On July 6, 1944 a disaster strikes in Hartford, Connecticut. A fire breaks out under the big top of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, killing 167 people and injuring 682.
Two-thirds of those who perished were children. The cause of the fire was unknown, but it spread at incredible speed, racing up the canvas of the circus tent. Scarcely before the 8,000 spectators inside the big top could react, patches of burning canvas began falling on them from above, and a stampede for the exits began. Many were trapped under fallen canvas, but most were able to rip through it and escape. However, after the tent’s ropes burned and its poles gave way, the whole burning big top came crashing down, consuming those who remained inside. Within 10 minutes it was over, and some 100 children and 60 of their adult escorts were dead or dying.
An investigation revealed that the tent had undergone a treatment with flammable paraffin thinned with three parts of gasoline to make it waterproof. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus eventually agreed to pay $5 million in compensation, and several of the organizers were convicted on manslaughter charges. In 1950, in a late development in the case, Robert D. Segee of Circleville, Ohio, confessed to starting the Hartford circus fire. Segee claimed that he had been an arsonist since the age of six and that an apparition of an Indian on a flaming horse often visited him and urged him to set fires. In November 1950, Segee was sentenced to two consecutive terms of 22 years in prison, the maximum penalty in Ohio at the time.
Little Miss 1565
The best-known victim of the circus fire was a young blonde girl wearing a white dress. She is known only as “Little Miss 1565”, named after the number assigned to her body at the city’s makeshift morgue. Oddly well preserved even after her death, her face has become arguably the most familiar image of the fire.
Her true identity has been a topic of debate and frustration in the Hartford area since the fire occurred. She was buried without a name in Hartford’s Northwood cemetery, where a victims’ memorial also stands. Two police investigators, Sgts. Thomas Barber and Edward Lowe, photographed her and took fingerprints, footprints, and dental charts. Despite massive publicity and repeated displays of the famous photograph in nationwide magazines, she was never claimed. Barber and Lowe spent the rest of their lives trying to identify her. They decorated her grave with flowers each Christmas, Memorial Day, and July 6.After their deaths, a local flower company continued to decorate the grave. In 1991, the body was declared to be that of Eleanor Emily Cook, despite the fact that her aunt and uncle had examined the body and did not fit the description they provided. The Connecticut State Police forensics unit compared hair samples and determined they were probably from the same person. The body was exhumed in 1991 and buried next to her brother, Edward, who had also died in the fire.