July 6, 1944
A fire ignites a circus tent, killing an estimated 168 and wounding over 700
The exact cause of the fire is unknown. One theory suspects a carelessly discarded cigarette, while another involves Robert Segee who admitted in 1950 to setting the blaze when he was 17. He later recanted this admission, however.
When the circus bandleader spotted the fire, he instructed the band to play “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” a song used as a warning signal to other performers. The ringmaster attempted to order the audience to quickly evacuate without panicking. The fire had already cut the power, however, and his instructions were unable to be heard.
Due to the tent’s paraffin wax coating, designed for waterproofing, the fire quickly spread. The audience scrambled to escape, the chaos only making things worse. Survivor Maureen Krekian, who was 11 at the time of the disaster, stated in a 2007 interview: “The exit was blocked with the cages that the animals were brought in and out with. … There was a young man, a kid, and he had a pocketknife. And he slit the tent, took my arm and pulled me out.”
Roughly 168 died from the flames, smoke inhalation, being trampled on by others fleeing, or when the big top collapsed. In the most congested areas, near exits blocked by chutes used to bring in animals for the show, bodies were found stacked atop one another. Some victims died from suffocation, the weight of the others killing them. However, a few managed to survive after being buried by other victims, shielded from the flames by those above them.
One of the victims, a young blonde girl, was never identified despite minimal damage caused by the fire. She was given the name Little Miss 1565, named for her morgue identification number. Two police sergeants dedicated the rest of their lives to finding Little Miss’ identity with no success. One of the sergeants, Thomas Barber, also visited Little Miss’ grave annually until his own death. Afterward, a local florist resumed the tradition.
A memorial to the victims is available at CircusFire1944.com.
The bodies of some of the child victims of the fire are laid to rest.
A makeshift morgue houses the bodies of the victims of the fire
Little Miss 1565.