1990-1991

Like Looby, Hartford arson investigator Rick Davey answered a lot of phone calls on the circus fire. Every time the anniversary rolled around, the switchboard lit up. “How did it start?” people wanted to know. “What about the guy from Ohio who confessed to it? Did those two cops ever find out who that little girl was?” Lieutenant Davey studied fires both as a professional and for a hobby, and he was tired of not being able to answer their questions.

Because Hickey's state police had assumed jurisdiction over the fire, the city fire department only had scattered records on it. When Davey began his research, the state police explained that they had no files either, which was true; they were at the state library, and not yet available. Davey went to the public library and looked through books on disasters. At most, they had a chapter on the fire. Again and again, the picture of Little Miss 1565 turned up. The girl's story intrigued him. He remembered seeing the picture when he was a child of seven or eight; she was the first dead person he'd ever seen.

Davey began keeping his own files, photocopying anything he could find on the fire in his spare time, collating and highlighting it, taking notes. He tracked 1565 to the morgue at Hartford Hospital; he was leafing through their reports when the archivist there suggested he should look at the material at the state library, recently declassified.

They had boxes of it—folders and lists and reports, and pictures of everything. They had Robert Segee's confession and his drawings of the Red Man. They had Anna DeMatteo's notebook with her visit to Marion Parsons, and the family photos of Eleanor Cook she'd requested, all of it in one place. Davey copied hundreds of pages, putting together his own private library on the fire, indexed in numbered looseleaf notebooks.

The reports and photos convinced Davey that Hickey had gotten the origin of the fire wrong. The grass by the jack where the commissioner claimed the fire started hadn't been touched, and neither had the jack right beside it. None of the reports had the fire at the base of the sidewall; all the witnesses said it started higher up. Articles published the next day offered the possibility that it had begun in the men's room. And a cigarette? Davey knew a cigarette had to smolder a long time to catch anything on fire.

The cause was unclear, but he'd investigated more than two thousand arson cases, and Segee's confession rang true to him. The difficulty—as with any set fire—was proving it. The only physical evidence left was pictures, and even these might not help because so many people had combed over the scene.

The picture of pretty Eleanor Cook, smiling, hair in ribbons, haunted him. In '44, the nurse's aide and the social worker at Municipal and the two troopers at the armory and Weissenborn had all thought she was 1565. The only thing that stopped the medical examiner from making an ID right there was Emily Gill's assertion that her teeth were wrong. In '56, the state police had blown off DeMatteo, and in '63 both Don Cook and Marion Parsons seemed to think the girl was Eleanor. Davey believed she was, but again, he needed to prove it.

The girl in the morgue photo was far from a perfect match for Eleanor Cook, but Davey knew firsthand what fire could do to the body. Heat shrinks cartilage in the tips of the ears, pugs the nose upward, pulls the lips back from the teeth. And she'd suffered some kind of blunt head injury; her forehead bulged. Davey doubted she'd died of her burns; it seemed more likely she'd been trampled, her skull fractured. Weissenborn had just given burns as the cause because he was in a rush that Monday. The time on her death certificate was wrong as well; 1565 died in Municipal Hospital at 6:04 P.M., but here the doctor had her at the circus grounds at 2:45. How many of the other records were suspect?

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The Cook children, (from left) Edward, Eleanor and Donald. This shot of Eleanor would be cropped and used in the 1963 and 1991 reinvestigations. 

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE COOK FAMILY AND THE HARTFORD COURANT

Davey turned up a report matching Eleanor Cook's hair to that of 1565. While not conclusive, it stated that both specimens may have come from the same scalp. Just the fact that the state police had done the test five days after the mass burial at Northwood meant that they most likely considered her to be the girl.

It still proved nothing. The science of the time couldn't match physical markers the way they could today, and now any forensic evidence was long gone. All Davey had were the physical description, the dental chart, and the photos.

The photograph of Eleanor he kept in his desk, looking at it at least once a day, sometimes more. “Over a period of time I just kind of fell in love with a little girl, the photograph of a little girl, someone I never knew.” He couldn't get the picture out of his mind. For Davey, the identification became an obsession. He had kids of his own but was divorced. Like Thomas Barber and Ed Lowe, he could devote time to the project, and he did.

He concentrated on the evidence he did have. The original noniden-tification made sense. Marion Parsons had told DeMatteo that she'd never seen 1565, and Don Cook described Emily Gill as the family member least capable to identify Eleanor. Physically, both aunts seemed to think the girl was similar to their niece except for the teeth. There was a chance both had been in either shock or denial, using the teeth as an excuse not to confront Eleanor's death. Davey needed more physically. From the two pictures, he measured the distance between the top of her upper lip to the base of her nose—they matched. Next he compared the earlobes, both strangely shaped, and found they matched as well. Perhaps they could identify her by the Bertillon method, a process invented last century by a Frenchman who held that people's ears were as unique as their fingerprints. It was a start.

Now, if others might have doubts, Davey was convinced. A professional, he wanted others to test his theory before going public. Little Miss 1565 was a big deal, and he expected a lot of heat. He brought in two foils to bounce his ideas off—his arson squad partner, Hartford police detective Tom Goodrow, and Courant reporter Lynne Tuohy. He asked them to look over his voluminous files and then try to punch holes in his case.

Tom Goodrow shared with Davey a connection to the circus fire. His wife Joan's uncle had been William Curlee.

Goodrow took a box of his partner's files home and went through it. The evidence seemed to be all there, already in file. Why hadn't this kid been identified? He told Davey they should shore up the case before they went public with it. Together they made duplicates of all the photographs the state library had in its archives. Goodrow knew that Jimmy Looby had done some work on the case back in the eighties, so he got ahold of his notes as well.

Goodrow was methodical, a plodder, a meat-and-potatoes guy, just the facts, ma'am. Davey was strong on details too, but in this instance he was close emotionally, and Goodrow helped to ground him. The detective came up with a simple list of goals they needed to pursue: 1. ID the girl. 2. Reassess the fire. 3. ID the suspect.

Meanwhile Davey had met with Lynne Tuohy, who covered criminal justice for the Courant. Tuohy found Davey credible, not a wing nut. He'd been quiet with his project, he wasn't talked out on it. He patiently laid out his theories, showing her paper evidence. At first he wouldn't let her take any of it, but once he saw she was genuinely interested, he dumped a dozen file boxes on her. Tuohy had just delivered twins. After getting her other kids to bed, she sat in her living room, delving through the thousands of pages.

To support Davey's contention that the blaze could not have started from a cigarette, Goodrow turned up a report on grass fires done in the seventies by another fire investigator. In high humidity, cigarettes would not start grass fires. The normal range in which they would was 17 to 23 percent. At 2:00 in the afternoon the day of the fire, the humidity was 41 percent.

Tuohy discovered that Robert Segee was still alive and living in Columbus. She pulled his address and phone number from directory assistance and gave it to Davey, letting him have first crack. Later she called Segee herself.

“I can't talk to anyone about that,” Segee said. “It's happened too long ago. I don't want to. I've been tested enough, and they ruined my life. I didn't set the fire. I was had.”

Davey and Goodrow reviewed the testimony of witnesses and concluded that the fire first appeared inside the tent approximately two-thirds of the way up the sidewall. The NFPA had put the origin of the fire between the back wall of the men's room and the sidewall, but Davey and Goodrow ruled that out because there wasn't enough fuel there. The fire had to have started in the men's room, radiated heat from the blaze on its rear wall catching the big top's sidewall. Once the flames reached the treated roof, it was all over.

Goodrow saw 1565 as a missing persons case that involved a fire. In his mind, it was open and shut. “The information that we needed, that I needed to do an assessment and to come to a reasonable conclusion… there was no investigation—it was easy, it was all on file. Nothing to it. I wish all the investigations were this easy.”

To officially make the identification, they needed the help of Eleanor Cook's family. When Davey tried to contact Mildred Cook, she didn't want to talk. They had to find Don Cook, now in Iowa, and have him speak with his mother. He convinced her to confront the issue. Marion and Ted Parsons and Emily Gill were all gone now. It was time.

Don Cook provided Davey and Goodrow with family photos of himself and Edward and Eleanor. He answered pages and pages of questions about the timing of the original identification—when exactly Emily Gill and Marion and Ted Parsons and James Yee had been to the armory. It was Davey's contention that as Eleanor's body moved from Municipal Hospital to the armory to the morgue at Hartford Hospital and then to Taylor & Modeen that it had somehow eluded her family. Also, as Dr. Weissenborn found, that Emily Gill had been incompetent to ID the body.

They nailed down the loose ends. They double-checked that there was no body under Eleanor's stone in Center Cemetery. They interviewed the Berman family, who told them a dentist, not her uncle, had identified Judith.

Even then, Mildred Cook was still not convinced until Rick Davey laid it all out for her. Once she agreed, Don Cook made an identification from the pictures. Goodrow brought in State Medical Examiner Dr. H. Wayne Carver and his assistant Dr. Ed McDonough to examine the new evidence, and, if convinced, to formally issue a revised death certificate. The doctors thought they might involve the famed forensic expert Clyde Snow.

As the 1565 case was winding down, Davey and Goodrow packed their evidence on Segee and the new point of origin and flew to the FBI Academy in Quantico to deliver an all-day presentation in front of a panel of federal arson investigators. Segee fit the profile of a serial firesetter/serial killer, and there was talk of their VICAP unit tracking and interviewing him in the future. Davey and Goodrow returned to Hartford, ready to take their case to the state.

All this time, Lynne Tuohy had been sitting on the story. She told them she had to break it soon; she was afraid someone would scoop her, and she'd put in too many hours for that to happen. Davey was fine with going public, but Goodrow wanted to hold back. In early March of '91, Tuohy said she was going to run with it that weekend. The story was large, and all hers. The main bar—the arson—hadn't been written, but the sidebars were done, edited and nearly ready. On the basis of supplemental circumstantial evidence and Don Cook's signature on the back of the morgue picture, Dr. Carver issued a new death certificate. Little Miss 1565 was Eleanor Cook.

The next day Goodrow called a practice press conference at police headquarters downtown, with the medical examiner, Fire Chief John Stewart and others. Tuohy's ex-husband, Channel 3 reporter Brian Garnett, noticed all their cars and figured something big was up.

He got part of the story out of an assistant police chief standing in the hallway. That night, Garnett and Channel 3 scooped Tuohy. His details were skewed, but the gist of the story was on target. 1565 had been identified.

Tuohy worked all night to get her story finished. It hit the stands the next morning, the front page, with promo cards for the honor boxes. The reaction astonished her—not just the number of calls and letters, but how many of them were critical of Mildred Cook. How could a mother not come forward and claim her child? they asked. What kind of a person was she?

Mildred Cook's loss had moved Tuohy. A mother herself, she appreciated how Mrs. Cook had found the strength to continue after losing both Edward and Eleanor. She was a religious woman, and a hard worker, and the criticism she now faced made Tuohy angry. She wrote a scathing defense of Mildred Cook, making plain the reasons she'd never claimed her daughter.

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Mildred Cook leafs through her scrapbook of Eleanor's letters and spelling tests. PHOTO BY JOHN LONG, COURTESY OF THE HARTFORD COURANT

Mildred Cook herself said shed believed Emily and Marion when they told her Eleanor wasn't at the armory or the morgue. She'd never seen the picture of 1565—a claim her critics disputed, saying it was on the front page of the paper every year. But it wasn't; it had never been on the front page. It had run right after the fire, in the Times, when Mildred Cook was unconscious in the hospital, and it had run in 1946, but by then she'd moved back to Southampton, beyond the circulation range of the Hartford papers. After that, Barber and Lowe and then just Barber were featured on the anniversary. Plus, her relatives actively insulated Mildred from news of the fire. Every July 6th, they distracted her with trips and outings. As Mildred said, “We didn't talk about it. We just kept on living the best we could.”

Another part of the response that surprised Tuohy was the survivors. Dozens wrote to say they wanted her to write something on the fire besides Little Miss 1565. Elliott Smith was disappointed that she'd become the whole story when there were heroes like the man who lifted him out of the pile, and the doctors and nurses. Raymond Erickson's sister Joann Bowman wrote, wondering why Eleanor Cook had gotten so much attention and Raymond so little. Tuohy decided there was a big story here. She would see if she could interest her editor in a feature. The anniversary was coming up.

Davey and Goodrow became celebrities for a time—or Davey did. It was his fifteen minutes, and he grabbed it, going on the local news, doing talk shows and documentaries for A&E and the History Channel. The two took a slideshow around for a while to volunteer fire departments and the University of Hartford, but the bloom soon faded.

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Hartford Fire Lieutenant Rick Davey (left) and Hartford Police detective Tom Goodrow, receiving a commendation from the city for their work on the 1565 case. Seated at left is Fire Chief John Stewart. 

PHOTO COURTESY OF TOM GOODROW

The cause of the fire the state's attorney's office would only change from “Accidental” to “Undetermined,” not “Suspicious” or “Incendiary,” as Davey and Goodrow had hoped. They could prove it wasn't a cigarette dropped in the grass, as Hickey had guessed, but beyond that, who knew? A match was possible, or a cigarette catching paper. The state didn't go for Segee's confession. They did say the case was open, though, and that they would look into it.

In June, Talarski's disinterred the body of 1565 at Northwood Cemetery. The coffin had fallen apart, and the frontal lobe of her skull was a hole—confirmation that she'd been trampled. Davey and Goodrow were both there, helping the sexton and the funeral director fit the bones into a new white coffin.

The next day her family buried her beside Edward Cook in Center Cemetery. It was humid, and the small crowd of family and friends huddled under a blue canopy. With Mildred and Don Cook and Davey and Goodrow looking on, one of Eleanor's childhood friends sang “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know,” accompanying herself on the autoharp. Reverend James Yee spoke briefly before the mourners retired to Southampton Congregational Church for punch and cookies. It was a homecoming for many of them, with lots of good talk.

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(Above) Center Cemetery, Southampton, Massachusetts. 1565 awaits reburial as Eleanor Cook. PHOTO BY TOM GOODROW, COURTESY OF MR. GOODROW HIMSELF

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(Right) Mildred Cook with her daughter's headstone. PHOTO BY JOHN LONG, COURTESY OF THE HARTFORD COURANT

Back at the cemetery, Talarski's funeral director spooned dirt from a jar into the grave. Yesterday he'd filled it at Northwood, so Eleanor would always have a part of Hartford with her.

• • •

The identification of Little Miss 1565 was a great story with a perfect ending, but that doesn't make it true. Lost in all the supplemental circumstantial evidence is the fact that the dental charts don't match.

1565 had only two permanent teeth, the lower middle incisors, typical of a six-year-old. Eleanor Cook, at eight years four months, would normally have had at least her six-year molars. Marion Parsons, her guardian, said that Eleanor had eight permanent teeth.

Rick Davey never mentioned the problem of the charts to Lynne Tuohy (or DeMatteo's 1963 investigation, it seems, though that one file contained basically everything he needed). Drs. Carver and McDonough never verified that Eleanor's teeth matched 1565's; Carver said only that X-ray equipment of the time might have failed to pick up adult teeth below the gumline—a valid point but off topic. Pediatric dentist Jack Kenney and noted forensic dentist Lowell Levine, who worked the Ted Bundy and Woodchipper murder cases, both say 1565's teeth are those of a significantly younger child.

More convincing is the fact that at 3′10″, forty pounds, 1565 falls well off the low end of growth and development scales for an eight-year-old. Her height fits a girl six years six months; her weight a girl five years three months. And Eleanor Cook, as the Times'description of the missing girl said, was tall for her age.

Furthermore, the clothes on 1565 were the same ones Marion Parsons identified on the girl she saw at the armory—a white dress with flowers and brown shoes. Eleanor had been wearing the red playsuit and white shoes.

Davey's identification also assumes that only Emily Gill looked at 1565 at the armory, when in fact Emily Gill, Marion and Ted Parsons and James Yee all saw her and said she wasn't Eleanor.

It's possible the clothes were mishandled, but the dental X-ray and the height and weight were taken in the quiet of the Hartford Hospital morgue, with an eye toward a permanent record. The charts and figures are consistent, and there is no way anyone would confuse the relatively untouched 1565 with the only other girl there, the charred 1503.

Of the two unidentified girls, 1503 is more likely to be Eleanor Cook. Like Eleanor, she's listed as having eight permanent teeth. At 3′11″, she'd also be too short for Eleanor, but her feet were burned off, making her true height the right size for a tall eight-year-old. Her weight, fifty-five pounds, is also consistent with the age.

Eleanor Cook may be neither. Both Thomas Barber and Anna DeMatteo put together identical lists of girls killed in the fire between the ages of four and nine. There were twenty-one of them. One mistake at the armory would throw the whole chain into chaos.

The evidence the current identification is based on is slight at best. At a glance the pictures don't quite jibe; they do only after a great deal of explaining, taking things into consideration. Don Cook naturally wanted to find his sister. The Bertillon method is not conclusive, and is rarely—if ever—used anymore. Drs. Carver and McDonough never called in Clyde Snow. When 1565's body was disinterred, no one collected any forensic evidence.

Asked whether he himself instantly saw a resemblance between the photos of the live Eleanor Cook and 1565, Dr. McDonough said, “I think that the history was much stronger. Again, there was really little doubt that it was this little girl, and then we looked at the photographs in order to just confirm that. It would be the same as if you're in your house and a fire breaks out and it has to be you type thing. You're missing, it's your house, and there's a body in there that is the same size and shape and gender and anthropologically the same, then it's you. By history alone.”

But, as William Menser and Dr. Weissenborn and Thomas Barber and Ed Lowe all found out, that was not the case in the circus fire. You couldn't match the six missing with the six dead. Here, it seems, people tried to, disregarding hard evidence to the contrary.

The misidentification may have been the well-intended product of compulsion. For Davey, it may have been unthinkable to admit 1565 wasn't Eleanor Cook. As he said, “I didn't work that long for that. She had to have a name.”

Currently the State Police Forensic Science Lab is reviewing the case, looking once again at the collected evidence. They seem open to a reinves-tigation, but only Don Cook himself can set one in motion.

Lynne Tuohy and Don Cook seemed surprised by the noncompliant dental charts and height and weight, as if hearing about them for the first time. Don said he'd be glad to give blood for a mitochondrial DNA test. Rick Davey will not discuss the case.

These revelations put Mildred Cook's behavior in an entirely new light. The reason she never came forward to claim Little Miss 1565 was simple. She was not her daughter.

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