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The Hartford Circus Fire 1944, Accident or Arson

What is the truth about this fire?

By Sam H ArnoldPublished 12 days ago 4 min read

One of my favourite activities with my children is visiting the circus. I love the atmosphere and the snacks. There is a real sense of excitement as you enter the big top.

Since reading this story, though, I may think twice as I sit around the arena and wait for the clowns to appear.

Hartford Circus

World War II was in progress when the families walked across the fields to the circus on a humid day in July 1944.

Thousands wanted to see the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, especially as the previous day's matinee had been cancelled.

Publicity photos had promised those that attended 'The Greatest Show on Earth.'

The show started with a performance by a French lion tamer. The next act was the stunt performers called the Great Wallendas. As the circus got ready for this performance, one of the performers screamed, "The tent's on fire!"

The band launched into a version of 'Stars and Stripes Forever,' a signal to other performers that something had gone wrong. Panic quickly ensued as the audience made for the exits.

The Tragedy

The blaze consumed the circus quickly. The tent, treated with paraffin wax and gasoline to waterproof it, became an inferno. Thousands were trapped in the 500-foot big top.

Panic ensued, and people rushed for the exits, creating a bottleneck that further hindered their escape chance. Many were trampled or died from smoke inhalation.

As the burning canvas rained down on them, some tried to slash their way through the tent sides, but most were hopelessly trapped.

The tragedy killed 167 people, of which 100 were tragically children. The fire was over in ten minutes when the tent collapsed. Seven hundred people were injured.

The first conclusion was that a cigarette thrown away near the men's toilets had jumped to the tent and raced across the surface.

Other Factors

The circus was short-staffed as many of those who worked there had gone to war. This had caused frequent delays before the accident. More personnel may have helped the patrons to leave in a more organised fashion.

The chutes that transported the big cats in and out of the arena were still in place, blocking two exits. Miraculously, all the animals were saved.

Others would state that the matinee being cancelled on 5 July did not bode well. Many circus workers held the superstition that missing a show was bad luck.

Poor safety precautions also played a large part in the speed of the disaster. Fire extinguishers were inaccessible, and fire trucks were parked too far away to be helpful.


Five of the circus workers were arrested and charged with manslaughter after the blaze. The circus offered the victims four million dollars in compensation.

However, behind the scenes, the lawyers for the circus began to question whether the fire had been an accident. The defence team filed a motion in March 1945.

We feel very strongly that the fire was of incendiary origin, and on trial, we will have substantial evidence to support such a possibility.

In 1950, police in Ohio interrogated an arsonist, Robert Segee, about a series of fires in Circleville. He confessed to setting fires in Maine, New Hampshire, Hartford and Connecticut.

He then claimed that he had worked for Ringling Brothers Barnum and had started fires as the circus came to town. Had he deliberately started the fire on 6 July?

Accident or Arson

Due to tensions between the Ohio and Connecticut police, Segee was never pursued as a suspect in the circus fire. He was imprisoned for setting the fires in Ohio but never faced any other charges.

The cause of the Hartford Circus fire remains a mystery. Was it set accidentally from the careless cigarette flick, or did an arsonist who worked there deliberately set the fire?

Seventy years after the fire, Carol Tillman Parrish, who was six then, said, "Until this day, I can smell the stench of human flesh." It is believed that many more may have died in the tragedy, but poor record-keeping helped hide the true extent of the fire.

The disaster remains one of the worst in Connecticut history, with many children having their lives cut too short.


About the Creator

Sam H Arnold

History and True Crime stories from all eras and all countries. Fiction stories with a twist.

For more of my crime article then join my True Crime magazine at

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Comments (3)

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  • Exotic History8 days ago

    It's really a tragic memoir.

  • This was just so tragic. I hope it was just an accident.

  • Great work! Arson is interesting!

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