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Our little town held its annual fall festival the week after Labor Day.  It's a strictly small town affair, featuring a carnival with antiquated rides, enticing only to the little kids.  There's also entertainment -- this year it was a sampling of area talent, a change from the past couple of years when we've gotten once well-known entertainers whose star, however brightly it may once have burned, is a cold cinder now.  There's a parade, with lots of antique cars and tractors; horses; all the local fire trucks and ambulances; floats sponsored by local churches and organizations; the high school band; and a smattering of politicians, exclusively Republicans this year, and most of them running for the same redistricted state assembly seat.  Way to go, Democrats!

And, of course, there are "The Tents", which house booths where churches and community organizations fund-raise and local businesses hawk their products.  You can chow down on some Lutheran barbeque and a slice of homemade pie (packaged with a slip of paper containing a Bible verse, the better to save your sorry soul), or try a pork chop sandwich from the Boy Scouts, cut a deal on a new air-conditioner at the plumbing and heating company's booth, listen to a pitch on the latest products from the beauty parlor or the bank, or otherwise while away the time chatting with those acquaintances whom, though they may only live minutes away, you seem to see almost exclusively at the festival each year.  The last thing on anyone's mind is sheets flaming tent fabric crashing down upon them.  So it was in Hartford, Connecticut in 1944,

July, 1944
There was still a war on, but just one month to the day after allied forces stormed the beaches at Normandy there was, after three bleak years, some reason for hope.  And war or no, the public at home did permit itself a little entertainment now and then, despite the rationing, vigilance, and sacrifice that had become a way of life over the previous two-and-one-half years.

Though low on manpower owing to the draft and experiencing many of the same shortages as anyone else, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus still lived up to its self-proclaimed reputation as the Greatest Show on Earth.  When it rolled into Hartford, Connecticut just after the Fourth of July, there was a ready audience eager to take in the entertainment that had, in the pre-television era, entranced Americans since the very founding of the country.  So it was disappointing, then, when the July 5th performance had to be canceled because part of the circus, including the big tent, was delayed in transit from the previous show in Providence, Rhode Island.

By now - Thursday, July 6th - the massive tent had finally arrived and had been hastily erected.  It measured some 425 feet long and 180 feet wide.  At 74,000 square feet, it covered over 1 1/2 acres and weighed in the neighborhood of nineteen tons.  It could seat in excess of nine thousand, six thousand in reserved seating and another three thousand in general admission.

Plan of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Big Top (NFPA)
The circus was pitched on a city-owned circus lot.  It was late in arriving and was in some haste in getting ready for the afternoon show.  A city [Buildings Department] inspector was on the scene before the stands were up and issued a permit.  Apparently this was considered routine and it was stated the inspection was made to cover the zoning ordinance requirements.  There is no indication that the inspector gave any consideration to such matters as the width of exits or flameproofing of the canvas.  The Fire Prevention Bureau of the Fire Department received no notice from the Building Department regarding the issuance of the permits and had no official notification that the circus was in operation.  Neither did the Fire Department, under Chief John C. King, have a fire-fighting detail at the circus ...
National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Journal: Warren Y. Kimball, "Hartford Circus Holocaust"

The lease Ringling Brothers signed with the city, a later investigation would reveal, had been drawn up by the circus itself.  Unsurprisingly, like a regulation drawn up by the regulated, it made few demands on the circus.

Seven thousand were in the crowd on the afternoon of July 6.  With many men away at war and women filling manufacturing jobs in their absence, the audience consisted of a larger-than-usual proportion of children.  The wild animal acts had just finished -- temporary steel cages were still standing in the rings on either end of the performance area, and covered chutes of portable metal fencing used to guide the animal to and from the cages for the performance were still in place.  The chutes ran through two of the nine exits from the tent and led to trucks parked outside the tent that brought the animals in for the show, constricting, if not effectively  blocking, the exits while they were in place.

(Photo: )
The famous Flying Wallendas were just beginning their act when the band suddenly broke into Sousa's The Stars and Stripes Forever, a musical alarm to the circus employees signaling an emergency.  Flames had been spotted about twenty feet south of the main entrance, on the windward side of the Big Top.  When first spotted the flames were perhaps five or six feet in height, still small enough to have been put out by a conventional fire extinguisher, had there been one at hand.  But although the circus had some twenty 2 1/2- and 3-gallon fire extinguishers and about 30 smaller ones, most were still stowed in the circus train cars -- none had been distributed to strategic locations in the tents, and many were empty or had not been inspected or re-charged in some time.  The circus's own four fire trucks, usually stationed outside the tent during performances had been used to carry water for the animals and for sprinkling the dry, dusty grounds, had inexplicably not been staged for this show.  Instead, three or four 12-quart buckets of water were thrown on the fire by circus employees to little effect.  The fire continued to grow.

Some spectators seated at the northwest end but finding the fire too threatening to use the main entrance, immediately headed to the exit at the far end of the tent.  But the majority of the crowd, apparently thinking the fire was part of the show, or thinking it was inconsequential and would be quickly brought under control, remained in their seats for a considerable period of time.  The early-reactors were reportedly able to traverse the full length of the tent to the east exit before the mass of the crowd reacted.

As the fire rapidly increased and hit the top canvas, the flame was about 2 feet wide at the point of contact.  A gust of wind from the southwest then drove the fire across the underside of the tent and almost immediately the entire canvas was enveloped in flames.  The ropes holding the supporting poles were burned through almost at once, allowing the great poles to fall among the panic-stricken throng and causing several fatalities.
NFPA Journal: Warren Y. Kimball, "Hartford Circus Holocaust"
(Photo: )
Now, as the flames raced across the roof of the tent above them, and scraps of burning fabric dropped into the audience, the crowd fell into panicked flight, charging down the stands or jumping the ten-plus feet from the top of the stands at the back and crawling under the sidewalls of the tent.  The patrons scrambling down the stands to the walkway in front of the reserved seating tossed the unattached folding chairs out of their way creating -- as at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston two years before -- a tangle of obstacles for those coming after them.

As the flames had engulfed the west, main entrance, the crowd fled to the remaining exits.  On the south side of the tent, with easy access to at least four unobstructed exits, most were able to get out with relative ease.  The patrons in the reserved seats on the north side faced a far more perilous situation.  The nearest exit on the north side not blocked by animal cages and chutes, the center exit, was barely five feet wide and quickly filled.  The next principal point of egress, the east exit by the bandstand, required the crowd to either cross over a set of stile steps over the chute (also only about five feet wide) or climb over the chute itself, a difficult task for children and women in high heels.  (Although some of the Wallendas reportedly escaped the tent in the nick of time by walking the top of the chutes like a tightrope.)

(Photo: )
As the fire spread, flaming sheets of canvas rained down on the crowd, igniting, hair and clothing, particularly the lightweight summer clothing of the women and children.  The fire burned away the canvas and the ropes, and one by one the great, 12-inch-diameter poles holding up the roof came crashing down, killing and injuring many.  The crowd piled up at the chutes and scrambled over each other in a desperate attempt to escape.  The band continued to play in a futile attempt to calm the hysterical crowd, but as the last pole began to sway, the musicians leaped from the stage and dashed through the exit behind them as the last end of the flame-engulfed tent came crashing down.

By the time the Hartford fire department arrived at the scene, the tent was completely down and the fire now consuming the wooden stands.  There would be no heroic rescues; all that was left was to douse the remaining flames and begin the gruesome task of recovering bodies.  The fire had brought down the Big Top in less than ten minutes -- some witnesses said as little as six or seven.  Whether the circus's fire-fighting equipment would have been able to contain the fire or not was a moot point.  It had not been a position to respond.  Circus employees who had rushed to the tent to help found themselves blocked from entering the tent because of the fleeing masses clogging the exits.

(Photo: )
The final death toll of the disaster, somewhat disputed. is usually considered to be 168 people, 67 of them children, most of the rest women.  About sixty bodies were found clustered by the northeast animal chute, piled so deeply, in fact, that there were even instances of people surviving the fire because of the protection of the bodies piled on top of them.  A third of the victims had to be identified by dental records.  Six (or possibly seven) of the victims were never identified, known only by the numbers assigned their remains, including one, christened Little Miss 1565, who became legend over the years.  Nearly five hundred people were injured.  Unlike past tragedies suffered by circuses, as the famous clown Emmett Kelly later lamented in his autobiography,
Emmett Kelly in full "Weary Willie" costume captured
 on film carrying a bucket of water at the Hartford fire.  
He stated in his aurobiography that he grabbed the
bucket instinctively, but there was really nothing he
could do with it, the fire was so advanced.
(Photo: )

...always before, in circus catastrophes, the people who died or got hurt had been mostly our own. The terrible thing about the Hartford Fire was that the victims had been our customers, and that so many of them were kids.
Clown, quoted in The Day the Clowns Cried

The bodies of the victims were laid out at the State Armory awaiting identification and claiming of the remains.  The number of dead so overwhelmed the Hartford mortuary industry that undertakers were brought in from other cities to assist the local parlors.

Hartford was a city of funerals. Every hearse, every livery car was in constant use; undertakers toiled night & day, and some funeral parlors were holding services at 15-minute intervals. In the late hours Friday, all day Saturday, all day Sunday the slow processions moved through the streets; the quiet crowds gathered, dispersed and gathered again in the cemeteries.
Time Magazine, DISASTERS: Six Minutes

How the fire started and why it spread so fast have been the subject of debate for almost 70 years.  Officially, the cause was declared undetermined, thought likely to have been a cigarette carelessly tossed into dry grass near the tent, but others have argued for an electrical short-circuit, children playing with matches, and arson.  At least one man, a convicted arsonist considered to be mentally ill, confessed to starting the fire years later, but some have expressed doubt of his veracity, and there is apparently a question as to whether he was even in Connecticut at the time.

While the cause of the fire is still open to some supposition, why the fire spread so fast is less of a mystery. With materials in short supply because of the War, the canvas had been waterproofed with a mixture of paraffin wax thinned by gasoline; a flammable mixture to say the least. Some workers said that the tent had not been waterproofed for sometime, but the ferocity in which the fire spread led some to believe that was not the case. Robert Ringling would later testify that he was unable to procure fire-resistant materials because of war shortages, although this is assertion has also been contested.
Simsbury Volunteer Fire Company:
The Hartford Circus Fire

Sources related that in April the tent had been waterproofed with mixture of 6,000 gallons of gasoline and 1,800 pounds of paraffin.  Although the volatile elements of the gasoline would have long since evaporated by July, the paraffin coating remaining would have burned relatively easily, especially with the canvas fabric of the tent serving as, essentially, a giant wick.

In the wake of the disaster, the city of Hartford and the State of Connecticut undertook investigations, both of the circus and of the performance of city officials and departments.  In addition to the condition of the tent itself, criticisms focused of the failure to properly stage necessary firefighting equipment, city departments' failure to coordinate  with each other, lack of staffing, and other deficiencies.  It seemed as if glaring breaches of the kind of fire regulations that were routinely applied to fixed facilities had escaped the notice of those in charge of monitoring the transitory, temporary venues of "itinerant performance companies" such as the circus.

The Building Exits Code requires one 22-inch unit of exit for each 100 persons accommodated.  On this basis the circus would have required 91 units of exit width, whereas our study of the circus grounds after the fire showed a maximum of 43 units of exit width actually provided.  At the time of the fire these limited exits facilities were further reduced by the obstruction of two of the north exits by the animal chute cages.  The effect of this was to block two sections of reserved seats, having approximately 3000 seating capacity, and leaving only one narrow exit which was less than three 22-inch units in width, and thus could not be expected to take care of more than 10 percent of the persons isolated in the northern grandstands.
NFPA Journal: Warren Y. Kimball, "Hartford Circus Holocaust"

Five officials of the circus, from a vice president to a wagon man were arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter.  They were released on bonds ranging from $10,000 to $15,000 ($130,000 - $200,000 in today's dollars), and the process of negotiating a settlement for the the injured and the families of those killed began.  The circus was held in Hartford while the fire was investigated and a settlement worked out.  The city and the circus' lawyers eventually reached an agreement whereby the circus was placed into a virtual receivership.  Although it admitted no wrong-doing, Ringling Brothers agreed to have all of its profits directed to the settling of claims by a government-appointed arbitrator. until its obligation was deemed to be satisfied.  Because of the circus's cooperation and consent to the agreement, it was allowed to continue with the remainder of its touring season after about a month of being held under court order in Hartford.  The five circus employees were found guilty and four of the five served jail time, although they would be pardoned after a relatively short incarceration.  The circus would eventually pay about five million dollars to the victims and their families.

As a result of the fire, Connecticut implemented new regulations that even today are recognized as the strictest in the nation.  

As Hartford buried its dead, new rules and regulations for fire safety in circuses and commercial tents were drafted. As a result of these changes, circuses were required to have a fire department on standby for all performances, with hose lines charged. A dedicated fire watch was required during performances. Aisles had to be maintained free of seating. And the big top was now required to have a flame-retardant treatment.

Changing economic times resulted in the relocation of many circuses from big tops to arenas, which included amenities such as air conditioning and lighting. Despite the changes, commercial tents are still in use today and required to adhere to NFPA 102: Standard for Grandstands, Folding and Telescopic Seating, Tents, and Membrane Structures. As a result, the U.S. hasn't seen a commercial tent fire claim another life since that tragic day in Hartford in 1944
Fire Protection Engineering, April M. Musser, "The Hartford Circus Fire"

The lessons of Hartford were not lost on the rest of the nation.  Cities, counties, and states across the country began an intense review of their own regulations governing circuses and other forms of traveling entertainment.

The new national code, drafted [by the American Standards Association] with the assistance of the Hartford building inspector and several Hartford insurance executives, stipulated minimum fire safety standards for "circuses, fairs, carnivals. exhibitions, contests, gospel meetings, auctions or other public assemblage."  The guidelines covered such issues as the minimum number of exits, exit and aisle passages, fastening of seats, flame-proofing materials, combustibility of wood and wires, amount and location of fire-fighting equipment, training of personnel, use of ventilators to draw off heat and gases in the event of a fire, and emergency lighting systems to ensure against panic during power failures.
Henry S. Cohn & David Bollier, The Great Hartford Circus Fire: Creative Settlement of Mass Disasters

It would be thirty years -- 1974 -- before the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, by then under new ownership, returned to Hartford, but there was no Big Top this time, the circus now playing indoor arenas where air-conditioning cooled spectators relaxing in fixed and padded seating as fire-resistant construction and  built-in fire protection systems offered a degree of comfort and safety not possible in tents.  

When a return trip a few years later had to be canceled because of the collapse of the Hartford Civic Center roof under the weight of unusually heavy ice and snow, the circus filed a one million dollar lawsuit against the city for breach of contract.  At the end of the day, it's just business.

The above was to be the closing line of this post, but I came across a statement so full of profound truth and so to the point of this series, that I couldn't let this diary pass without quoting it:

The emotional trauma of public tragedies tend to wash over communities with a stunning force and then slowly dissipate with time, as memories grow dim.  The most meaningful residue and the most enduring legacy of a preventable tragedy, therefore, can often be found in the law, a medium by which one generation can transmit its hard-won lessons to future generations.
 Henry S. Cohn & David Bollier, The Great Hartford Circus Fire: Creative Settlement of Mass Disasters

And that, dear Kossacks, is where regulation comes from -- not from bored bureaucrats sitting in an office in Washington trying to think up ways to make life miserable and expensive for some innocent and unsuspecting businessman, but from real tragedy and human suffering brought about, all too often, by people who shirk what should be obvious responsibilities, who neglect basic diligence, who sacrifice safety for profit.  They bring suffering on those who trust them, and society adopts measures to make sure it never happens again.  We have to force them, through regulation, to behave as they should have been behaving all along.  That's how regulation came to be.

Hat tip to wide eyed lib  who suggested the Hartford circus fire in the diary on the Scofield mine explosion.  Thanks, WEL!

You can submit online public comments on proposed rules and regulations at
(h/t  to stusviews)

Previous installments of How Regulation came to be:
1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act
The Iroquois Theater Fire
Radium Girls - Part I
Radium Girls - Part II
Radium Girls - Part III
Construction Summer
Red Moon Rising
The Cherry Mine Disaster, Part I
The Cherry Mine Disaster, Part II
Ground Fault, Interrupted
The Cocoanut Grove
DK GreenRoots: Donora
Confined Spaces
The Hotel Fires of 1946 - Part I
The Hotel Fires of 1946 - Part II
Our Lady of the Angels
The Great Molasses Flood
Toy Safety
The Power of One: Frances Oldham Kelsey
Santa Barbara
The Scofield Mine Explosion
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (reposted 24 March 2011)
The Cincinnati Who concert tragedy
The Flexner Report
The Eastland Disaster
El Cortito -- the short hoe
The Buffalo Creek Act of God
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973
The Memphis Yellow Fever Epidemic - Part I
The Memphis Yellow Fever Epidemic - Part II
The Tylenol Killings

Originally posted to History for Kossacks on Sun Sep 18, 2011 at 01:30 PM PDT.

Also republished by Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter and Community Spotlight.

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