Memory and Tragedy: The Hartford Circus Fire

Last Saturday marked the 69th anniversary of the Hartford Circus Fire, one of the deadliest fires in the United States. My family is from the Hartford area, and my father was supposed to attend the circus that day. Luckily, he didn’t, and he grew up to be quite the circus enthusiast. Growing up, I heard stories about the fire, but it wasn’t until I was older that I realized what an historic event it had been.

(image from HartfordHistory.net)

(image from HartfordHistory.net)

The day of the fire is also known as “the day the clowns cried.” Approximately 7000 people attended the circus on July 6, 1944, and 167-169 people died when the big top tent caught fire. Waterproofing with paraffin wax and kerosene or gasoline accelerated the destruction, and increased the deadliness of the blaze. Because a large number of tickets were given out – but not counted – in rural areas and to homeless people, no one is entirely sure how many people were in the audience, or how many died in the fire (More info here).

The circus came back to Hartford in the 1970s and visited throughout my childhood, but never again performed under a tent. Hartford has changed a lot in the 70 years since the fire. The space where the tent was set up is in the North End of the city, an area that was predominantly Irish and Jewish at the time of the fire. Since then, the construction of Interstate 84 cut this neighborhood off from downtown Hartford, and manufacturing jobs have been lost. A housing project was built on the site, but has since been torn down. The neighborhood is now home to a large West Indian/Caribbean community, many recent immigrants. This demographic change raises questions about space and memory — if the population that was affected by a tragedy such as the Hartford Circus Fire no longer lives in the area, who will remember and commemorate the events?

In 2005, the Hartford Circus Fire Memorial was erected on the site where the circus set up on July 6, 1944. Interpretive plaques tell of the events of the day, and a circular plaque and benches mark the location of the tent’s center pole. Along what was the perimeter of the tent – where many people survived by slicing open the canvas side walls to escape the heat and flames – are flowering dogwoods. It is a lovely memorial, and a quiet and reflective place.

After I graduated college, I did a stint with AmeriCorps as a literacy tutor in an elementary school in Hartford. Some of my coworkers were working in the Fred D. Wish School, which sits in front of the fire site and the current memorial. One weekend afternoon, I drove over to the school to check out the memorial. It was deserted. In fact, the whole neighborhood felt empty, despite the large number of houses and apartment buildings there. Based on that experience and the fact that many people I know in the area know little to nothing of the fire, let alone the memorial, I have to assume that the memorial is little used. The site feels too somber to use as a park (as opposed to places like Battery Park in lower Manhattan, which is chock full of memorials but used primarily as a park), but if the community around it doesn’t feel a connection to the events that are being memorialized, it’s unlikely that the memorial will find an audience. And maybe that’s okay.

It is important to note that the push for (and establishment of) a memorial to the Hartford Circus Fire took place about 60 years after the fire itself. The show that Thursday afternoon during World War II was attended mostly by women and children. Many of those kids bore the physical and emotional scars from the day for the rest of their lives. In 2004, for example, survivor Dorothy Carvey attended her first circus performance since the fire, at the age of 86. Her son, who also escaped at age 3, was already in his 60s. We tend to memorialize things as they fade from our collective memories. In the case of the Hartford Circus Fire, enough time had passed that survivors were passing away from old age, and the neighborhood had changed dramatically. It makes sense that a formal memorial would be erected at that time.

The question, though, is if it will attract visitors and help keep the memory of the event present, or if it will exist only in the background of people’s lives, as a space that is sacrosanct but not personally revered.

In any case, stories about circus fire ghosts persist at the school in front of the site. It may be hard to hold people’s attention with historical facts, but with ghosts? You can really capture the public’s imagination.

If you’d like to see some video footage from the fire:

The Hartford Public Library has also begun a scrapbooking project using people’s memories of the fire.