The Hartford Circus Fire of 1944 stands as one of the worst disasters in Connecticut history, but it’s still debated whether the tragedy was an accident or arson.
On a hot, humid day in July 1944, thousands of people made their way to a field on Barbour Street in Hartford, Connecticut, to enjoy a day at Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. But what was supposed to be a fun outing quickly turned hellish. That day, a blaze consumed the circus and killed at least 167 people in the infamous Hartford Circus Fire of 1944.
One of the worst disasters in Connecticut history, the fire spread rapidly and trapped thousands inside the 500-foot-long big top tent. Many were trampled; others burned alive or died from smoke inhalation. And of those who lost their lives, 100 were tragically just children.
Afterward, most chalked up the fire to a tragic disaster. Someone had seemingly thrown away a cigarette, inadvertently tossing embers onto the highly flammable tent. But it later came out that the fire could have had more sinister origins, as one of the circus workers was a serial arsonist.
Families Heading To The Circus For Fun
The day of the Hartford Circus Fire, July 6, 1944, began on a light note. Between six and eight thousand people streamed toward a field on Barbour Street, where the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus had erected their tent. Families, and plenty of children, rushed to find seats for the spectacle.
For most people, the circus provided a welcome distraction from World War II, raging just across the Atlantic. Publicity photos for the event promised “The Greatest Show on Earth” and entertaining acts like sequined dancing girls and the famous “clown with the sad face.”
But a dark undercurrent ran beneath that day’s festivities. As CT Insider reports, the circus was short-staffed because many of its workers were gone fighting in the war. This caused frequent delays, including in Hartford, where the circus arrived late and had to cancel a matinee on July 5.
The skipped show didn’t bode well for many superstitious circus workers and performers (missing a show was considered bad luck). Moreover, it likely meant even more people showed up for the July 6 show than usual since they had missed the canceled matinee the previous day.
Still, no one doubted that the show had to go on. Despite the hot, humid weather and worries of misfortune, hundreds packed the big top tent and settled in for the Greatest Show on Earth.
For many, it would be the last show they ever saw.
Inside The Hartford Circus Fire Of 1944
As Connecticut History reports, the show started out like normal. The thrilled audience watched a performance by a French lion tamer and got ready to see a group of stunt performers called the Great Wallendas.
Then one of the performers screamed: “The tent’s on fire!”
Outside, it appeared that someone had absentmindedly tossed a cigarette away, which had started a small fire near the men’s bathroom. The fire jumped to the tent and raced across its surface, which was covered in a highly flammable mix of paraffin wax and gasoline to make it waterproof.
Alerted to the disaster, the band launched into “Stars and Stripes Forever,” which signaled disaster to circus performers and workers. By that point, neither the performers nor the audience needed a signal. Flames quickly climbed to 100 feet, and thousands of spectators rushed toward the exits.
Tragically, the mad dash for the exits created fatal bottlenecks. People trampled over each other in desperation, and burning pieces of canvas falling from the ceiling caused more panic. Though some were able to slash their way through the tent walls, dozens were hopelessly trapped inside. HISTORY reports that of the 167 people who died, some 100 were children.
Ironically, one of the attendees at the show that day was Edward J. Hickey, the Connecticut state police commissioner and state fire marshal who had come to see the circus with his nieces and nephews.
“I saw people trying to climb over the chute cages in the track on the north side,” he later recalled, “and when I left the tent, owing to the heat and fire settling there were people piled alongside of this chute cage, and these folks were flaming and burning, and shrieking and hollering.”
The Hartford Circus fire was over in 10 minutes and ended with the catastrophic collapse of the tent. But questions about it have lingered much longer. Was the fatal fire an accident — or did someone set it on purpose?
Was The Hartford Circus Fire Arson?
At first, investigators believed the Hartford Circus Fire was accidental, exacerbated by the circus’ poor safety preparations. Connecticut History notes that the circus’ fire extinguishers were inaccessible during the blaze, its fire trucks were parked too far away to help, and the circus had failed to notify the Hartford Fire Department of their arrival.
Indeed, five circus workers were arrested and charged with manslaughter in the aftermath of the blaze. The circus also agreed to pay for the disaster, offering the victims and their families four million dollars. But behind the scenes, lawyers for the Ringling Brothers Barnum And Bailey Circus expressed doubts that the blaze had been accidental.
According to CT Insider, the Ringling Bros. defense team filed a motion in March 1945, less than a year after the catastrophic fire, claiming that: “We feel very strongly that the fire was of incendiary origin and on trial we will have substantial evidence to support such a possibility.”
Then in 1950, police in Ohio interrogated a suspected arsonist named Robert Segee about a series of fires in the city of Circleville. Not only did Segee confess to setting those fires, but he also confessed to setting fires in Maine, New Hampshire — and Hartford, Connecticut.
Segee claimed to have worked with the Ringling Brothers Barnum And Bailey Circus in the 1940s and said that he had started fires in Portland and Providence, Rhode Island, the two towns the circus passed through before arriving in Hartford.
Investigators confirmed that there were inconsequential fires in both Portland and Providence and that Segee had, in fact, worked for the circus as a teenager as he’d said.
According to Segee, he was motivated to set fires by visions of a burning Native American man on a horse who instructed him to start the blazes.
“I could have set it any number of ways,” Segee said, when asked how he would have started the Hartford Circus Fire. “They had the tents covered with gasoline and oil to keep the rain off. Even the slightest bit of fire would take hold of it very quickly. I don’t know why I set it.”
But CT Insider reports that tensions between the investigation in Ohio and the investigation in Connecticut (which had laid the blame for the Hartford Circus fire with Ringling Bros.) meant that Segee was never pursued as a suspect. And Segee recanted everything just a few months later.
“Things I was certain of before, I’m not so certain of anymore,” he said after his initial confession, according to CT Insider. “My life has been full of bad thoughts, bad breaks and bad dreams.”
Robert Segee went to prison for setting fires in Ohio, but never faced charges for the Hartford Circus Fire. As such, the tragic blaze remains something of a mystery. Was it set accidentally, caused by a careless flick of a cigarette on a hot July day? Or was it arson? Perhaps only Segee knew the truth — him and his mysterious, burning “Red Man.”
After reading about the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944, look through these 36 photos of life in the circus. Or, see how the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 nearly burned down the Windy City.