July 15-July 31, 1944

A ten-year-old boy from Magnolia Street in the North End had escaped the fire. His best friend from the Vine Street School had died. The boy's father was a rabbi, and instructed his son to say the Birkat ha'Gomel, a prayer upon deliverance from peril, on the following Sabbath. So on Saturday, as the circus trains pulled for winter quarters, the boy went to Agudas Achim Synagogue on Greenfield Street and prayed: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who vouchsafest benefits unto the undeserving, who has also vouchsafed all good unto me.”

That morning, Commissioner Hickey sent a memo to all local fire marshals and police chiefs. Since the fire, his office had handled hundreds of inquiries concerning the licensing of traveling shows. It was the season, especially in the distant towns and down along the shore; every meadow seemed to sprout a carnival. In his memo, Hickey asked local inspectors to examine the seating arrangements. If patrons stood, officials could allow one per every five square feet; if sitting in fixed chairs, one per eight square feet; if in loose chairs, one per ten square feet. Shows should provide ample aisles and exits, shorten their rows, and limit capacity. Lastly, he suggested strict enforcement of all No Smoking laws, citing specific sections and fines.

In the early afternoon, WTIC presented a speech by Governor Baldwin. The day before, he'd suddenly announced that he'd reconsidered his position and would indeed run for a third term. Now he briefly recapped the fire and gave the most current death toll before outlining the state's response and the ongoing hearings. “In lives lost and in personal injury,” he said, “this was the worst disaster in the history of Connecticut. A thorough investigation is being made to determine how and why this tragedy occurred. If any criminal negligence or neglect is involved, everything in the power of the state will be done to bring to justice those who may be responsible.”

Like the mayor, he praised Hickey and the War Council, the Red Cross and the hospitals. “These volunteer forces were organized for protection against enemy attack… a bombing raid which has never come. But a bomb attack could not have struck more swiftly, with less warning, or with more cruel force than this circus fire. The injuries, indeed, were much the same as could have been expected in any enemy raid with incendiary bombs—many severe burns and a smaller number of fracture cases. We regret the tragic event that called the emergency organization into action. We shall always be grateful that it was ready for the job.”

Closing, he spoke of how a thousand volunteers had responded, putting in long hours of hard, sometimes impossible work. “The circus disaster has saddened the state. We shall not soon recover from this blow. But we can be intensely proud of the spirit with which the people of Connecticut met the emergency. There are heroes, nameless and innumerable, in this tragedy.”

• • •

Unpublicized was the death of Mabel Epps's baby. She was eight months when she went into premature labor. The baby was stillborn, the result of a separation of the placenta, probably caused by her fall from the top of the bleachers. It would have been her first girl. Ten days after the fire, she was still crying hysterically and suffering from mysterious headaches. The doctor took X-rays but couldn't find an answer. He let her go home, red-eyed and sniffling into a tissue.

At St. Francis, a twenty-two-year-old West Hartford woman died. She'd received only first- and-second-degree burns, and as early as July 7th had been listed by hospital staff as “not serious.”

That night in Denver, a fire destroyed the Old Mill ride at Elitch Gardens, killing six, including two attendants who ran into the tunnel of love to rescue patrons. Officials suspected either a short circuit or a lighted cigarette tossed into one of the niches of the winding tunnel. The owners insisted they'd sprayed all their scenery with liquid fireproofing and that electricians had just checked the wiring that spring.

Later that night in Port Chicago, California, a tragedy of much greater magnitude struck. Two docked munitions ships exploded, leveling the town and killing over three hundred fifty people, many of them instantly vaporized. The blasts came two seconds apart, rocking the state like an earthquake. With the town's power out, the Spartan Bros. Circus cranked up their diesels and lighted the site. By midnight, searchers had recovered only four bodies. The navy declared martial law and shut Port Chicago down. Authorities said no death list would be made available and that an investigation was pending.

The next morning, Governor Baldwin wrote a note to Hickey about the Old Mill fire, saying Hickey should prompt local officials to inspect “all places of amusement.” He also forwarded the commissioner a letter from the head of a chemical company whose firm had fireproofed canvas for both military and civilian use. The man asked that Baldwin use his influence to push through laws requiring all tents to be similarly treated.

That afternoon, both Hickey and Healy listened to witnesses. It was convenient for reporters; the two hearings were right across Washington Street from each other. As Chief Hallissey testified before the coroner, the circus train barreled down the Atlantic Coast line south of Richmond.

The first section pulled into Sarasota shortly after noon on Tuesday, the second and third not far behind. Several reporters and photographers who'd waited much of the night had left, called away to more pressing assignments. Only a small gathering of friends and relatives welcomed the circus, staring at the fire-blackened wagons as the flats and stocks and Pullmans rolled in. Razorbacks bandaged from rescue efforts grimly unloaded them.

“We are all dazed,” Karl Wallenda said. “It was a nightmare. Those bodies piled high and that roar that I can never forget…. I still cannot understand why so many had to die… but the show must and will go on. We want to go out again and we will.”

Free on bond, their manslaughter trial continued till August, George W Smith and James Haley would only say they'd held an executive conference on the train which included Robert Ringling.

In Hartford, Raymond Erickson's mother Sophie toured Municipal Hospital, looking for any trace of her son. A social worker there let her dig through a box containing effects taken from the victims. Mrs. Erickson found Raymond's brown sneakers, the knot she'd tied for him that morning still tucked inside the eyelet so it wouldn't show. Someone had removed his blue socks and carefully pushed them into the toes of his shoes so he wouldn't lose them.

• • •

Wednesday the fire department submitted a list of grass fires that had occurred on the Barbour Street grounds to Commissioner Hickey. Over the last five years the lot had seen more than fifteen, most of them in the spring, but just the year before there'd been one the afternoon of July 3rd.

Hickey's driver Adolph Pastore was in Portland, Maine, tracking down runaway Roy Tuttle. Allegedly Tuttle had passed remarks that he knew how the fire started. The night before, he'd been admitted to Maine General Hospital, where he was recovering from third-degree burns to his arms and legs.

According to the local police, Tuttle was the village idiot, a homeless, illiterate victim of apoplectic fits. He did odd jobs around town for pocket money.

At the hospital, Tuttle told Pastore that he'd signed on with the circus in Portland on June 30th, helping to erect the bleachers. On July 6th, he ate lunch at the cookhouse and took a walk down Barbour Street. While he was in front of a store, he heard women screaming that the big top was on fire. He ran back to the grounds and rushed into the tent just as the poles were falling. He was near the animal chute when he had one of his spells and fell down.

When he woke up, he found himself in an open lot. He slept the night there and the next day started hitchhiking back to Portland. It took him nine days. To relieve the pain of his burns, he sat in water wherever he could find some; now they were infected.

That was it. Pastore got nothing out of Tuttle about how the fire started, just this vague, implausible story. Perhaps he felt Tuttle was harmless, or that it was pointless to dig further into his recollections. In any case, he took his statement and left, hearing from the Portland police once more about the fire on the Spanish web.

The next day Hickey himself went to the lot and took as evidence a small piece of melted iron and a four-foot length of wood sheathed in steel. City police still guarded the interior of the tent, and would for months, but the rest of the grounds reverted to the neighborhood kids. The boys had tired of picking through the grass for coins and scraps of clothing; they went back to playing ball, aware of what had happened but drawn by force of habit. One explained: “You go up there, you always think of that, but you still go up there.”

In their winter quarters the circus retooled, scraping the blistered paint from the damaged wagons, redesigning lost props. The animals had been inactive so long that their trainers had to put them through a crash retraining program. The fliers needed all new trapeze rigging. Everyone pitched in, from bally girls to sideshow performers; sunburns and busted knuckles were the fashion, and beach parties at night.

Thursday, F. Beverly Kelley announced to the press that the circus would leave Sarasota without a big top and play in open air arenas and ballparks. It was probable they would use all-steel seats in the future, but that plan could not be realized this year. “We will never go out under a main tent of canvas until a suitable fireproofing process has been discovered and the cost is within the circus's reach,” he pledged. The show already had a carload of flameproofing compound on its way. “It is planned to fireproof the sideshow tent which will be the only tent to which the public will be admitted, and all sidewalls to be used by the circus when the show resumes its tour.” They would also treat the sidewalls of the dressing and horse tents, but not the tops themselves. “This fireproofing compound had not been available to the circus until this time,” Kelley said, and “it has passed the board of underwriters' specifications and [is] recommended by the bureau of standards in Washington.”

The show would include the same acts as before the fire, but there would be more headroom for the aerial acts. “The world-famed Torrence and Victoria team will present their act on a 135-foot pole, which has never been done in the circus's history.”

Karl Wallenda was used to even greater heights; in Germany he'd made his name walking between church spires. “We're no longer limited by the big top. I can't tell just how much higher we'll go, but it will be a more thrilling act than ever. There is more danger under the new plan because of the wind. We'll get in as much practice as possible.” He promised the act would “go higher than ever has been presented before circus audiences.”

“What does your wife and the rest of the Wallenda family think of the plan?” a reporter asked.

“They don't ask questions,” said Karl. “I tell them to do it and they do it.”

Back in Hartford, a state policewoman took the Ericksons to see Stanley Kurneta in the hospital. Again, Stanley told his story of leaving the badly burned Raymond at Municipal—the elevator, the mattress, the ruddy priest with the straw hat. The shoes were proof he'd been there.

The policewoman escorted the Ericksons to Municipal one more time, where they talked with the superintendent. No one had been allowed out of the hospital unidentified unless they were dead, in which case any clothing had been tied to the body before it was taken to the armory. There was a possibility a disoriented patient may have wandered out in the confusion, but they'd preserved all the effects of the dead. The only priest fitting the description Stanley Kurneta had given was Father Thomas McMahon, but he remembered nothing of any boy.

They checked Hartford and St. Francis—no luck—then went back to Middletown again.

The less badly burned were home now. Their family doctors took care of them, changing bandages and applying clean salve. It grew into a routine, mothers walking their children to the offices, followed by ice cream.

One family heard that salt water was good for burns and arranged for their girls to spend the rest of the summer down at the shore. People noticing their livid scars understood immediately.

The country's sympathies were with the victims, and this included the circus itself. The Ringling front office received bushels of condolences, one from a twelve-year-old Richmond, Virginia, boy with a quarter in it. The boy suggested they use it to start a fund donated by all the boys and girls in America who enjoyed the circus as much as he did. “A chance to see the circus is something every boy should have. It is part of the America which our Army, Navy and Marines are fighting for. I am buying all the war stamps I can but don't think Uncle Sam would mind if all children would give to a fund to help bring back the circus so I am sending you 25 cents to start the fund and I hope you will come this way again some time.”

James Haley wrote back, thanking him and assuring him they'd be on the road again in no time. He returned the boy's money, saying that if they ran into financial trouble, he'd be the first person they called.

The PR struggle was desperate, but they were winning. Few could hold a grudge against the circus. It was like hating ice cream.

In Hartford, late on Saturday the 22nd, Roland Butler announced to the Associated Press that the circus would reopen in the University of Cincinnati football stadium on August 2nd for a two-day stand. Sarasota rescinded this statement within hours. Sunday the front office said the new show would debut August 4th in Akron's Rubber Bowl, playing a three-day run, two performances a day, as usual. Monday the show would begin rehearsals in winter quarters.

The carload of Hooper Fire Chief fireproofing arrived from Baltimore. F. Beverly Kelley had prepared a release for the Sarasota Herald Tribune. “The assistant manager spent several days in Washington, D.C., convincing governmental agencies of the need of this compound, hitherto denied the circus because of certain wartime priorities,” he added. Fire Chief had the consistency of liquid chalk or thick milk. Applied with a paintbrush, it changed the color of the canvas from khaki to a grayish-white. Hooper advertised it as flameproof, water repellent and mildew resistant.

Monday the circus gave a public demonstration of its efficacy. A crowd of circus executives, newsmen, and photographers watched as “for nearly a minute a blowtorch was applied to a section of the chemically treated sideshow tent. As the first flames touched the canvas it began to glow a bright red…. When the flame was removed the glow died out, leaving a blackened charred-edge hole in the fabric.”

Hooper's chief chemist performed the test. He'd invented Fire Chief in 1936. While all branches of the services had used it for years on truck and lifeboat covers, it had never been available to civilians. George W Smith told reporters that efforts to obtain the compound had been made as far back as a year ago. Because of government priorities, he said, the circus was unable to get any until these 1,200 gallons were released.

Meanwhile, in Hartford, the policewoman continued to search for clues in the case of Raymond Erickson. She talked with Drs. Weissenborn and Onderdonk, making a list of all boys in that age range. At the coroner's office, she found four brass buttons that seemed to be from Raymond's shirt—though the shirt was nowhere to be seen. The coroner said the city police had taken the clothing from the victims, but the property officer on Market Street only had two scraps of fabric, one red [Eleanor Cook's play-suit?] and one figured. The policewoman checked the funeral homes with the same persistence Emily Gill had, with the same result.

She tried Municipal again. A priest from St. Joseph's also fit Stanley Kurneta's description. He remembered a young boy, but not well enough to be certain. He'd have to ask a nurse who was with him.

Over the next three days, three more patients died at Municipal, all of them older women, bringing the total to 165.

In Boston, the police commissioner reinstated a police captain who had been the last city official cleared in the Cocoanut Grove case. Prosecutors had charged him with failing to enforce laws with respect to the presence of fire hazards. The club's owner was serving a twelve-to-fifteen-year sentence for manslaughter. While the courts granted another continuance for the five circus fire defendants' criminal cases, Hickey and Healy nursed their inquiries along.

For patients still recuperating in the hospitals, time moved differently. Mildred Cook was still fading in and out. She remembered holding Edward's hand, and then the doctor separating them, taking him away. Vaguely she recalled a doctor coming into the room to tell her something. She knew it would be about the children. “She didn't make it,” he said, or was it, “They didn't make it.” Maybe it didn't register correctly. She couldn't move. It was dark in the room and then it was bright. Sometimes the hall was loud.

Donald Gale woke up in an oxygen tent, fascinated by the canvas and sectioned plastic panels. Boy, this is neat, he thought; it looks like the inside of an airplane. Outside, inquisitive faces gathered around him. Like Elliott Smith, he'd contracted pneumonia; his parents were afraid he'd die. In the tent, he'd puffed up, grossly bloated with edema—“moon face,” the doctors called it. A nurse's aide came in, took one look at him and ran out. He'd been unconscious for three weeks.

The luckier patients were under the care of a dietician, trying to replenish lost protein the body needed to build new tissue. There was no way to do it with regular food; they'd have to eat twenty steaks a day. Mead, Johnson and Company had developed a product called Amigen which did the job, except that it tasted nasty. It came in either a powder or a solution thick as a milkshake, tomato paste red, the taste unsubtly and unsuccessfully disguised with cherry juice concentrate and sometimes a dash of grenadine. Adults couldn't keep it down, and they were serving it to children. The staff couldn't get away fast enough; the kids threw up on their starched uniforms, their nice white shoes.

At Hartford Hospital, because of the rapidly changing techniques of treating burns, doctors asked patients if they would become part of a study. The patients signed forms permitting them to use their data and photograph their scars for publication in medical journals. After what they'd been through—despite what they'd been through—they were glad to do it.

The circus kept working on their image, Herbert DuVal opening a local office on Pearl Street to process claims and hear complaints. Patrons with tickets for Thursday night's show could exchange them here for cash or have their refund added directly to the Times Fire Victims Fund. DuVal also presented the Hartford Chapter of the Red Cross with a check for $10,000, a “small token” of appreciation for all their work.

It was perfect timing. The next night in Sarasota, Friday the 28th, the show performed a full dress rehearsal under the lights. Acts played to just one side of the arena instead of the traditional in-the-round. Three-quarter poles supported the lighting and aerial rigging. The troupe was rusty and tired but good enough.

Having failed to find any more evidence of Raymond Erickson, the policewoman met with Mrs. Erickson one last time. The navy had recalled Raymond Sr. to Gulfport. The officer told Mrs. Erickson that Dr. Weissen-born believed some other family had claimed Raymond. Mrs. Erickson said she didn't want to disturb any of the other parents and that she would be satisfied if the policewoman checked with all the undertakers to see if they had Raymond's clothes. The officer did as she asked, though she knew any clothing would have been removed before the body reached the em-balmer's. The net result of her investigation, she wrote, was that though great care was taken in the identification process, some errors had been made. She left the case open. It remains open to this day.

In Sarasota, the circus spent the day at the runs, loading everything to go out on the road again. Sunday morning at 9:00 A.M., the first section left for Akron via the Atlantic Coast line. The flats used to carry the big top, poles and seats stayed behind, cutting the train from seventy-nine to sixty-eight cars. The show traveled in three sections, the second riding light. Canvas and seat personnel shifted to other departments, easing the labor shortage.

They made two feed stops en route, the first early the morning of the 31st in Atlanta, letting the elephants and horses off to dip at the tubs and tanks.

While the train waited, a reporter collared May Kovar and quizzed her about her heroics.

“If you'd ask me now what I'd do in case of fire,” she said, “I'd duck, and quick. But I didn't. I don't know why.”

A day later they stopped in Cincinnati, shooting to arrive in Akron August 3rd for a one-day rehearsal at the Rubber Bowl. The show would be the same basic program they last performed the night of July 5th in Hartford, with one notable exception—there would be no clown firehouse.

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