The Hartford Circus Fire in 1944 is known by many across America as the worst fire disaster in the country's history. Resulting in the death of over 150 people, many of them children, and the injury of over 700 more, this disaster was entirely preventable, most likely caused by either human error or arson. Despite a plethora or theories and several intensive investigations, no one is really sure what caused the blaze even now.
Unbelievably, over 70 years later, there is one victim who remains unidentified, a little girl with blonde hair and blue eyes, who is known as Little Miss 1565. While she is not the only victim who was never identified, it is heartbreaking that for so many years a beautiful little girl could remain unclaimed after such a tragedy.
This is a long one, so strap in.
Some of the content in this post may disturb or upset sensitive readers. Because this post goes into detail about events involving the deaths of multiple children, it may be triggering or particularly upsetting. I do not post graphic pictures, but articles found by clicking links in the post may. Reader discretion is advised.
THE HISTORY: Hartford is the state of Connecticut's capital city. In 1944, it was also the seat of Hartford County. Founded in 1635, it is one of the oldest established American cities. Steeped in history, the city is home to dozens of museums from the American Revolutionary War, as well as the nation's oldest art museum and oldest publicly funded park. It also hosts the oldest newspaper and the second-oldest secondary school. Mark Twain lived there most of his life, and his home has become a museum. Once one of the wealthiest cities in the U.S., it has suffered a massive economic downturn in the past decades and is now ranked as one of the poorest. In 1944, Hartford had a population of over 166,000 people.
Barnum and Bailey was founded as America's first circus in 1807 after Hachaliah Bailey purchased "Old Bet," one of the first Indian elephants to be brought into the country. After Old Bet was trained and ready, he formed the Bailey Circus. Many years later, after Hachaliah's death, a ringmaster who'd adopted the Bailey surname partnered with former Bailey ticketmaster P.T. Barnum to form Barnum & Bailey.
Ringling Brothers was founded in April of 1884 in Baraboo, Wisconsin and cultivated a reputation as a source of wholesome entertainment for people of all ages. Despite the economic downturns of the early-to-mid 20th Century, the circus was successful, growing exponentially from its humble beginnings.
In 1909, Ringling Bros. bought the older and well-established Barnum & Bailey Circus, and ran the two shows separately until 1919. Famous for their enormous 'big top' tents, the shows included a wide variety of performers and exotic animals, ranging from freak show attractions to trained elephants and big cats. Both companies had several incarnations over the years, but by 1944, the circus industry was suffering after the economic strain of World War I, The Great Depression, and World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the circus special permission to use the railway system throughout the country in an effort to boost morale during these bleak years.
THE DISASTER: On July 6, 1944, the Ringling Brothers Circus was ready to perform in Hartford. The big top could seat over 9,000 spectators, and because the circus took over large outdoor venues, thousands more could mingle outside to see the other attractions. The shows were supposed to begin on the morning of July 5th, a day earlier, but because the trains were so late, the first show had to be cancelled. The evening show was a success, but that didn't mean everything was as it should be. Superstition in the circus community held that missing a show was bad luck, and circus personnel were almost undoubtedly on their guard on the 6th.
But, as they say, the show must go on.
No one is sure how many were in attendance that day. Records weren't kept in regards to ticket sales, and free tickets were handed out by staff and performers before every performance. Best estimates have the number around 7,000 people, but some estimates top out at around 9,000. As it was a weekday (during wartime to boot) most in attendance were women and children.
The show was progressing without a hitch until, just after the lions finished their performance, flames suddenly erupted on the southwest wall of the tent. The Great Wallendas, a family of stunt performers who are still actively performing today as The Flying Wallendas, were in the big top, performing acrobatic feats. The leader of the circus band, Merle Scott, spotted the fire first and sent his troupe into "The Stars and Stripes Forever," a universal signal to circus personnel that something is wrong.
The fire started small, but thanks to the heavy dousing of two highly combustible chemicals, the tent went up in flames quickly. Ringmaster Fred Badna tried to calm the crowd, but either due to the fire itself or some other circumstance, the electricity failed, and no one heard him over the loudspeaker. The crowd flew into a panic, trying to exit the big top as quickly as possible. The big top burned for just eight minutes before the whole gigantic tent came down on top of everyone inside it.
The only animals affected by the blaze were the big cats that were in the big top at the time it started, but they all escaped with only minor burns. No other animals were harmed.
THE UNIDENTIFIED: Most victims of the Hartford Circus Fire were easily recognizable, and were identified quickly afterward. Families filed into local funeral homes to find their loved ones, and the gruesome task of burying so many dead, so many of them children, began. There were many badly burned bodies and disembodied parts of victims found, and it's possible that some victims were completely incinerated in the blaze.
The best estimate of total deaths is 167-169 people, though because of the extensive damage to some victims, this number may be far from accurate.
Little Miss 1565 was presumably seen by every family who had a member missing after the fire, but as the days wore on, no one claimed her. Mortuary photographs show a body in shockingly good condition. She is not burned beyond recognition, and her features are fairly normal. The girl looks thin but healthy, with long blonde hair, and she was said to have blue eyes, which are large with thick lashes, and the coroner estimated she was about six years old. She was wearing a white dress on the day of the fire, and her body showed little damage. She died at Hartford Municipal Hospital, and her cause of death was "Burns by fire, 3rd and 4th degree." She was 3'10" tall and weight 40 pounds, and had all of her baby teeth except for two central lower incisors, which were adult teeth that had grown in level with the baby teeth next to them. It's possible she died of smoke inhalation rather than the fire itself, and was covered by other bodies, which would explain why she was in such good condition. With so many other deaths to investigate, and all caused by the same event, it's not a stretch of the imagination that the coroner/s would have been pressed for time and answers and lumped all of the deaths in together.
She was buried in Soldier's Field in Windsor, Connecticut on the same day as five others who were as yet unidentified on July 10, 1944. Those other bodies were so badly burned, they were beyond visual recognition, and also remain unknown to this day.
Fingerprints, footprints, and dental charts were taken from 1565 as time dragged on with no identification from family, and her photograph was distributed in newspapers and magazines. Police investigators Sergeants Thomas Barber and Edward Lowe spent the rest of their careers and ultimately their lives trying to figure out who this girl was.
Hair samples have been taken, but hair comparison analysis is no longer seen as an accurate scientific method, and can tell us little about this girl's identity. I do not know whether DNA has ever been collected from Little Miss 1565. This is likely down to the passage of time. Even if funding could be obtained to perform such expensive tests on her body, it's likely after 70+ years, the DNA would be too degraded to produce a usable profile, and even if it wasn't, samples from potential family members would be needed as well, which could become a time-consuming and expensive project.
WHAT WE KNOW: As was common practice in those days, the big top had been freshly coated with a combination of 1,800 pounds of paraffin wax and 6,000 gallons of gasoline for waterproofing. This was not the cause of the fire, but it certainly helped it along once it was ignited. The true cause of the fire was never determined in the aftermath. A carelessly dropped cigarette, an electrical short, and even arson were possibilities.
One man, Robert Dale Segee, just fourteen at the time and a roustabout for the show, claimed he had been in what could be a fugue state after having a nightmare in which a Native American on a flaming horse told him to set fires. In 1950, he confessed to starting the fire, but he was never charged or tried, and recanted his confession later on. He did know details only an arsonist could know, such as that two small fires had occurred prior to the big top fire on the 6th, both of which he also confessed to setting. At the time of his confession to the Hartford fire, he also admitted to over 25 to 30 other major fires set in Portland, Maine, as well as several murders. Segee was known to have suffered from mental illness, but his confession to the Hartford fire was investigated thoroughly. Ultimately, he was never charged with any crime relating to the circus fire. Also despite his confessions to murders that were corroborated with evidence found by investigators, he was never charged with murder, either. Later, he spent 8 years of his life in prison for unrelated arson charges in Ohio after being sentenced to 4 to 40 years for the crime. He denied until his death that he'd set the fire in Hartford.
Within days of the fire, charges were filed against members of the circus crew. Ringling Bros. agreed to pay whatever the city saw fit to charge them for the disaster. In total, Ringling Bros. paid out over $5,000,000 in fines, damages, and funeral costs, which equals out to over $71,000,000 in today's money. The circus set aside it's total profit from the day's earnings in order to pay these settlements. None of the criminal charges were dropped, despite the payments, and five men who were charged went to trial. Four were convicted and sentenced to prison, but all were pardoned within a year. One of the convicted men, James A. Haley, vice president of Ringling at the time, went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives for twenty-four years.
As I mentioned earlier, because of the intense heat and the fuel added by the paraffin and gasoline waterproofing, it's chemically possible that some bodies were completely incinerated, leaving no trace. Also, people (many of them drifters) who received free tickets that day were never accounted for. Due to these factors, it's possible, even likely, that we will never know the exact number of people who were injured or killed on that July day.
THE AFTERMATH: In the years after the Hartford circus fire, several investigations have taken place to both figure out what caused he fire and find out who Little Miss 1565 was, but none of them have come to any concrete conclusion. Arson and accident are both just as likely to have been the cause of the fire.
In 1981 Edward Lowe's widow claimed he had made positive identification of the girl, but the family requested no publicity and she did not reveal their name(s). Six years later, notes on 1565's gravestone suggested she was a girl named Sarah Graham, born 7/6/38, but there was no one with that name that was missing, nor was there a girl with that name born on that date that could have been Little Miss 1565.
In 1991, it was suggested by fire investigator and arson expert Rick Davey in his book A Matter of Degree that she was Eleanor Emily Cook, who is known to have died in the fire but whose body was never found. Their descriptions don't match, but 1565's body was exhumed and interred with the Cook family anyway, buried in Southampton, Massachusetts next to Eleanor's brother Edward, who also perished in the fire. Photographs of Eleanor don't look similar enough to the postmortem photo of Little Miss 1565 for me to agree with this conclusion, but I'm not an expert. Stewart O'Nan, who wrote The Circus Fire, disagrees with this finding as well, and is of the opinion that Eleanor is actually one of the other five bodies buried the same day as 1565. Eleanor's dental records don't match 1565's, and Eleanor's own mother believed both her children were burned beyond recognition. She looked at 1565 in 1944 and was positive that was not her child. She maintained that opinion until her death in 1997.
While I admit I have no stake in this investigation and am no expert, I think it is entirely possible that Eleanor Emily Cook was misidentified as another family's child and was buried mistakenly by their family, or she is one of the children who were unrecognizable, and Little Miss 1565 truly is an unidentified little girl.
The vacant lot where the fire occurred is now a housing project.
IN CONCLUSION: This is one of the most heartbreaking cases I have ever researched, and it hurts to think this little girl was never claimed under her real name. I can't imagine being the family who never learns what happened to their child, sister, niece, granddaughter. Seventy years is a long time for a child to remain unnamed, and for such confusion to prevail over her identity. At this late date, there may be nothing to be done about Little Miss 1565, but I hope that there is, even now.
Due to the passage of time, and due to her being "positively identified" as Eleanor Emily Cook, no law enforcement agency is actively investigating Little Miss 1565 as of November, 2018. If this status changes, I'll write an update to this post.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I hope you enjoyed it. If you know of any mysterious cases you'd like to see me profile drop me a line and I’ll take a look.
This is Sarah Winter's blog. We talk about mysteries, books, and all kinds of fun things!