Thursday, January 12, 2012

A History of the Two Worst Circus Tragedies

We recently saw a good movie, "Water for Elephants". It involves a circus in the 1930's, where a tragedy happens.

The story begins in the present, where the main character, now an old man, begins to tell the story of that tragedy to a present-day circus owner. Leading up to that, in their conversation they mention two other circus tragedies, the Hartford circus fire in Connecticut in 1944, at the Ringling Bros. Circus, and the Hammond Circus Train Wreck in Hammond Indiana, involving the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus.

The tragedy in "Water for Elephants" is fictional, but the two tragedies referred to really did happen, so I looked them up. Quite a bit of history there:

The Day the Clowns Cried
The worst tragedy in the annals of circus history occurred during the afternoon show of the Ringling Brothers Circus on July 6, 1944, at Hartford, Connecticut. With nearly 7,000 people enjoying the performance, the big tent suddenly became engulfed in flames. As fire spread up the side walls and raced across the top of the tent, the bandmaster, Merle Evans, swung his band into the song Stars and Stripes Forever -- the circus disaster tune. The sound of this tune moved all employees into high gear. The horses, elephants, the lions and tigers, were quickly led out of the tent out of danger.

People stampeded toward the exit they had entered from. Unfortunately, this was the end on fire. Fire had not spread to the other end yet and employees tried directing them to that exit. In the panic, crowds still stampeded the end on fire. Three minutes later, the tent poles started collapsing and the roof -- what was left -- caved in. In six minutes total, almost all of the tent was burned completely and the entire area was nothing more than smoldering ashes. 168 men, women and children died as a result. Hundreds more were badly injured.

The feeling of responsibility to the victims was uppermost in the circus management's minds. Five of the top management personnel at Ringling's were arrested on changes of manslaughter and subsequently served sentences and were ultimately pardoned by the State of Connecticut. In addition, due to the fire, Ringling's found itself with over four million dollars in damage claims from victim's families. [...]

The rest of the article also has a link to photos at the end.

Wikipedia has a more detailed description:

[...] The fire began as a small flame about 20 minutes into the show, on the southwest sidewall of the tent, while the Great Wallendas were on. Circus Bandleader Merle Evans is said to be the person who first spotted the flames, and immediately directed the band to play "Stars and Stripes Forever", the tune that traditionally signaled distress to all circus personnel. Ringmaster Fred Bradna urged the audience not to panic and to leave in an orderly fashion, but the power failed and he could not be heard. Bradna and the ushers unsuccessfully tried to maintain some order as the panicked crowd tried to flee the big top.

Sources and investigators differ on how many people were killed and injured. Various people and organizations say it was 167, 168, or 169 persons (the 168 figure is usually based on official tallies that included a collection of body parts that were listed as a "victim") with official treated injury estimates running over 700 people. The number of actual injuries is believed to be higher than those figures, since many people were seen that day heading home in shock without seeking treatment in the city. The only animals in the big top at the time were the big cats trained by May Kovar and Joseph Walsh that had just finished performing when the fire started. The big cats were herded through the chutes leading from the performing cages to several cage wagons, and were unharmed except for a few minor burns.

The cause of the fire remains unproven. Investigators at the time believed it was caused by a carelessly flicked cigarette but others suspected an arsonist. Several years later while being investigated on other arson charges, Robert Dale Segee (1929–1997) who was an adolescent roustabout at the time, confessed to starting the blaze. He was never tried for the crime and later recanted his confession.

Because the big top tent had been coated with 1,800 lb (816 kg) of paraffin wax dissolved in 6,000 US gallons (23 m³) of gasoline (some sources say kerosene), a common waterproofing method of the time, the flames spread rapidly. Many people were badly burned by the melting paraffin, which rained down like napalm from the roof. The fiery tent collapsed in about eight minutes according to eyewitness survivors, trapping hundreds of spectators beneath it.

The circus had been experiencing shortages of personnel and equipment due to World War II. Delays and malfunctions in the ordinarily smooth order of the circus had become commonplace. Two years earlier, on August 4, 1942, a fire had broken out in the menagerie, killing a number of animals. Circus personnel were concerned about the 1944 Hartford show for other reasons. Two shows had been scheduled for July 5, but the first had to be canceled because the circus trains arrived late and the circus could not set up in time. In circus superstition, missing a show is considered extremely bad luck, and although the July 5 evening show ran as planned, many circus employees may have been on their guard, half-expecting an emergency or catastrophe.

It is commonly believed that the number of fatalities is higher than the estimates given, due to poorly kept residency records in rural towns, and the fact that some smaller remains were never identified or claimed. It is also believed that the intense heat from the fire combined with the accelerants, the paraffin and gasoline, could have incinerated people completely, as in cremation, leaving no substantial physical evidence behind. Additionally, free tickets had been handed out that day to many people in and around the city, some of whom appeared to eyewitnesses and circus employees to be drifters, who would never have been reported missing by anyone if they were killed in the disaster. The number of people in the audience that day has never been established with certainty, but the closest estimate is about 7,000.[1]

While many people were burned to death by the fire, many others died as a result of the ensuing chaos. Though most spectators were able to escape the fire, many people were caught up in the hysteria and panicked. Witnesses said some people simply ran around in circles trying to find their loved ones, rather than trying to escape the burning tent. Some escaped but ran back inside to find family members. Others stayed in their seats until it was too late, assuming that the fire would be put out promptly, and the show would continue.

Because at least two of the exits were blocked, by the chutes used to bring the large felines in and out of the tent, people trying to escape could not bypass them. Some died from injuries sustained after leaping from the tops of the bleachers in hopes they could escape under the sides of the tent, though that method of escape ended up killing more people than it saved. Others died after being trampled by other spectators, with some asphyxiating underneath the piles of people who had fallen down over each other.

Most of the dead were found in piles, some three bodies deep, at the most congested exits. A small number of people were found alive at the bottoms of these piles, protected by the bodies that were on top of them when the burning big top ultimately fell down on those still trapped beneath it. Because of a picture that appeared in several newspapers of sad tramp clown Emmett Kelly holding a water bucket, the event became known as "the day the clowns cried." [...]

Visit the Wiki page to see all the embedded links, and more details.

Google Images has more pictures from the fire.

And YouTube has film footage, some of it in color:

I grew up in Connecticut, and my mom is from Hartford. She was a little kid back then, and she tried to get her parents to take her to that afternoon show. They wouldn't. What a blessing that turned out to be.

The fire was not only the worst circus accident, but also the worst fire in American history, in terms of loss of life and injuries (or so I read somewhere).

The other disaster involved the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus in 1918:

A circus tragedy lost to history
[...] The largest corner of the plot, the part holding those scores of unidentified bodies, is a mass grave, a result of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train wreck on June 22, 1918; it happened in northwest Indiana, between Gary and Hammond. At least 187 people were injured, and an estimated 86 were killed — according to news reports from the time, many of the bodies were so charred and pulled apart it was hard to finalize an exact count.

The flagman waved a lit flare at the speeding train, now bearing down. It was approaching too fast. His own train, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train, had stopped on the Michigan Central line. Engineers were cooling an overheated axle box. It was 4 a.m., June 22, 1918, just outside of Hammond. The circus train had left Michigan City hours before and was headed to Hammond for a show. The train behind it, a 21-car military troop transport, had left Michigan City about an hour later. It barreled forward now.

The troop train was empty. The driver, a 28-year Michigan Central veteran named Alonzo Sargent, was asleep inside. According to testimony, he passed two yellow signals of caution, then two red signals. In addition, the flagman had left a flare of warning on the tracks about a mile behind the stopped circus train.

Sargent passed this too.

Before the trains collided, the circus flagman testified, that in a last desperate attempt at getting the attention of the sleeping engineer, he flung his flare at the front window of the hurtling locomotive.

Thanks to the growth of railroads, in 1918 the traveling circus was in its heyday, said Steve Freese, executive director of the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis. "It was the golden age of the circus, and the primary entertainment for small Midwest towns. Hundreds lined the tracks just to watch them unload."

The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, formed in 1907 and headquartered in Peru, Ind. (now the site of the International Circus Hall of Fame), had become one of the most popular circuses in the country. Famed lion tamer Clyde Beatty was a member. So was a young Red Skelton, tagging alongside his father, a Hagenbeck-Wallace clown. The circus also had a history of trouble: train wrecks, fires, even a flood, which killed eight elephants.

Nevertheless, remnants remain. Circus World lent vintage Hagenbeck-Wallace wagons to the production of "Water for Elephants," including animal cages and baggage wagons. "There was really no way we could have ever built them from scratch," said David Crank, the film's art director. "And we had to repaint them, to match the circus that's in the film. But really, it was like handling this whole world that nobody remembers anymore. Those circus wagons were, like, 5,000 pounds apiece. You can't imagine a wreck of these things."

The military train, made of steel, hit the circus cars at 35 mph, slicing through the caboose, then two cars of sleeping crew, then a car carrying black employees, then a car filled with performers. The circus cars were made of wood, and splintered before piling up. Survivors later said the cars were jumbled so high that as they climbed from the wreckage they found themselves standing above nearby telegraph wires.

Many died during the initial collision; many more died from the resulting fire. The old-fashioned cars were still lit by kerosene lanterns. The Flying Wards, a trapeze act, lost a member; every one of the McDhu Sisters, who rode elephants and did aerial stunts, died. Two strongmen died. Joe Coyle, the father in a family clown act, escaped, but watched from the road as his wife and sons died in the fire, just out of reach.

The circus traveled with about 50 cars, in two sets. Most of the performers and crew had been asleep in the second set. The animals were in the first, 90 minutes ahead of the collision. None died. According to a Tribune story that ran the day after the accident, the first set pulled into Hammond and sat unloaded as "a silent group" stood around "the big boss in charge," who solemnly checked off a roster of employees.

After the wreck, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus canceled only one show, the Hammond performance. Circuses around the country pitched in and lent performers and according to the Showmen's League, within a day of the disaster the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was performing its scheduled show in Wisconsin.

Sargent was arrested after the accident and charged with manslaughter. Despite being found responsible by federal transportation officials — the cause was sleeping on the job, they said — he was acquitted.

The rest of this history is a mix of the good, sad and curious. The accident led to regulations mandating sleep for train crews. Joe Dierckx, the only surviving member of the Great Dierckx Brothers strongman act, married his nurse, a sister of Knute Rockne. Oddly, nine years later, a passenger train moving through Aurora hit a herd of elephants being loaded onto another Hagenbeck-Wallace train; there was one fatality, a handler riding one of the elephants was thrown to the ground and crushed to death when the animal tumbled. The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus itself continued for years, was sold in 1929 to Ringling Bros., then, battered by the Depression, closed for good two decades after the Indiana wreck. [...]

The whole article has more information about the cemetery, Showman's Rest, where the victims were buried, and many other circus performers have been buried since.

Here is a photo from the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus, from 1917:

Gone, but not completely forgotten:

A Circus Tragedy and Showmen’s Rest


Unknown said...

This was indeed a tragedy for the ages but I must correct you on something. This was not the deadliest fire in American History. It doesn't even make the top 20.

While the National Fire Protection Association doesn't have listings beyond the top 20 and some of those are debatable as it includes disasters where fire and explosions, or fires on ships like the General Slocum horror, are conflated, I still don't think Hartford Circus fire comes close to hitting the top 20. If you ever find yourself in the upper midwest you might check out the places dedicated to some of the major deadly forest fires like the Peshtigo Wisconsin Fire. I find that few of my students have ever heard of it because it took place the same day as the Great Chicago Fire. But while the chicago fire only killed ~250, Peshtigo had ~1150 dead, and that out of a far far smaller population. Guess that's the other thing with disasters and memory--if you don't have many survivors you don't end up persisting in the memory. The Cheniere Caminada Hurricane is a great example. Pretty much the only thing left of that community is a mass grave despite it being one of the 5 deadliest hurricanes in US History.

Thank you for your report.

Chas said...

Thanks for the correction.