaked canvas fell from the ceiling, severely burning anyone below.

Not even eight minutes after the first flames were spotted, the entire big top tent had collapsed. At least 167 people perished in the blaze, with several hundred more sustaining serious injuries ranging from burns to broken limbs. The next day, charges of involuntary manslaughter were brought against five employees of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, although no one was directly blamed for the start of the fire. The disaster made headlines across the country, and spurred numerous state and local lawmakers to enact stricter fire codes for buildings and public assemblies. To this day, the Hartford Circus Fire remains one of the deadliest and frightful human disasters in Connecticut history.

This aerial photo shows the aftermath of the Hartford Circus Fire of July 6, 1944. (Hartford Public Library)

Further Reading

The Hartford Circus Fire,” connecticuthistory.org

David J. Krajicek “Mysterious Blaze Kills 186 in 1944 Connecticut Circus Horror,” New York Daily News

Michael Skidgell, “Essays about the Hartford Circus Fire,” circusfire1944.com