Marking the Hartford Circus Fire’s 70th Anniversary …

“Everyone had a metaphor. The tent went up like cellophane, like tissue paper, like a fuse. A Roman candle, a sheet of newspaper. It was like tossing a piece of paper in a fireplace, like putting a match to a celluloid collar.” ~ Stewart O’Nan, THE CIRCUS FIRE, Doubleday, June 2000, p. 81

Circus Fire Twain Event 4

A stand-up discussing the fire outside of the event room.

On July 6, 1944, 168 people died when a fire broke out during a performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Hartford, CT. While I am not related to anyone who was there that day (that I know of, at least) and have no connection to it, the tragedy, for some reason, has always interested me.

This year, several events marked the fire’s 70th anniversary: The City of Hartford held a ceremony at the site’s permanent memorial, WTIC radio ran a 90-minute documentary and aired other programming related to the disaster, and the Mark Twain House & Museum held a talk with Tom Condon of The Hartford Courant, Stewart O’Nan, author of The Circus Fire—A True Story of an American Tragedy, and Michael Skidgell, author of The Hartford Circus Fire—Tragedy Under the Big Top.

Circus Fire Twain Event 1

From left, Tom Condon of THE HARTFORD COURANT, Michael Skidgell of, and author Stewart O’Nan at the Mark Twain House & Museum’s talk on the Hartford Circus Fire, July 6, 2014.

I attended this last event with my friends Stacey Longo Harris and Michele Ingram, both of whom enjoy reading and history. The program was supposed to begin with the showing of Split Second, a short film by directors Lauren Cook and Charles Kahn for Hartford River Dreams which chronicles the story of survivor Dennis Sullivan, whose cousin died that day. Unfortunately, the computer wasn’t working, so we didn’t get to see it; however, it’s on Vimeo, so Michele and I were able to watch it after we got home. If you’d like to see it, it’s here.

Circus Fire Twain Event 2

Stewart O’Nan, author of The Circus Fire, discusses crowd reaction during an unusual event, such as a fire.

While the discussion was fascinating, what was perhaps the most moving were the number of survivors present, many of whom stood up to share their memories of what had happened to them on that black afternoon. One said that to this day, she can close her eyes and smell burning human flesh. Another said he exited the tent and came face to face with the clown Emmett Kelly and watched him as he wept. A third was not there, but was a nurse who tended to “the charcoal people,” as she called them. Some stories it seemed clear both Mike and Stewart, who have heard countless tales by survivors during the course of their research, hadn’t heard.

Circus Fire Twain Event 3

Mike Skidgell, of and author of The Hartford Circus Fire, answers a question.

The event closed out with a book signing by both O’Nan and Skidgell. I was particularly excited to get my personal copy of O’Nan’s book signed by him. I’d met him a while ago (years back) at a KGB literary event in New York, shortly after winning a copy of his rare Poe screenplay. He is a wonderful writer, and if you’ve not read any of his work, do it.

Circus Fire Twain Event 5

My copy of Stewart O’Nan’s THE CIRCUS FIRE.

Other events happening this week include The Hartford History Center remembers Hartford’s Circus Fire 70 Years Later, an exhibit opening and performance by Hartbeat Ensemble incorporating personal accounts of the fire. That event is at the Hartford Public Library Tuesday, July 8, at 5:30 p.m. Information on that is here.  A few links to more information on the fire (there’s a lot more out there than I’ve listed here, but this is a good start), are below.

 Hartford Circus Fire Memorial

“Eternal Flame,” by The Hartford Courant’s Lynn Tuohy. This thirteen page piece is powerful and amazing. The whole thing can be read here for free.

The Hartford Circus Fire: Tragedy Under the Big Top by Michael Skidgell

The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy by Stewart O’Nan

While not a nonfiction resource, this collection of linked short stories with the fire as its central connecting point is awesome: The Greatest Show: Stories (Yellow Shoe Fiction) by Michael Downs

The Hartford Circus Fire – July 6, 1944 – Michael Skidgell’s site that contains a wealth of information, photos, video, survivors’ stories and more.

The Life of Reilly: Part 13, which includes a section on the Hartford Circus Fire. Very moving.

Split Second – short film produced for Hartford River Dreams featuring survivor Dennis Sullivan

Circus Fire Twain Event 6

Stewart O’Nan is extremely gracious; this is, in fact, the second time I’ve met him.

About kristipetersenschoonover

A ghost story writer who still sleeps with the lights on, Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s fiction has appeared in many magazines and anthologies; her traditionally published books include a short story collection, THE SHADOWS BEHIND. She was the recipient of three Norman Mailer Writers Colony Residencies and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. She serves as co-host of the DARK DISCUSSIONS podcast, as founding editor of the dark literary journal 34 ORCHARD, and is a member of both the New England Horror Writers and the Horror Writers Association. Follow her adventures at

Posted on July 7, 2014, in Deep Thoughts & Fun Stuff and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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