On July 6th of 1944, the state of Connecticut experienced a terrible accident, this fire did more than just take the lives of many by also affecting others in a mental aspect. This accident was that of the Hartford Circus Fire. It was a fire that resulted in the entire destruction of a circus and lives lost by many of the circus’ very own staff, along with many spectators. Many years later, the cause of this fire is still up to some speculation among authorities. This essay will dig into the event of the fire, the investigation of the fire, and the possibilities of what could have happened to cause the fire.
This essay will discuss the actions taken by investigating parties with an ethical analysis in mind, as well as an analytical approach towards the fire dynamics of the fire. At the time, the Barnum and Bailey Ringling Brothers Circus was the largest in the country. This particular circus performance held circus personnel and audience members under a giant tent canvas that had been coated with 1800 pounds of paraffin wax dissolved in 6000 gallons of gasoline. The reason for the paraffin wax and gasoline coating was intended to function as a sort of waterproofing.
The tent canvas was known as the “Big Top” and could seat around 9000 spectators. The fire began along the Southwest sidewall almost right after the lions had performed. The circus bandleader who was the first to notice the flames, motioned for the circus band to play a commonly known emergency signal that all circus personnel knew. Once the distress signal had been sounded and other people began to notice the fire, panic commenced underneath the “Big Top”. The Circus Ringmaster attempted to urge the audience members to remain calm and leave in an orderly fashion, but once the power to the tent was lost, fear illed everyone under the tent. Panic quickly became all utter chaos underneath the tent, eliminating any hope for an “orderly exit”. As the fire grew in size and spread further up the tent canvas, the paraffin wax coating began to melt and rain down on people, burning them. With wax falling from above, smoke spreading, and the heat of the fire continuing to grow, it became a survival of the fittest. Many people were trampled underneath others in their attempt to escape. Other people attempted to jump from the circus’ stands in the hopes of escape, only to break their legs to where they couldn’t then escape or just fall to their death.
Surviving patrons guesstimate that the circus tent only took about 8 minutes to collapse and burn to the ground, trapping many people beneath it. (Flood, 2003) In the aftermath of the fire, most of the dead were found in piles, many found in the most overcrowded exits. Surprisingly a few people survived who were found at the bottom of these piles, shielded from the flames by the bodies of others. Attendance was recorded to have been around 7000. However, sources and investigators vary on how many people were killed or injured from the fire.
The death count is said to be anywhere between 167-169 people with official treated injury estimates running over 484 people. (Lohr, 2015) Multiple sources theorize that the number of fatalities is greater than the estimates given. Due to multiple reasons which include: the accelerants paraffin and gasoline could have incinerated people completely leaving no substantial physical evidence behind, and free tickets were handed out that day to many people which made for many homeless people in attendance. Upon the initial investigation of the fire, the local fire marshal Henry Thomas was not able to deliver a definite cause of the fire.
However in a later testimony he stated that the fire had to have started on the outside of the tent, to the right of the main entrance, and along the base of the canvas side wall. In this testimony he also stated “I would also like to qualify that… We found a section of the uprights – frame upright that supports the seat section – showing a concentrated burning… It is my opinion that there was other material in addition to the tent sidewall at the base of that frame structure to give it that amount of burning.
In my opinion, a fire starting at the base of the side wall, and the side wall canvas being light and more inflammable than the wood, that the fire would go up the side wall… From the investigation and the evidence that we have found… I have not yet exactly determined the cause of the fire. Tam not prepared to say whether or not it was an incendiary fire or accidental fire. ” (Skidgell, 2015) A second investigation was done by the state fire marshal, Edward Hickey, who was actually in the audience of the circus performance that day witnessing the fire first hand.
He also found the fire to of been initiated in the Southwest corner of the circus tent. However, he did find that one of the props used to hold up the “nose bleed” seats showed signs of being the origin for the fire. He noted that the prop had severe burning at its base and the ground area surrounding it was burned as well. He also noted a more intense amount of fire at this location because of all the burnings and found this to be the only prop burned in that section.
Which ultimately lead to his final conclusion that, “The fire centered on this prop and climbed upward from the side wall to the top. (Skidgell, 2015) Hickey later concluded that the cause of the fire was a carelessly tossed cigarette underneath the bleachers starting in the area earlier noted with the prop. Another investigation, which was conducted by the Fire Investigation Bureau of New York City’s, Thomas Brophy, also concluded in a carelessly tossed cigarette being the potential cause of the fire. Brophy was a veteran fire investigator and was regarded as an expert in the field. Though an expert it should be noted that he did not examine the scene however until over a month had passed since the Hartford circus fire.
After examining the fire scene, he too concluded that the fire originated near the base of the wooden prop for the bleachers. He also did not notice any other evidence of additional wooden props or seats of bleachers being burned, similar to Hickey. But when he was asked about the evidence he discovered and his thoughts, Brophy explained that in his professional opinion, it was a possibility that the side wall of the tent could have dropped to the point near the wooden prop. Which could have ultimately resulted in an excess amount of fire at the location explaining why there was such a large amount of charring at the props base.
He did not think the prop could have been ignited by a cigarette but did believe that if a certain amount of combustible material was placed near the wooden prop, such material could have been ignited by a cigarette or open flame of some sort. However, with a lack of proper evidence, Brophy could not confirm a definite cause of the fire. After the investigations concluded six months later, officials went with the idea that the fire was started by a carelessly tossed cigarette on the southwest corner of the circus tent about fifty feet from the main entrance.
However in 1950, a man named Robert Dale Segee was under investigation for other crimes involving arson in Columbus, Ohio. During his interrogation, Segee mentioned his involvement in the Hartford circus fire as well as many other arsons he had committed. He later confessed that he had started the Hartford circus fire although he later renounced this confession. Even after his confession Connecticut authorities did not proceed to investigate and question him further. But rather, they retained the conclusion of the circus fire being started by a carelessly tossed cigarette underneath the bleachers within the tent.
In 1951 the case was reopened by a Connecticut state police detective William Lewis. Lewis led a three person team to reevaluate the cause of the fire but was told to place this investigation second to all other current investigations. Because of this, the investigation was delayed and ended up taking about two years to finish. Possibly the mos ost significant finding that Lewis and his team of investigators found was information based on cigarette testing as an ignition source. The team happened to find results from testing that ccurred in 1967 which documented that when lit cigarettes were dropped in grass, the cigarettes could not start grass fires unless the humidity was above 22% and matches could not start a grass fire above 78% humidity. (Skidgell, 2015) Lewis wanted to confirm these results with his own method of testing and arranged for Dr. Henry Lee of the State Police Forensics Lab to conduct a test under similar conditions that were present on the day of the fire in 1944. The testing revealed that given the small amount of heat and energy, it was very difficult for a cigarette to ignite grass, even when the grass contained no moisture.
The resulting conclusion from the experiment was that if the relative humidity was greater than 18%, the cigarette could not ignite grass at all. On the day of the fire, records state that the relative humidity was about 60% which led Lewis and his team to believe previous beliefs of a cigarette being the fire’s cause were unacceptable and invalid. (Skidgell, 2015) After a year Lewis stated in a report of his that the fire “more probably than not, started in or just on the outside of the men’s toilet to the South of the main entrance. (Skidgell, 2015)
Lewis also thought that the fire should be listed as undetermined because his team was unable to eliminate all accidental causes with absolute certainty. A few months later, Lewis released another report which documented the possibility of the fire being ignited by a cigarette to be impossible. Then the following year Lewis and a team member of his met with Robert Segee. Segee had previously served nearly 40 years in prison after being charged with other crimes in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, and Ohio.
At this time Segee had already renounced his earlier confession to starting the Hartford circus fire. But once questioned, William Lewis upheld the idea that that the fire’s cause be labeled as undetermined since he had not been able to get any additional information out of Segee or uncover any significant evidence that determined the fire’s cause. However against William Lewis’ wish on March 18th, 1993, the case was closed and though it was left without certainty as to the actual cause of the fire.