Read The Circus Fire Online

Authors: Stewart O'Nan

The Circus Fire

BOOK: The Circus Fire




Stewart O ' N a n

Anchor Books
A Division of Random House, Inc.
New York
2000 by Stewart O'Nan

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.

Published in the United States by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc.,

New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited,

Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Doubleday,

a division of Random House, Inc, New York, in 2000.

Anchor Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc. Diagrams on pages 21, 52, and 132 by Jackie Aher
The Library of Congress has cataloged the Doubleday edition as follows:
O'Nan, Stewart, 1961-The circus fire: a true story / by Stewart O'Nan.— 1st ed.

p. cm.

ISBN 0-385-49684-2 1. Hartford Circus Fire, Hartford, Conn., 1944. 2. Hartford (Conn.)—History—

20th century. 3. Fires—Connecticut—Hartford—History—20th century. 4. Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Combined Shows—History. I. Title.

F104.H305 2000

974.6'3—dc21 99-42051


Anchor ISBN: 0-385-49685-0

Author photograph
Amy Etra Book design by Maria Carella

Printed in the United States of America
10 987654321

This book is for everyone who went to the circus that day-those who came home and those who stayed.


I did not want to write this book. Why I attempted it I'm not precisely sure. Certainly not because I had some personal connection to the circus fire or because I had something deep and meaningful to say about it. I suppose it was because I found the fire a strange and tragic event, one that had taken place in the city I had just moved to. In the beginning, writing about the fire was a way, maybe, of learning not only about the mysteries surrounding the fire but also the history that shaped the place I live.

I first ran across a mention of the fire ten years ago in an old
magazine while I was doing research for a novel. The notion of a circus tent burning down and children dying inside it shocked me, as did the pictures accompanying the article.
I must have filed the idea and the images away in my head, as I often do with unsettling things, because years later when we moved to Hartford, I recalled the fire and its effect on me. I decided I should read more about it, so I went to the library and asked for a good history of it.
They didn't have one.
Maybe another library around town?
No, what they meant was, there wasn't one.
I thought that was wrong. The circus fire was the biggest disaster in the history of the state, and such a strange one. So many people had died, I couldn't believe no one had commemorated the event, set it in words for later generations.
I didn't want to write a book about the fire, I just wanted to know what happened. I started asking people around town what they knew about it.
Everyone had a friend or neighbor who had been there that day, a grandmother or a cousin. Everyone had a story. People of that generation knew exactly where they were that afternoon, just as, later, they could recall what they were doing when President Kennedy was shot. The fire had that great of an impact on the city.
By then I'd begun to do research, thinking—not realistically—that maybe I could interest someone who knew how to write nonfiction in taking on the project. I'd gather the material and hand it off to a professional and in a year or two I'd have that book I wanted to read.
Soon I had several notebooks full of photocopied documents, and the novel I thought would take me into the next century was finished. Suddenly I had the time and obviously the interest. I was stuck.

By choosing to write the book, I would assume the obligation of telling hundreds of survivors' stories. I would become—in a way I did not feel comfortable with—the custodian of the circus fire, implicitly charged with not only telling its story but also, in the method of telling it, in my choices as a writer, interpreting the fire, imbuing it with whatever meaning I felt it had. I did not want that responsibility, but at that point what I wanted no longer mattered. The fire had me, and I had it.

When I first told people not from Hartford that I planned to write a nonfiction history of the fire, they asked me why I didn't just write a novel. The question surprised me; I'd never thought of writing a novel about it. From the beginning, because of its vague, legendary nature, I felt it deserved only the most stringent, very best intentions of nonfiction, the idea being to tell the truth about an event that changed the lives of tens of thousands of people. I suppose I thought I might cheapen the fire by fictionalizing it.
As I dug deeper into the research, I discovered my choice of nonfiction was right for a simpler reason: the fact that truth really is stranger than fiction. Not merely weirder, but packed with coincidences, gaps and lapses that well-made fiction can't tolerate. The subject—the deaths of 167 people, most of them women and children—seemed to beg for a clear and definitive telling, yet the picture available to me was fragmentary and often contradictory.
The story of the circus fire, as Hartford already knows, is not just a tragedy but also a mystery, probably insoluble, which keeps it alive and vital in the city's imagination, an emotional touchstone. This mix keeps it fascinating yet frustrating. The answers we want nailed down can't be. Only in fiction could the story of the circus fire be made complete, its missing pieces found and fitted neatly into place. But then it wouldn't be true.
Even this is a best guess. Though I've tried to be careful in my inter-

views with survivors and the families of the dead, and diligent in my research of the existing files, the circus fire is essentially a mystery, now further obscured by time. This account cannot possibly contain the whole, complete truth of what happened without including all of the literally thousands of stories of that day and the hard days beyond. That book would be as wide as life and as long as memory.

This book contains just some of what I learned about Hartford and how it responded so heroically to a terrible and unique tragedy. As a history, it hopes to fix a time and a place long gone, to preserve it so readers can visit it and try to understand what the people of Hartford went through, how they faced the worst and bravely found ways to carry on, as people are asked to do every day.

Any errors or critical omissions in this book are mine. To all those who recognize them, I apologize.

A Carnival should be all growls, roars like timberlands stacked, bundled, rolled and crashed, great explosions of lion dust, men ablaze with working anger, pop bottles jangling, horse buckles shivering, engines and elephants in full stampede through rains of sweat while zebras neighed and trembled like cage trapped in cage.

But this was like old movies, the silent theater haunted with black-and-white ghosts, silvery mouths opening to let moonlight smoke out, gestures made in silence so hushed you could hear the wind fizz the hair on your cheeks.
More shadows rustled from the train, passing the animal cages where darkness prowled with unlit eyes and the calliope stood mute save for the faintest idiot tune the breeze piped wandering up the flues.
The ringmaster stood in the middle of the land. The balloon like a vast moldy green cheese stood fixed to the sky. Then— darkness came .

—Ray Bradbury,
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Cleveland, 1942

They played by the lake, their tops guyed out on the lot by Municipal Stadium. The Indians were on the road, and healthy crowds turned out for the big show. Only the Pennsy tracks ran between them and the shore, fenced them in along the bluffs. All day a breeze off the water snapped the flags of the big top.

It was August and hot. It was the first summer of the war and already they were short of men. Their owner John Ringling North had scaled back to a four-pole big top from the traditional six, but layout superintendent Leonard Aylesworth still had to recruit neighborhood kids to help his men erect the tents.

They were always late that summer; the engines they relied on to pull their trains were needed for the war. The Office of Defense Transportation decided when they went and how they got there—a problem only made worse by the oversized flatcars they used to haul their wagons. The curves on some routes were too tight and there were delays, hours spent stalled on sidings to let troop and munitions trains through. The jumps between cities took too long, and then setting up was slow, and the matinees got pushed back.

On top of that, the man who usually oversaw all these logistics, general manager George Washington Smith, was gone, off to the Army's War Show, an open-air mock-battle pageant designed to sell victory bonds by displaying the tanks and planes and howitzers the country was subsidizing.

Still, Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows made their dates. Blowing a show was bad luck, and they'd had enough of that already. There was serious money to be made. War plants were running three shifts and everyone had a fat paycheck, not like a few years ago. Just two railroad shows had survived the Depression, and the Cole Brothers only remotely rivaled Big Bertha.
This was still the Greatest Show on Earth, with its tradition and glitter, a new elephant ballet scored by Stravinsky and choreographed by
Balanchine, and stars like Emmett Kelly and Alfred Court, the Wallendas and the Cristianis and the Flying Concellos, even menagerie draws like Gargantua the giant gorilla and his bride M'Toto, who did nothing but loll around in their air-conditioned cages until it was time for their twice-a-day staged wedding. One hundred clowns, the posters boasted, one thousand animals.
People came out to see them and forget the war, if only for a moment. There was a promotion where if you bought a bond you got a free grandstand ticket, and the show this year was decidedly patriotic, the big spectacle or "spec" a celebration of American holidays, the finale of the closing spec capped by the unfurling of four huge portraits of President Roosevelt. Servicemen in uniform were admitted free.
The '42 show had done well so far, opening strong in Madison Square Garden, following that with a good run at Boston Garden, then dipping down south to Baltimore to open under canvas. They played packed houses all the way up the eastern seaboard—Hartford was especially good, with Colt's Firearms and United Aircraft there—before turning inland across upstate New York. In Syracuse they played a straw matinee, the overflow crowd sitting on the ground, and then a turnaway that night, the big top so full even John Carson's opportunistic crew of ushers couldn't shoehorn one more rube in. Sellouts in Schenectady and Utica, a big house in Buffalo, but then when they hit Pittsburgh it rained.

It was a rough go. During the opening matinee, one of Alfred Court's lions attacked trainer Vincent Souday, laying his right thigh open from groin to knee. Court himself rushed in to finish the act, but the damage was done, the mood had been set. It poured. For the six-day stand the backyard was mud, the girls in the spec hauling on boots, their rainy day costumes clammy, never quite dry.

At the employment office downtown the circus requested permission to hire 150 more workers, but war industries had priority, and Pittsburgh, the steel capital of the world, was working round the clock, the mills churning out clouds so dark the city kept their streetlights on all day long. The young, unattached men whom the glamour and freedom of circus life had always drawn were in dire short supply. The show took on anyone who signed up and was happy to get out of town.
Cleveland was a four-day engagement, August 3rd through the 6th,

shows at 2:15 and 8:15 daily, doors open at 1:00 and 7:00, same as always. Like the army the circus operated by clockwork; every working person knew where they had to be and what they had to do. In the last war it was said the Kaiser had modeled his army's transportation scheme after Barnum's. The routine defined everyone's day; in a way it comforted them, gave them something solid to hang on to.

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