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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
Posted on July 7, 2014, in Deep Thoughts & Fun Stuff and tagged books on circus fires, Hartford Circus Fire, Hartford CT, Mark Twain House, Mike Skidgell, Stewart O’Nan. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.