August-December, 1944

The Blue Heaven Circuit, as the newspapers called it, got off to a bad start in Akron. As they arrived at the runs Wednesday morning, George Smith realized the flats with the wagons were facing the wrong way for unloading. That section had to swing north fifteen miles to another yard at Hudson, Ohio, uncouple the flats and reattach them.

Since the fire, John Ringling North had been sniping from the sidelines, saying he'd told the current administration since the beginning of last year that shortages and war regulations made it foolish if not dangerous to take the show on the road. He questioned the intelligence of going back out now—a position that worried receiver Edward Rogin. The only way to pay the claimants was for the circus to tour and make money. If North took control of the show again, he might let it sit in winter quarters until the war was over. It seemed that Aubrey Haley and Mrs. Edith Ringling—the two halves of the Ladies' Agreement—would honor their debt to the survivors, but North played hardball, and it was clear he didn't consider the fire his business.

Robert Ringling accompanied the show to Akron, riding in his private car. From the empty stands he oversaw the set up with Smith, wearing a pink shirt and making small talk with performers. The Rubber Bowl sat tucked into a hillside by the airport, and workers stood gawking at the parade of planes. The famous Soap Box Derby course ran down the hill. They raised the newly fireproofed sideshow tent by the stadium's main entrance. The layout was strange, and it took them till midnight.

The next day they rehearsed the entire program twice without costumes, the women in bathing suits and shorts, the clowns doing their walkaround without makeup. In the afternoon, while May Kovar was running through her routine, a black panther swiped a paw at her and tore her baggy shorts. She rapped him with her wand and backed him onto his stand. Outside, hundreds of spectators pressed against a wrought iron fence to catch a free peek. The late rehearsal took place under the stars. Satisfied, Robert Ringling sent his troupe to bed around midnight.

image

In Akron, Robert Ringling sits in the stands for this posed publicity still, surrounded by bally girls in their Changing of the Guard costumes. 

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CIRCUS WORLD MUSEUM

The circus was so intent on doing well the next day, so isolated by their work, they never heard the news—as Hartford did—that Janet Moore Sapolis's grandmother died. Martha Ann Moore was sixty-five and strong enough to overcome her burns, but developed a strep infection in her leg that proved to be both penicillin- and sulfa-resistant. She was victim number 166. Janet, who wasn't allowed to visit her in the hospital, saw her at her funeral.

image

The afternoon practice, Thursday August 3rd, 1944. In an undershirt, Joseph Walsh puts his mixed group through its paces. 

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CIRCUS WORLD MUSEUM

That week the Hartford Police and Fire Departments played a benefit baseball game, donating the $3,000 in proceeds to the Times' Fund. The papers said little about the circus, content to let the issue rest.

Friday the show went on. Legend is, Emmett Kelly always painted a tear under his left eye after Hartford, or a dot to signify his grief. He would be doing that now, getting ready in the dressing rooms beneath the stands (plush compared to the dressing tent; no more bucket baths!), except that photos from the era show Weary Willie with neither a tear nor a dot. The legend, irresistible to newsmen, was untrue. Kelly was more pragmatic. “We must forget the fire. We must entertain. In wartime, it's more important than ever. It's going to be great in the open air.”

It wasn't. Weather for the matinee was threatening, and like any heavy manufacturing center, Akron was busy. On top of that, the Rubber Bowl was seven miles from downtown, the bus line running by it was strictly for defense workers, and the city was in the midst of a polio epidemic. A pathetic crowd of two thousand showed up, seeming even tinier in the vast arena. The airport was distracting, and the band didn't carry well outside. The evening show drew sixty-five hundred, but a sudden downpour spoiled the opening. Later a full moon rose over the Bowl's rim, but the tone was set for the stand. Saturday rain stopped the show twice. They played in a steady drizzle and ended up cutting two numbers. Spectators huddled under sopping newspapers. In the papers the next day, Robert Ringling jokingly announced the show would follow baseball's policy. If they hadn't completed half of their twenty-two displays before the rains came, you got a rain check—not a reassuring proposition.

Next on the schedule was the University of Detroit stadium, a twelve-day run. Opening night was Bond Night, so they sold out. The remainder of the stand, afternoon temperatures hovered around one hundred, and the crowds stayed away. Thirty-five hundred attended one rainy weeknight. For the Saturday matinee only fifteen hundred people showed up. John Ringling North was licking his chops.

While the circus struggled in the Midwest, a hepatitis outbreak swept Municipal Hospital, infecting Elliott Smith just as he'd gotten over his pneumonia. The doctors isolated him again, putting him in a room with three women similarly afflicted. He received penicillin shots every three hours, the nurses waking him up to swab his skin cold and push the needle in until he'd beaten it. Then the doctors began the long process of skin grafting.

image

Friday August 4th, 1944. The first show after the fire was an economic and public relations disaster. Only two thousand fans showed for the matinee and suffered through a rain-dampened performance (note the umbrellas in the crowd). The show has just started here; Walsh has both lions and bears in the east cage with him. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CIRCUS WORLD MUSEUM

image

The show that evening had more magic to it, but more rain as well. See the three fans in the left foreground huddled under a scrap of cardboard. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CIRCUS WORLD MUSEUM

His hand and his back were the worst. The doctors would slice patches of undamaged skin from the fronts of his thighs, paint the burned area with a plasma preparation that would act as a kind of glue, then paste the new skin to it and wrap him again in Vaselined gauze. Elliott couldn't lie on his back, so the doctors rigged a sling to keep him on his hands and knees while it healed. His hand they tented so he wouldn't brush it against anything, the brass clips holding the grafts visible inside. Outside his window, Keney Park was a blaze of green.

Donald Gale was his new roommate. The doctors wanted to remove Donald's fingers and keep just the thumbs; his father said no and brought in a surgeon from Hartford Hospital to save his hands. The surgeon said it was touch and go but that he'd try.

First the surgeon cut away the dead skin from a finger, then amputated it from the first joint, wrapping a flap of skin over the nub, hoping a cover would grow. When it didn't, the doctor did a pedicle graft, slitting Donald's stomach, inserting the damaged hand and grafting the stomach skin to the finger. For eleven days, Donald lay in bed like a mummy. When the doctor cut his hand free, the graft had taken.

Barbara and Mary Kay Smith were split up, Barbara rooming with Marion Dineen. Marion was almost completely better. Her father would come every day, bringing the girls hot-fudge sundaes from the Lincoln Dairy, a pleasant change from the Amigen. When Marion went home, Barbara and Mary Kay were reunited, sharing the room next to Elliott and Donald's with Patty Murphy, whose parents and brother had died in the fire.

By now, only the worst cases remained, a total of seventy among the three hospitals. Across the hall, in a triple with Barbara and Mary Kay's mother, two women who'd lost children passed the days, commiserating. The two became close friends; when they got out they continued to see each other, getting together for lunch or coffee, staying in touch.

Fridays a specialist came down from Boston to change the patients' dressings, a routine the children feared. If the grafts hadn't taken, layers of flesh peeled off with the bandages. The kids screamed and fought so much that soon the doctors took them to surgery and put them under. The ether made Donald Gale nauseous; it felt like falling, spinning in a whirlpool, and afterwards he couldn't eat.

Elliott Smith remembered lying on a gurney like a piece of meat, his new skin open to the air, waiting for the specialist to dab the infected places with a Q-Tip impregnated with silver nitrate. Having withstood this torture, he was rewarded with newly Vaselined bandages. They went on cool and soothing.

A machine called a microtome sliced the skin from his thighs, each piece slightly wider than the burns on his back; they would shrink during the grafting. The scars on Elliott's thighs were almost as bad as the ones on his back. His father volunteered to donate his skin, but medically at the time there was no way to do it.

The idea of a father wanting to take his child's pain upon himself may have struck the doctors as common, but a letter they received shortly after the fire did not. It was from the state prison in Wethersfield, from an inmate. He'd been justly convicted eight years before of a crime he said involved “a person's life.” Since then, he'd tried to think of a way to repay his debt to that person by saving another's life. He donated blood every time the Red Cross came, but it didn't seem enough. “Offhand I couldn't specify the exact type of skin I have,” he wrote, “but so far as I know I am perfectly healthy, am twenty-six years of age, and am more than willing to offer my skin to any person needing it. I would then feel that I had done something to give new life and new hope. Won't you please consult your files and let me know if there is anyone burned at the circus fire who is in need of a skin graft? I'm sure there must be.”

The warden approved the prisoner's letter and sent it on, but, as with Mr. Smith's offer, the doctors sadly had to decline.

Ludger LeVasseur could not save his son from another, even more debilitating pain. For weeks, visiting him, he carried the secret that Jerry's mother was dead. He waited until his son was recovering—safe, in a way—to tell him. They both cried. And then at 8:00, the PA announced the end of visiting hours, and he had to leave him again.

One girl in Hartford Hospital didn't know that both of her parents had died. Her younger sister had learned from their grandparents, “and the way they did it was awful.” She wanted their parish priest and a nun from the girl's school to tell her sister.

The hospitals wisely matched patients with similar injuries and family situations as roommates, relying on them to keep each other's morale up. But some things were beyond the powers of empathy or medicine. At night nurses heard children crying and calling out for their parents. One boy asked an aide the same question over and over: How could he get out of the hospital if there was a fire?

Those at home suffered the same anxieties, some more deeply than people who'd been burned. One mother reported that her daughter had a serious mental condition as a result of seeing people trampled, the equivalent of a nervous breakdown. Another girl dreamed of a woman sitting in the bleachers alone, untouched; her clothing wasn't burned, her hair wasn't scorched, but when the dreamer reached out to touch her, she disintegrated into a pile of ashes.

Memories of the fire ate at one girl. She had recurring nightmares of burning babies. When she tried to hide under her bed, her parents dragged her out. Sirens sent her into hysterics. Her family distanced themselves from the fire, rarely mentioning it, a tactic she could never seem to master. She withdrew from the world, developing a stutter and crying in private.

Some parents became wildly overprotective, seeing disaster in the most harmless activities, never letting their children out of their sight. Some parents refused to talk about the fire. The topic was forbidden, especially with friends. Later, people who'd been children at the time of the fire would find themselves doing these exact same things with their kids; they constantly had to guard against it.

One boy had been lost at the circus, his mother knocked to the ground. Later he went to the movies on a humid night, insisting, as always, that he sit on the aisle. In the middle of the film a huge crack of thunder outside sent him running from the theater into the street.

A mother had the same kind of panic attack at the eye doctor. With no warning, in the middle of an examination she jumped up and ran out the door. Her daughter could smell smoke when others couldn't and refused to light their gas stove. Another woman dreamed there was a fire in her room and would wake up and search for it.

As if to prove their fears weren't imaginary, a series of fires swept amusement parks up and down the East Coast. At Whalom Park in Fitchburg, a fire leveled the midway, destroying the Dodgem, the penny arcade and the shooting gallery Early the morning of August 12th, the boardwalk at Wildwood, New Jersey, went up. That afternoon a blaze practically wiped out Luna Park in Coney Island, the heat so intense the huge swimming pool reportedly boiled. The very next day, flames gutted most of Palisades Park, seven people dying on the Virginia Reel; the fire roared over the bathhouse and two hundred cars in the parking lot, leaving people with no clothes and no way home.

The August issue of Fire Engineering magazine speculated that overheated spotlights just under the canvas may have started the circus fire—an old theory by this time—but also listed two new blazes: in Baltimore the baseball stadium, Oriole Park, and in Detroit, the racetrack at the State Fairgrounds.

In Hartford, a West Hartford girl died at St. Francis, following her mother and younger sister. On July 25th, while hospitalized, she'd turned seventeen. She'd survived trampling and fourth-degree burns only to weaken from shock and sepsis after skin grafting, finally succumbing to congestive heart failure. She was the last to die from the circus fire, number 167.

The next day, responding to Mayor Mortensen's recommendation, Municipal Hospital announced it would waive all charges for fire victims, unless patients requested a bill, and then they would only be asked for a flat $6 a day. Hartford Hospital followed Municipal's lead, giving the Red Cross credit for providing nursing services at no cost.

That same day, a Hartford detective arrived at Deer Lodge Prison to interview the warden and the prisoner. The inmate was doing time for passing bad paper; he'd completed the seventh grade, was a model prisoner, and subject to epileptic fits. He'd joined the circus in September of 1943, working as a helper on a water truck for Deacon Blanchfield. Cox drove a water truck. In Detroit Blanchfield fired him for being drunk, then rehired him the next stand in Chicago; later they repeated the same act in Nashville and Indianapolis. It was after Nashville, after a couple of beers, that Cox supposedly told the inmate, “So help me God, they're going to pay for this. One of these days I'm going to burn the goddamn tent down. Wait and see. The goddamn show won't get very far next year.”

The detective tried to mix the prisoner up, but he stuck to his story, and the warden believed he was telling the truth. The inmate didn't seem to want anything; he was being released in a few weeks.

The detective had two leads to pursue: Cox had worked for Rubin and Cherry Shows as a Ferris wheel operator and had a married sister in Nashville. Hickey sent the detective after the carnival first. He caught up with them in Billings, at the State Fair. The show had changed hands and personnel since Cox had been with them, and no one could remember him.

The circus was in Chicago, drawing disappointing crowds to Soldier Field. The detective talked with Haley, who told him their records were in Sarasota.

“I'm glad Mr. Hickey is finally getting around to see us,” he said. “We could do a lot to help if he'd talk with us.” The fires at Luna and then Palisades Park made Haley suspect a pyromaniac might be on the loose. Old-timers with the show felt the Hartford blaze was arson.

Blanchfield said he didn't remember any Cox but that he had two drivers on a water truck he regularly fired and rehired on account of drunkenness, always keeping one with the rig. One of these men had been in Waterbury this year [June 19th or 20th] bothering him for a job. He'd heard the man had also been on the lot in Providence. One of the men was named Walsh or Welsh; maybe the other was Cox.

Another man was also a possibility—Blanchfield's ex-assistant, who left the show in Philadelphia after an argument with Blanchfield. The man was a native of Hartford.

The detective conferred with Hickey over the phone that night. Hickey told him to deliver this message to Haley: “We are investigating this case from every angle, and it is immaterial to us who did it or who is involved. We will report it to the court. We are making a thorough investigation.”

The next day Blanchfield had the name of the driver who accosted him in Waterbury. The other's name was Emmet Welch, driver of water truck #128, fired repeatedly for drunkenness, with a married sister in Nashville. Haley seemed pleased that they finally had a suspect; he asked the detective to let the FBI know and questioned him about the state police's methods. The detective assured him—like Hickey—that they would follow the case wherever it led them.

In Nashville, he found Welch's sister's husband. The sister was visiting friends in Williamsburg, Virginia, but the man referred him to another sister who said the family rarely heard from Welch, but that six months ago he'd been in Miami, his address care of General Delivery The woman described her brother as a tramp who, as far as she knew, didn't work and was no good to anyone. The most recent picture she had of him was at least ten years old. A local bank told the detective that the man had gone bankrupt in 1929 and his credit was no good.

Amazingly, the detective turned up an old friend of Welch. He said Welch had made his home in Miami for about ten years now, and that he was okay when he was sober, but not too good when he was drunk. The detective tried Williamsburg next, but the sister couldn't come up with an address for Welch. When the detective returned to Connecticut, Hickey sent a telegram to the Miami Police.

In days they picked up Welch for skipping out on a hotel bill. He'd just come off a ten-day drunk. They kept him in jail till the detective could get down there and question him. Welch admitted that he'd been with the circus and that he'd known the inmate, but denied ever having been arrested for arson. In 1943, before he joined the circus, he'd been living in a boarding house and dropped a cigarette in his room, starting a fire that caused some damage, but the police had never questioned him about it. He was driving a city bus for Miami Transit now, and had been since June.

It was true. The company had time sheets to prove Welch had been at the wheel July 6th. After all of their legwork, the state's best suspect turned out to be a dead end.

Labor Day, more than forty patients still lingered on the wards, none of them critical. Dr. Burgdorf at the Board of Health released his final figures: 487 people had been injured, but only 140 required hospitalization. (In the future, the number of injured would commonly be quoted as 655—the incorrect total of the dead included—and sometimes as high as 1,000.) Burgdorf broke down the dead statistically. Of the 167, just 10 were men between the ages of fifteen and sixty. The small number was not due to their ability to escape more easily, but to the fact that, as the show was a matinee, most of them were at work.

As school started, teachers made up their seating charts, the gaps from last year apparent. In Wethersfield, one had to explain to her puzzled firstgraders: “Judy's not coming back to school again.” Thomas Barber and Ed Lowe were relying on some teacher out there noticing an empty seat and letting them know. But none did.

For one girl, school became a stage to tell her story of the fire and show off her scar. Don Cook took the opposite tack, withdrawing from his playmates, not talking about what happened.

In the North End, students traditionally went from Brackett to Northeast and then to Weaver High. Everyone knew someone who'd been in the fire. In gym, burns were a common sight, unremarked upon, understood.

One girl's family saw a father-and-daughter team of dentists. The father took care of the parents, his daughter the children. She kept an album with pictures of all of her patients. The children would go downtown to J. J. Newberry and use the photo stall, smiling hard; the daughter picked the best one of the strip. After the fire, these dentists helped identify the dead by their charts. In the album, the daughter drew a border around their pictures and a tasteful notation giving their age. “It was sad to see those smiling faces,” the girl recalled, “and also to realize it could have been me too.”

A tutor schooled the children left in Municipal Hospital, but the age difference between the youngest and oldest was so broad that the job was impossible. The kids gave her a hard time. No one did their homework; they were too busy getting better.

Once the doctors got Donald Gale's hands started, they grafted skin from his legs onto his arms. When the new skin took, it welted and raised up, turned fibrous and tough, shrinking so it tugged at the untouched skin. The doctors bombarded the patches with X-rays, smoothed lanolin on the grafts to soften them, and still the skin cracked and bled, pulled drum-tight.

Both Mrs. Smiths went home in September. Between grafts, Barbara Smith read a lot—the whole series featuring nurse Cherry Ames. Her classmates from St. John's sent cards and letters; her pastor sent a big doll; people she didn't even know sent fudge.

Elliott Smith had established a bond with his nurse, Becky Beckshaw. “She was my guardian angel, she could get me to do things that the others couldn't. She just had that knack of cajoling a child to eat, to take the shots and drink the potions.”

His father played a game with him. Elliott closed his eyes and Mr. Smith rolled his wheelchair through the winding hallways, into and off elevators, to some far corner of the hospital. Then Elliott had to guide them back to his room.

The doctors splinted Donald Gale's hands to flat paddles, wiring his fingers to evenly spaced brads so they'd remain separate. Donald learned to use his feet. His father dropped coins on the floor; Donald could keep everything he picked up. Soon he could manipulate a wheelchair; Municipal still had the old-fashioned kind with the big wheels in the front. He and Elliott Smith staged races in the hallways, both of them pushing the spokes with their feet. Occasionally a door unexpectedly swung open in their path and they crashed, sending a nurse's tray clattering, both of them tearing out of there.

The staff let them roam around the other departments. Donald Gale's favorite place to hide was the lab downstairs, watching the old men play cards. The elevator operator let him work the switch. He went up to the polio ward and visited.

Elliott, Donald, Barbara, Mary Kay and Patty Murphy formed a core. Together they made it through the painful Friday sessions and choked down the Amigen and hid from mean Mrs. Amari. They played a game in which they lowered the shade and turned the lights out in the room; one person sat on the bed while the others tried to creep up on them in the dark. The person on the bed threw things—pillows, wadded paper towels. Donald once whipped a blackboard eraser and hit Mary Kay square on a graft and tore the skin. The doctors threatened to suspend the game entirely, and didn't only after the children promised to use softer objects.

The mayor visited, and people from the National Red Cross. They had assemblies in the cafeteria—a clown act, a three-piece band. The nurses took them out on the roof overlooking Keney Park and let them color.

Mostly it was boring. Elliott and Donald couldn't use their hands, so cards and board games were out. They even needed help reading. Donald's father came every day and read Edgar Rice Burroughs to him, slogging through the entire Tarzan series. Like William Dineen, he brought a daily treat—milkshakes. When Donald got sick of them, he switched to sundaes, until Donald got sick of them too. It was no fun being in the hospital, but then, as his hands slowly healed and he progressed through his exercises—squeezing rubber balls, touching his thumb to his pinkie, his index finger, his middle finger—he began to worry about what it would be like on the outside.

Like Jerry LeVasseur at Hartford, they'd been bedridden so long they had to learn how to walk again, and they hadn't been around other children for months. Their parents and the staff couldn't help but pamper them. The world, they feared, would not be as kind.

The circus had discovered much the same thing. Chicago had been a disaster, with rainouts and skimpy crowds. One night show under threatening skies drew only fourteen hundred to massive Soldier Field. During a matinee, a veteran clown had finished the walkaround with his fox terrier—the dog jumped through a door in the front of the clown's barrel-like costume, then leapt out the rear—and was walking to the backyard when he dropped dead of a heart attack. The doctor tried to revive him, but there was nothing he could do. High on their 135-foot platform, fliers Victoria and Torrence watched the scene below, then answered their cue.

Haley felt it was hopeless. The heat didn't quit; in Toledo it was over a hundred. They were losing money on a daily basis. They'd gone out without enough lead time for their publicity, so there were no advance sales, no guarantees. It was his opinion they should fold up and go home.

The rest of the Midwest was better, as temperatures cooled, as was Texas. Karl Wallenda was upbeat: “The awful fire has called up in all of us the spirit of the circus trouper.” Originally they'd planned on staying out until November, but the front office, heeding Haley, decided not to do the deep South. Citing the heavy college football schedule, they canceled their last three weeks, finishing in the rain and mud at New Orleans's Pelican Stadium on October 8th. For the whole open air tour, the show managed to turn a profit of just $100,000.

On the legal front, Rogin, Schatz and Weinstein cobbled together a draft of an arbitration agreement for claimants to sign. A panel of hand-picked arbitrators would set the amount of the awards, the receiver then paying the claimants. Survivors would have until July 6, 1945, to file. If the lawyers could produce one hundred signatures from claimants involved in death cases, the court would enforce the agreement. Rogin himself vowed not to accept a penny until all claimants were paid in full—a position he would come to rue.

Mayor Mortensen's board of inquiry reported their findings in November. There was practically no communication between different city departments, it said. While critical of the manner in which its government operated, the report—mostly by omission—implicitly absolved the city itself of any true wrongdoing. The board recommended setting up a coordinating authority between all departments and adopting a standard safety and health code then under preparation in Washington. For the short term, it urged that the building, police and fire departments adopt stopgap measures concerning temporary public structures.

For Thanksgiving, Elliott Smith's doctors let him go home. Just overnight; the next day he'd have to come back. After being in a huge institution for so long, he found his house tiny and confining, the rooms airless, the ceilings lowering over him. He went out in the backyard and walked around by himself, kicking through the leaves. At supper the family said a prayer.

The next week, police supervised workmen as they removed the ruins from the circus lot. All that fall, cops had stood on guard night after frosty night, protecting the grounds from ghoulish souvenir hunters. Days ago Chief Hallissey had pulled those officers back to first shift. Now they watched for any stray effects or human remains. “Nothing of any note was found.”

At the end of the day, the workmen piled all the loose wood in a bonfire. A flame rose up and gave color to the gray light. They stood around it with their gloves off, warming their hands, watching the sparks corkscrew into the winter sky.

Christmas Eve, all the Municipal children had gone home except Donald Gale and Patty Murphy. Around the city, parents who'd lost sons and daughters prepared to celebrate the day.

At Northwood Cemetery, Thomas Barber and Ed Lowe laid a bouquet of flowers at the grave of 1565, both of them squatting on their haunches by the numbered stake. If it had been their daughter, they would have wanted someone to remember her. They were surprised they were the only ones there.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!