They played by the lake, their tops guyed out on the lot by Municipal Stadium. The Indians were on the road, and healthy crowds turned out for the big show. Only the Pennsy tracks ran between them and the shore, fenced them in along the bluffs. All day a breeze off the water snapped the flags of the big top.
It was August and hot. It was the first summer of the war and already they were short of men. Their owner John Ringling North had scaled back to a four-pole big top from the traditional six, but layout superintendent Leonard Aylesworth still had to recruit neighborhood kids to help his men erect the tents.
They were always late that summer; the engines they relied on to pull their trains were needed for the war. The Office of Defense Transportation decided when they went and how they got there—a problem only made worse by the oversized flatcars they used to haul their wagons. The curves on some routes were too tight and there were delays, hours spent stalled on sidings to let troop and munitions trains through. The jumps between cities took too long, and then setting up was slow, and the matinees got pushed back.
On top of that, the man who usually oversaw all these logistics, general manager George Washington Smith, was gone, off to the Army's War Show, an open-air mock-battle pageant designed to sell victory bonds by displaying the tanks and planes and howitzers the country was subsidizing.
Still, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows made their dates. Blowing a show was bad luck, and they'd had enough of that already. There was serious money to be made. War plants were running three shifts and everyone had a fat paycheck, not like a few years ago. Just two railroad shows had survived the Depression, and the Cole Brothers only remotely rivaled Big Bertha.
This was still the Greatest Show on Earth, with its tradition and glitter, a new elephant ballet scored by Stravinsky and choreographed by Balanchine, and stars like Emmett Kelly and Alfred Court, the Wallendas and the Cristianis and the Flying Concellos, even menagerie draws like Gargantua the giant gorilla and his bride M'Toto, who did nothing but loll around in their air-conditioned cages until it was time for their twice-a-day staged wedding. One hundred clowns, the posters boasted, one thousand animals.
People came out to see them and forget the war, if only for a moment. There was a promotion where if you bought a bond you got a free grandstand ticket, and the show this year was decidedly patriotic, the big spectacle or “spec” a celebration of American holidays, the finale of the closing spec capped by the unfurling of four huge portraits of President Roosevelt. Servicemen in uniform were admitted free.
The '42 show had done well so far, opening strong in Madison Square Garden, following that with a good run at Boston Garden, then dipping down south to Baltimore to open under canvas. They played packed houses all the way up the eastern seaboard—Hartford was especially good, with Colt's Firearms and United Aircraft there—before turning inland across upstate New York. In Syracuse they played a straw matinee, the overflow crowd sitting on the ground, and then a turnaway that night, the big top so full even John Carson's opportunistic crew of ushers couldn't shoehorn one more rube in. Sellouts in Schenectady and Utica, a big house in Buffalo, but then when they hit Pittsburgh it rained.
It was a rough go. During the opening matinee, one of Alfred Court's lions attacked trainer Vincent Souday, laying his right thigh open from groin to knee. Court himself rushed in to finish the act, but the damage was done, the mood had been set. It poured. For the six-day stand the backyard was mud, the girls in the spec hauling on boots, their rainy day costumes clammy, never quite dry.
At the employment office downtown the circus requested permission to hire 150 more workers, but war industries had priority, and Pittsburgh, the steel capital of the world, was working round the clock, the mills churning out clouds so dark the city kept their streetlights on all day long. The young, unattached men whom the glamour and freedom of circus life had always drawn were in dire short supply. The show took on anyone who signed up and was happy to get out of town.
Cleveland was a four-day engagement, August 3rd through the 6th, shows at 2:15 and 8:15 daily, doors open at 1:00 and 7:00, same as always. Like the army the circus operated by clockwork; every working person knew where they had to be and what they had to do. In the last war it was said the Kaiser had modeled his army's transportation scheme after Barnum's. The routine defined everyone's day; in a way it comforted them, gave them something solid to hang on to.
Opening day was unremarkable, the performances sharp, the weather mercifully clear. The lot had a view of the harbor, two stone jetties tipped with white lighthouses reaching into blue, blue Lake Erie. The tent was air-conditioned, another new-fangled idea of John Ringling North's. After the withering heat of the grounds and the stifling humidity of the menagerie tent with its ripe zebras and camels and elephants, the matinee customers appreciated it. That night the crowd was larger, swelled by families and workers finished with day shift.
The morning of Tuesday the 4th, the dew and the cool fog burned off and the day promised to be sunny. Kids who showed up early enough were hired for the price of a pass to scrounge around under the bleachers and retrieve last night's empty Coke bottles. The lot was too small for the cookhouse, so it was across the street from the big top. As the staff fried pork chops and bacon and eggs and toast for breakfast, cageboys bumped wheelbarrows piled with chunks of horsemeat between the big cats' wagons. The tethered camels and zebras tucked into piles of fresh hay. It was all clockwork, and after Pittsburgh, welcome.
Around 11:30 A.M. the flag on the cookhouse went up for lunch, and the hands left their charges grazing away. The first call for the sideshow was noon. The kid show, it was called, with the Doll Family of Tinytown, Percy Pape the Living Skeleton, and Dr. Mayfield the Fire Proof Man, among others. Pretty soon the towners would roll in, the midway would fill up, and the talkers would have to step out on the bally platform and turn the tip—convince the crowd to line up at the ticket boxes and fork over cold cash to see Mo-Lay the comedy juggler and Egan Twist the Rubber-Armed Man and Miss Patricia the hot-neon-tube swallower. A clutch of spielers and performers were waiting for their lunch orders when someone ran through the doorway and shouted that the menagerie was on fire.
They all ran.
What happened happened fast. As they dashed across the street to the midway, they could see black smoke pouring up and flames racing along the peaks of the menagerie top. Inside, the elephants were staked to the ground front and back with iron chains. They were trumpeting.
Two men ducked into the canvas marquee and began tearing the steel railings in front of the ticket booths out of the ground. The first came easily. As they tugged at the second one, a giraffe bounded past them and galloped across the lot.
Hands broke out water buckets and fire extinguishers, but the breeze from the lake fed the flames. Scraps of canvas floated free, rose like balloons on the superheated air. Luckily the wind was blowing from the northeast and pushed the fire away from the adjacent big top. Only the poleless gorilla top, home of Mr. and Mrs. Gargantua, separated the two large tents. Their handlers immediately cut the ropes, dropping the untouched canvas over their cages. A circus water truck arrived with a short section of hose and wet the canvas down, allowing a tractor to come in and haul the Gargantuas' wagons off, their air conditioners still humming.
Inside, flaming pieces of the tent dropped into the straw and hay. It went up like dry brush. Cageboys untethered their animals and led them out, then went back for more, hunched over from the blaze above. Big John Sabo, the menagerie super, made three trips before the heat drove him out. One zebra was running around wild, turning circles in the smoke; it shot out of the main entrance and zigzagged over to the grade by the railroad tracks where a number of hands closed in and wrestled it to the ground. An ostrich sprinted out, on fire; it took three men to tackle it and beat out the flames.
The elephants still hadn't budged and wouldn't until the boss of the bull men, Walter McClain, arrived. McClain was a giant of a man with an even greater reputation as a trainer. He knew his bulls would wait for him, so he led his men in even as the roof above them was coming apart. The men scampered around to the rear stakes and unlinked the beasts' shackles. At McClain's command the elephants reached down with their trunks and yanked their front stakes out of the ground. Another word from him and they marched out in procession, trunk to tail. Some were horribly burned, their flesh hanging in strips, peeled off like rind, but they were out.
Three they couldn't reach. One, Ringling Rosie, they freed from her chains, but she was spooked and refused to leave the burning tent. The heat was down on them now, pushing them out. McClain stayed as long as he could (the right side of his face would be burned pink from his hairline to his collar), then ran. From outside, witnesses watched Ringling Rosie stomping back and forth as the flames enveloped her.
These camels never left their bed of straw. Workers stand about helplessly as Cleveland firemen mop up. In the left background, behind the now-empty rigging, rises the four-pole big top. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CIRCUS WORLD MUSEUM
Likewise, the camels refused to move, balked at any effort to save them. They folded themselves down in their straw and the fire broke over them. The canvas was coming down, pieces burning in the dirt. In their cage wagons, the big cats roasted in their bedding, unable to escape.
The fire was mostly smoke now, the poles and wire rigging of the top charred and bare, yet still standing. The top was gone, consumed like tissue paper, nothing but scraps left. It had only been a few minutes.
The circus water trucks and the first Cleveland engine company to arrive played streams of water on Ringling Rosie. As police cordons held back the crowds, workingmen battled the fires inside the cages. Steam poured off of the charred wood. Inside, lions and tigers and pumas squirmed in the cinders, their coats smoking. Some lay still. The cageboys sobbed.
Firemen quenched what was left of the fire—hay and smoldering rope—while John Sabo and show veterinarian J. Y. Henderson took inventory. Two giraffes had been incinerated in their chain-link partition; how the third had escaped no one could figure out, but it was safe, just bruised and scratched from falling hard as workers corralled it. Another unlikely survivor was Betty Lou, the pygmy hippo; she'd saved her own life by diving into her bathing tank and staying submerged until a tractor driver snaked her wagon out of danger.
Few others were so lucky. Ringling Rosie stood among the bodies strewn through the charred mud and puddles of black water, pink bleeding patches where her skin had been stripped off. Dr. Henderson was hoping to spray her with an unguent called Foille, a new medication invented for industrial burns. When Walter McClain ordered his men to double-chain her for the treatment, she went berserk, and afraid she might break loose, a city detective had to shoot her between the eyes with his.45. The pistol wasn't enough gun. The shot knocked her down but she was still breathing. Dr. Henderson had to ask a police ballistics expert to use his submachine gun on her.
One of the three giraffes there that day. Only one survived—Edith, who somehow vaulted the corral. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CIRCUS WORLD MUSEUM
The elephant line stood in the street, quietly receiving treatment. They were burned mostly on their heads and trunks, their thin ears crisped. Trainers daubed Foille on their raw flesh with paintbrushes.
The three other elephants McClain's men couldn't get to were hurting. Later that afternoon another policeman put down Little Rosy, who was just too badly burned.
The camels were the worst, and the big cats. Police and Coast Guardsmen brought over high-powered rifles and ammunition from a nearby armory. One camel handler begged them not to shoot his animals, others cursed them, but it was necessary.
Dr. Henderson went hopefully from cage to cage with his sprayer of Foille. The cats looked up at him, licking their burned paws, wisps of smoke still rising from their fur. The doctor asked a detective for his pistol. The Coast Guardsmen were there with their rifles for the larger animals. Together they had to shoot three camels, three lions, and a puma. The thing he would never forget, Dr. Henderson said later, was how, throughout, the animals were completely silent.
• • •
The Cleveland menagerie fire was a shock, even more so because it was wartime and the circus was supposed to be a diversion from that larger tragedy, but anyone who knew the circus knew it had a history of disasters.
From the beginning, American circuses seemed prone to fire—perhaps naturally, considering their early performances were lighted by either candles or oil lamps. In 1799, Rickett's Equestrian Circus, widely recognized as the first in America, lost their Philadelphia amphitheater when it burned to the ground.
P. T Barnum seemed especially susceptible. Fire destroyed his American Museum at Broadway and Ann Street in lower Manhattan in July of 1865. Hoping to douse the floors below, firemen smashed the thick glass of the whale tank; the tactic didn't work, and the whales burned alive. Barnum quickly rebuilt a few blocks away, but in 1868 fire struck again. In 1887 the Barnum & London winter quarters in Bridgeport, Connecticut, burned, killing most of the circus' animals. It suffered another major blaze in 1900, and, though Barnum himself was gone by then, several minor fires almost yearly through the teens, capped by a $100,000 loss in 1924. In '27, the Combined Shows moved their winter quarters to Sarasota, Florida, ending his strange legacy
The Ringling Bros. had the reputation of being ridiculously lucky, partly because of their competitors' perception of them as high and mighty, holier than thou. They ran what was known as a Sunday School show, going so far as to ban swearing on the lot. With no rigged midway games or salacious girlie acts, they continued to outgross other less savory outfits, often by promoting their squeaky-clean image. The Ding-a-ling Brothers, cynics called them, the Five Deacons. The first fire of note that struck them was in August of 1901 in Kansas City, Missouri; the sideshow tent burned, but, as their famous luck would have it, no one was hurt.
Barnum & Bailey—before the 1919 merger the sole and original Greatest Show on Earth—was possibly even luckier. In May of 1910, on a Saturday afternoon in Schenectady, New York, their big top caught fire with fifteen thousand souls in attendance. Fred Bradna, the big show's equestrian director at the time of the Cleveland menagerie fire, was about to blow his whistle for the opening procession when he saw a patch of flame waving above the bleachers. He asked the spectators to please leave their seats in an orderly fashion, and they did.
The 1910 Schenectady big top fire, as seen from a perch overlooking the midway, the sideshow top behind a wall of banners. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CIRCUS WORLD MUSEUM
Schenectady. The cables of the rigging are visible, still attached to the tops of the quarter poles. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CIRCUS WORLD MUSEUM
There was no panic. The fire looked so insignificant that they climbed down the grandstands and bleachers and stood on the track and in the rings, watching as canvasmen climbed up onto the top and tried to cut out the burning section. A fire station directly across the street laid in hose immediately and focused water on the top, but soon it became apparent that they could not easily contain the blaze, and the crowd scurried out the main entrance and the back door and under the sidewalls, all without injury.
Witnesses at a country club overlooking the lot said they saw great masses of flaming canvas float up into the sky, the fire consuming them as they rose, a magician's trick. In minutes the poles were on the ground, though some of the canvas escaped untouched and the stands were saved. No one was hurt. The greatest loss was loss of face; once the fire was out, the crowd besieged the ticket wagons, demanding their money back. The ticket sellers were saved only when drivers hitched teams to the wagons and dragged them off.
The Ringlings' luck struck again in August 1912, in Sterling, Illinois. The big top was set up on a racetrack pasture. At one o'clock ten thousand people were waiting for the doors to open for the matinee when a barn a few blocks away caught fire. Al Ringling noticed the wind lifting burning shingles into the air and ordered the doors closed. As he feared, a brand landed on the roof of the top and the flames jumped up. The tent burned in minutes. By this time, Fred Bradna had moved to the Ringling Bros., so he was a witness again. Hook men calmly hustled the elephants away, as everyone feared a stampede. Again no one was hurt. The poles and stands needed only sanding and a new coat of paint.
The next morning the Sterling Daily Standard reported that the initial cause of the fire was either a spark from an engine or some boys seen smoking cigarettes around the barn. “The rapid destruction of the big tent has caused much speculation,” the Standardsaid, “and people who witnessed it go up in flames today are still wondering what made the big tent go so quickly. The truth is the tent was covered with parafine to keep out rain and when the fire started this to melting it also added fuel to the flame and caused the more rapid destruction of the big tent.”
The fire itself was a spectacle worthy of a circus. A picture of the burning tent won first prize in a photography contest held by a national magazine.
No other big top burned in the years between 1912 and the Hartford fire of '44, so it's not odd that the Sterling fire and the Hartford disaster are often paired in news stories. Both were matinees and both tops were the Ringling Bros. But the show had two other major fires very shortly after Sterling that are less well known.
The first was in Cleveland, this one also by the lakefront lot. In May 1914, forty-three railway cars went up while sitting mostly empty on a siding. The second was in October 1916, when the baggage stock tent burned in Huntsville, Alabama. Forty draft horses were incinerated; forty more had to be killed. According to witnesses, the fire took five minutes.
Even more than fires, train wrecks have plagued circuses over the years. The most famous wreck deserves mention here. It also occurred during wartime, in June 1918. At 4:00 in the morning, the crew of a train carrying the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus stopped near Ivanhoe, Indiana, to fix a hotbox. The engineer pulled most of the train onto a siding, but the last five cars, including four sleepers, were still sitting on the main line. Miles away, an empty troop train blew through stop signals, its driver asleep at the wheel from a dose of kidney pills. In the old wooden sleepers, the circus workers and performers slept in their cramped berths, kerosene lanterns burning dimly above the aisles.
The crew of the circus train heard a distant chuffing and turned from their work to see the headlamp of the troop train bearing down on them. The driver had finally woken up, but it was too late for the brakes. The engine tore through the sleepers, driving them together, pitching them in a heap. The injured were trapped in the splintered wreckage, and as rescuers clambered in to help them, the pile of cars caught fire.
The crash site was between stations. The Gary and Hammond fire departments came as fast as they could, but the only water available at the scene was from a shallow marsh. Realizing the fire would not be put out, people climbed into the wreckage to pull out friends and loved ones. Some did; others died trying.
The Ivanhoe fire killed more than eighty-five circus folks, including animal trainer Millie Jewel, The Girl Without Fear; the number is purposely vague because many people were missing or burned beyond recognition. One Chicago paper wrote: “The two bodies recovered today were like several others which had been removed from the wreck, taken away in common water pails. They consisted only of burned bones from which every shred of flesh had been incinerated.” In the end, fifty-six of the victims were buried in a large plot in Chicago's Woodlawn Cemetery, more than forty of them unidentified. Unknown Male No. 15, reads a typical grave marker. A stone elephant marks the plot, its trunk drooping, indicating sorrow.
By far the Ivanhoe wreck was the worst disaster in the history of the circus up to that time; the sheer number of people killed was staggering. Typically, other circuses pitched in and offered Hagenbeck-Wallace equipment and assistance, and in the great tradition of show business, Hagenbeck-Wallace accepted both and soldiered on. They missed just two stands.
Though Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey had not had a major fire on the lot for many years before Cleveland, the show was not immune to tragedy. The year before, while they were touring the south, eleven elephants had died suddenly, most of them during their Atlanta stand. Autopsies revealed the animals had consumed large amounts of arsenic. At first a member of the circus train crew was arrested on suspicion of poisoning, but the charges were dropped. Police picked up several other suspects—including a recently fired worker—then let them go as well.
Old hands remembered that in the early thirties several elephants had fallen sick in Charlotte, North Carolina, from grazing near a chemical plant by the lot, and one of the last stands before Atlanta had been Charlotte. While many circus folk accepted this explanation, the connection was tenuous at best. The cause was never conclusively determined.
In a way, all of these tragedies could be said to fit the popular view of the circus as a dangerous and slapdash workplace, populated by shady transients and naturally prone to disaster. Our regular world, we figure, is much safer, being routine. And part of this attitude comes from our wonder at the daring, maybe even foolhardy risks we associate with circus acts like lion taming and wire walking. The danger involved is that much more exciting to us because we know it's real. Big cats can and do turn on their trainers; tightwire artists working without a net can and do fall to their deaths.
But these risks are painstakingly calculated by expert professionals, as are the rigid logistics behind the daily world of the circus. Likewise, both systems come from a long tradition, often propagated along family lines, and are practiced and perfected well before being taken out on the road.
Mostly though, the danger incurred by high-wire artists and animal trainers comes from trying to do a new bit, or trying to do more. In the case of these earlier top fires, it seems obvious that the danger was an old one, and never corrected. Schenectady, Sterling, Huntsville—all of these would be remembered after the Cleveland fire, and then again after Hartford.
• • •
All afternoon tractors dragged the charred bodies out, the hooked chains clanking, then pulling taut. John Ringling North strode the lot in a brown leather jacket and cinnamon jodhpurs, directing the cleanup crew. He'd already called the sail loft in Sarasota for another tent and told his aides to scour area zoos for replacements. To the press he conceded they would have to cancel the matinee but vowed they'd play that night. The show would go on.
Dr. Henderson and his assistants worked on the survivors. The city donated the basement of nearby Public Hall, and they laid out a makeshift sick bay for two elephants, three camels and a Grevy zebra—all badly burned and in shock. Walter McClain asked for a squirt of Foille on his face and went back to take care of his other charges.
It could have been worse, everyone said. Besides the elephants, no performing animals were hurt, only menagerie stock. The ring stock top with hundreds of horses was right beside the menagerie; at one point a smoking pole had fallen on it. City firemen too late to save the menagerie concentrated their efforts there.
There was no chance of saving the menagerie top itself. It was 320 by 120 feet, with six poles. People said it burned in three minutes; others said ten. Like the tents in the earlier fires, it was waterproofed with the traditional mixture of paraffin and white gasoline. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported: “One reason the tent was destroyed so swiftly was that its waterproofing was highly inflammable.” The fire melted and then pyrolized the wax coating—turned it into flammable gas the same way the body of a lighted candle feeds its own flame. In essence, the tent burned like a giant wick. The breeze only made things worse.
David “Deacon” Blanchfield, the show's superintendent of trucks and tractors, testified at the state fire marshal's inquiry after Hartford: “I saw the one in Cleveland burn. You see one minute [it's] on fire, the next, there's no top. It's impossible to save a circus tent. There's no way to do it, unless you was right there and put it out with your foot. You ain't got the least conception of how quick a big top goes. That's as true as I sit in this chair. I wouldn't say unless I know, because I see two tops burn; and how hot it gets under there. That fire in Cleveland, it was over in less than twenty minutes, and it burned the hide off four elephants, completely off.”
Initially Cleveland authorities thought the cause might be a carelessly discarded cigarette—the usual suspect in hotel fires of the time. One of the workingmen first on the scene thought the blaze originated on the roof of the tent, possibly caused by a spark from a passing locomotive. Another hand told a reporter for the Plain Dealer that he'd noticed a drunken worker lying in a pile of straw near where the fire started, smoking a cigarette. A third said he'd seen some boys with matches outside of that end of the tent. A fourth was telling anyone who would listen that the origin was a short circuit in a generator that was being repaired. The local fire prevention bureau would only say there was an investigation under way. “We may never know what happened,” John Ringling North told reporters.
A truck hauled the burned giraffe wagon off to the runs. A local rendering plant disposed of the carcasses.
That night's show went on as scheduled; there was even an open-air sidewalled menagerie. They played to a crowd of eleven thousand, three thousand more than opening night. The biggest hand went to the elephant ballet, and especially to those animals who showed marks of the fire through their tutus.
In the basement of Public Hall, Dr. Henderson swabbed more Foille on the survivors. He had little hope: as with any seriously burned patients, animals are likely to contract pneumonia. He worked through the evening but in the end they were too badly hurt—theyd inhaled flames. One-Eyed Trilby the elephant died around midnight, then Rose the Grevy zebra. A last elephant, Kas, didn't live till morning. That left the three camels, Pasha, Tilly and En Route. They hung on, kneeling silently in their straw, unable to eat or drink. Early the next morning Dr. Henderson called on a detective to end their suffering.
The final toll was four elephants, all thirteen camels, all nine zebras, five lions, two tigers, two giraffes, two gnus, two white fallow deer, two Ceylon donkeys, one axis deer, one puma, one chimpanzee, and one ostrich. Publicly, the circus insisted there wasn't a dime's worth of insurance on the lot of them. John Ringling North estimated the loss at a gaudy $200,000. In private the circus filed claims with their carrier for the animals and cage wagons at just under $36,000.
The basement of Public Hall. Circus veterinarian Dr. J. Y. Henderson examines Pasha while Blackie Barlow paints on Foille. The three camels hung on the longest, but eventually they succumbed too. PHOTO BY THE CLEVELAND NEWS, COURTESY OF THE CLEVELAND PUBLIC LIBRARY
The night of August 5th, while the evening show was going on in Cleveland, Pennsylvania Railroad police at the Duquesne yards near Pittsburgh arrested a boy in his teens for illegally riding a freight. At first he refused to tell them his name. Railroad detectives found menagerie meal tickets in his pocket, and then at the Duquesne police station, he blurted out, “I know something about the circus fire.”
The boy said he was sixteen and his name was Lemandris Ford—or Lemandria, or Lamadris (the papers couldn't agree). He'd quit school in Hazelwood the week before and signed on with the circus in Pittsburgh along with an older companion, Jess Johnson. The two had been let go Tuesday morning for not working fast enough.
Lemandris Ford then confessed to setting the fire, saying Johnson had convinced him to do it “to get even with the circus for firing us.” According to Ford, Johnson lighted a cigarette for each of them, then held a knife to his ribs and threatened to stab him if he didn't throw his into a pile of hay where the animals were eating.
The fire itself Ford said little about. Later though, he admitted, “I felt pretty sorry when I saw all those dead animals lying around.”
The circus timekeeper verified that Ford had been with them for those days, and Ford signed a confession. He had no previous police record.
Ford waived extradition, and circus police chief John Brice and two city detectives drove down to Pittsburgh to pick him up. By the next day the detectives were convinced Ford had nothing to do with the blaze. The boy was vague when questioned about the menagerie tent and the animals in it and was easily tripped into making contradictory statements. The man in the photo he identified as Jess Johnson was actually another criminal with a connection to the circus.
Police picked up Johnson anyway a few days later, but again the detectives thought him an unlikely suspect. By now Lemandris Ford had recanted his confession. The police publicly called his story a hoax and said the discrepancies in his statement made them suspect he was either seeking notoriety or else a victim of hallucinations. The boy alternately admitted and denied setting the fire right up to the time of his hearing.
Circus police chief John Brice had been with the show over thirty years. Though his hair was now a striking white, he still answered to the nickname Barnum Red. From his earliest days, he had a knack for spotting undesirables on the lot. Now his gut told him the kid was making it up. Medical records showed Ford had suffered a fractured skull in a car crash the winter before. The court ordered a psychiatric examination. Based on its findings, they returned him to Pittsburgh with the recommendation that he be committed to a home for the feeble-minded.
The origin of the fire remained a mystery, officially undetermined. While there was no proof beyond his confused confession, many still believed that Lemandris Ford was responsible, John Ringling North among them. By this time, Life magazine had already run a heavily illustrated story that stated the allegations as if they were fact, calling the accused “the young arsonist Alamandris Ford.”
Later, other tall tales would crop up about the fire, including stampedes of elephants roaring down the streets of Cleveland, their stakes banging parked cars; the impressive weaponry (riot guns) and number of shots required to put down the animals; and the heartrending behavior of one lioness trying in vain to save her cubs by lying on top of them. As with Lemandris Ford's story, some people believed these and some didn't.
The circus had more practical matters to think of. They needed to restock their menagerie, and they did, partially, at least for the rest of the season. In '43 they would tour without a menagerie, and never again would they have the number of zebras and camels they had before Cleveland.
But the circus and John Ringling North would always find a way to profit, even from their own tragedies. Legend has it that the four elephants who died would later be displayed as sideshow attractions, much as Barnum showed Jumbo's remains in a special tent—untrue, it appears, yet testament to the public's perception of North's vaunted ability to find a silver lining.
The circus rebounded easily. It was sad, yes, but they were used to the fact that trouping was a hard and not always safe life and that accidents happened. Proof that it could happen to anyone was never far off. Walter McClain had pioneered the use of elephants in unloading flatcars and helping haul wagons from the runs to the lot. In November, as the show unloaded in the Jacksonville yards, he slipped and fell as he was trying to hop a moving baggage wagon. The front wheel crushed his skull, killing him. The circus mourned and carried on. That was circus life.
But while the razorbacks and canvas hands knew the dangers at the runs and on the lot, everyone with the show also knew the risks were theirs alone. The audience was never in danger. It was with great pride that even after the Cleveland fire Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey could truthfully state that no spectator at any of their shows had ever been killed.
• • •
As terrible as the menagerie fire was, Thanksgiving of that year taught the public how bad a fire could really be. The Cocoanut Grove, a crowded nightclub in Boston, burned in seven minutes. Exits were few, some of them blocked by doors that opened inward, and 492 people died, most of them not from burns but by asphyxiation. The smoke from materials used to decorate the club proved to be toxic, poisoning hundreds. Many of the bodies seemed untouched, just sleeping. All 492 were identified.
The Boston press made much of the Grove's employees knowing the way out while customers groped blindly in the smoke. How the fire started was never firmly established, though a teenaged waiter, having lighted a match to see a lightbulb he was supposed to change, was tried in the papers. The courts cited the inflammable materials, lack of exits and well-past-capacity crowd as criminally negligent, and sentenced the club's absentee owner to prison. The courts also tried the city building inspector who had licensed the club, but while they found him derelict in his duties, he didn't see time.
Survivors of the dead sued, but the owner's pockets were not deep. Each claimant received as a death benefit only $160. Immediately, cities around the country changed and then began to strictly enforce their fire codes. Insurance companies clamped down. We would learn from the Cocoanut Grove, officials said.