July 8, 1944

At 3:00 A.M. Saturday morning the deputy sheriff attached the seventy-nine flatcars and coaches owned by the circus at the Windsor Street yards, leaving copies of the writs with officials of the New Haven, New York and Hartford Railroad.

Salvatore DiMartino's was the first suit listed. As administrator for his wife's estate, he was asking for $15,000, the maximum penalty for a death by accident in Connecticut. The complaint said that while Mrs. DiMartino “was sitting in said main show of said circus, a fire broke out which engulfed the tent and surroundings like a wild fire, causing a terrible conflagration, and catching said Anna DiMartino in its force and violence, and burning her to death.” In addition to the circus, defendants in the action included Messrs. Haley, Smith, Aylesworth, Blanchfield and Versteeg.

It was the first of hundreds of suits against the circus, the accused, and the city of Hartford. Alert attorneys instructed their clients to hold on to their ticket stubs.

The cause had still not been determined. Commissioner Hickey asked city police to assign the same officer the task of locating the man who'd told him “that dirty son of a bitch just threw a cigarette butt.” The policeman succeeded in broadcasting the man's description over WDRC and getting the Courant and Times to print it, but no one came forward.

Saturday morning, a Connecticut company bus driver showed up at city police headquarters with a strange story. He'd been standing at the end of the sideshow banners near the menagerie connection, watching a diesel generator. An Indian with long hair and no shirt walked around the back of the diesel with a bucket in one hand and a gas can in the other. He hollered to a fellow worker that the motor had stopped and he needed some gas. He gave the can to the other man, who disappeared through a flap in the menagerie sidewall.

In itself, the driver's statement established little, but the police took it seriously. Both Hickey and Coroner Healy would call on him in their investigations.

Early that morning the Courant and the radio stations made a special appeal for donors of Type O blood. In hours, volunteers stocked the Hartford Blood Bank to overflowing.

Like many soldiers overseas, one sergeant on the march in France first read about the fire in the Stars and Stripes. He immediately sent home both a V-mail and an air-mail letter but couldn't wait to hear back from his wife. He collared a Red Cross worker and explained his anxiety. Meanwhile in Hartford, his wife had called the Red Cross. They sent a cable to the sergeant: “Family all well. Not at circus.”

In England, an army corporal wouldn't receive word of his mother's death for several days. His father had identified her at the morgue last night by her wedding ring.

At St. Michael's on Clark Street, Father Looney presided over a funeral mass for Anna DiMartino. The neighborhood had taken up a collection for the DiMartinos, chaired by the barber whose shop was right beside Molly Garofolo's beauty parlor and Jaivin's Drugstore. Later that afternoon, Father Looney would perform another mass for a neighborhood boy. St. Michael's was busy the next few days. An altar boy from Nelson Street remembered how the fire shocked the parish. The DiMartinos lived right around the corner from him, and he'd been in the same class as Marion Dineen at St. Michael's. The rumor among the boys was that Billy Dineen hadn't been burned, he'd been trampled or suffocated (a rumor partly true: his death certificate lists “trauma to head and torso/fourth-degree burns” as the cause). Father Looney said mass for all of them. His parishioners knew he suffered from ulcers, and worried for his health.

The sheer number of dead put a strain on area funeral homes. One ran out of coffins and had to send to Worcester and New York for more. Tiny white caskets for children were at a premium.

A family friend had to make arrangements for the triple burial of one mother and her two sons. Their father was too distraught.

To aid families of the dead and injured, the Hartford War Price and Rationing Board informed the mayor that survivors could request increased gasoline rations. Local boards made extra five- and ten-gallon coupons available.

Two co-workers of Michael Norris from the Russell Company and a dentist drove up from Middletown to examine the fifteen unidentified bodies at the Hartford Hospital morgue, but had no luck.

The officer who had assisted Emily Gill in her search for Eleanor Cook yesterday gave her a call. He'd showed the picture of Eleanor she'd lent him to two policemen who'd been at the armory, also to Dr. Weissenborn and the nurse's aide he hadn't been able to find yesterday. They said the photo resembled the little girl they'd all seen—1565. Would Emily come down to Hartford Hospital and look at the body again?

Barber and Lowe were there, and William Menser. She looked at the girl, saying this was the same one she'd looked at in the armory. The only thing that made her say this wasn't Eleanor was that she thought Eleanor had eight upper permanent teeth, whereas this body had four upper and four lower adult teeth. If it hadn't been for that, she would say that the child could be her niece. The doctor advised her to get a chart, which turned out to be impossible; the dentist was in Canada on vacation.

As Emily Gill had looked at all the other bodies, there was nothing the officer could do for her. Later he learned that Dr. Weissenborn had declared her incompetent to identify the body of Eleanor Cook—though precisely why is unclear. At a dead end, the officer marked the case closed and wrote his report to the commissioner.

John Cleary and his father-in-law found a body at the morgue that seemed to fit Grace Fifield's description, down to the pink Spencer corset she wore. #2109 was short and stocky, in her late forties. Cleary asked Dr. Butler to check her teeth so they could match her dentist's chart in Vermont. The dentist up in Newport compared the two. They were not close; it wasn't her. Mr. Fifield unexpectedly accepted this as good news. Now he was even more convinced his wife had suffered some kind of nervous shock and wandered away. Cleary realized that some other family must have claimed the wrong body as they themselves had almost just done. For years he would regret asking the dentist to make sure—her body would never be found, and the family would never know what happened.

One father had found his daughter at the armory last night. Now he phoned from New Hartford to ask police for a watch and a ring she wore; he wanted to bury her with her jewelry. The coroner's office gave the pieces to a policewoman since she was headed out to Canaan anyway.

The heat wave lay heavy on the city, even worse than yesterday At noon it was eighty-eight degrees and climbing. The health department inspected the train cars at the Windsor Street yards and found a nuisance being created by careless handling of the slop pails. The inspectors took the matter up with the porters and “the scavengers who remove the material to the sewer opening on Kensington Street between Hampton and Barbour Streets.” They also did a walkaround of the circus grounds, discovering garbage from the cookhouse, “a considerable amount of animal manure (elephants and horses),” and a general lack of sanitation. They appealed to the courts and managed to get two circus trucks released to clean up the area.

On the lot there was nothing to do. Legally, show folks weren't allowed to touch anything inside the police line. One sixteen-year-old clown working with his father remembered that circus people stayed close to the trains, fearing the North End residents were angry with them.

The temperature peaked at ninety-two and the power went out at Municipal Hospital, the fans slowly going still. The diesels of the emergency reserve system kicked in, providing energy for only those areas deemed necessary. The cafeteria was dark; in the halls, every other bulb glowed. It was a blown transformer, the Hartford Electric Light Company said. It would take them till late afternoon to restore service.

Typically, Hartford Hospital had no such problem. Down in the chilly morgue, under the eyes of Detectives Barber and Lowe, a Plainville man discovered fragments of one of his sons' belts among the effects. Away on a business trip, he'd returned to find the house locked and his family gone. They were here, his wife, his two sons, his daughter. Of the man, Dr. Weissenborn said, “I saw one father identify his whole family. He was superb.”

Lowe's of East Hartford handled the bodies. There were eleven left.

On the lot, a team of state police secured the following evidence: a section of canvas from the dressing-room tent not involved in the fire but treated with the same solution as the big top; three jacks and small boards from the southwest bleacher section, the purported origin of the fire; one length of the animal chute; and the steps and remains of the steps that originally bridged the chutes. The troopers fit everything into the trunks of their cars and delivered it all to the office of State's Attorney Meade Alcorn, where he and Commissioner Hickey held a long conference.

The New York Times said that unofficial speculation pointed more and more toward the possibility of a short circuit.

Mayor Mortensen convened his own board of inquiry behind closed doors—first posing for a photo. The board would look at what the city government had or had not done in an official capacity, and draft corrective legislation, if necessary. To represent his police force, Mortensen included both Chief Hallissey and Deputy Chief Godfrey. The city fire marshal testified that no one from his department inspected either the circus tents or their firefighting equipment, and that that had been the custom for years. While not condoning the practice, the mayor said it wasn't clear from existing statutes just whose responsibility such an inspection would be, the city's or the state fire marshal's.

Mortensen rightly worried that the press might bring charges of negligence against his administration. Publicly fire chief John King had dismissed the notion that a city fire truck on the lot might have prevented the blaze from growing out of control—an unpopular and ill-advised comment. King claimed the department had never had any apparatus on the lot in the past. City ordinances required either policemen or firemen to be present at circuses. Since the police were there, King declared, there was no need for firemen.

At this point the mayor was trying to find one city office that had done something other than accept the show's money and free passes. The only instance he could cite was building inspector Charles Hayes being on the lot Wednesday. He gave Hayes credit for determining that—at the time, at least—the circus provided nine unobstructed, clearly marked exits. That Hayes had left the grounds before the big top was fully set up, the mayor did not divulge.

At Municipal Hospital, a chicken farmer from New Hartford died. It was his Chevy Suburban that had sat by Mrs. Howrigan's garden all night.

At St. Francis Hospital, a six-year-old boy visited his mother for the first time since the fire. The mother had crawled on top of her son as the flames rolled over them. It worked; the boy was only slightly burned. The mother was in serious condition, but she would live.

At Municipal, the staff tried a similar reunion between a mother and son. The woman had bad burns on her face and feared it might be too early.

When they wheeled the two together, a nurse asked the son, “Do you remember who this is? It's your mother.”

“No, it's not!” the boy screamed. “No, it's not!”

At home, survivors were surprised to find new bruises blooming where people had stepped on them.

In Jeffersonville, Indiana, the military quieted people's fears. At the army's quartermaster depot there, an officer showed reporters how flame-proofed canvas could withstand a blowtorch without burning. As planned, the material merely charred, the fire didn't spread, and the reporters all got some copy for the Sunday papers.

Back in Hartford, Chief King announced that the department was saddened by the deaths of the wives of several firemen.

At the morgue, Barber and Lowe watched the last successful attempts of the day. Friends of the Norrises sent a dentist from Mrs. Norris' old hometown to establish her identity. He claimed as Eva Irene Norris #4540, the body formerly thought to be the woman from Glastonbury

The identification left eight bodies unclaimed: three women, two girls, two men, and one boy. Among the missing were Mrs. Edith Budrick, Grace Fifield, Eleanor Cook, Judy Norris, Michael Norris, Raymond Erickson and eighteen-year-old war worker Ermo Flanders. Mayor Mor-tensen announced that all bodies still unidentified at 11:00 A.M. Monday would be buried “with dignity and reverence” in individual graves at Northwood Cemetery and urged any persons with knowledge of missing relatives, friends or neighbors to report it to the State War Council at the armory.

Later, Commissioner Hickey took to the airwaves and made a public appeal, asking the man who had told the policeman that that dirty so-and-so threw a cigarette to please come forward. The commissioner read his description, as if the man were a criminal, or missing: white, about thirty-seven, five eight or nine inches tall, wearing dark trousers and a white sport shirt.

Minutes after Hickey addressed the city, a fire started in a ten-story building on Main Street downtown. The fire began in two hampers at the rear of the first floor. It never had a chance to become fully involved; only the hampers were destroyed. The cause would be listed as undetermined. The building's owner: the Aetna Fire Insurance Company.

All night, Trooper Francis Whelan had been nursing his drinks in the bar of the Bond Hotel, undercover, hoping to pick up information on the fire from the show people staying there. Another detective “was going to be in this barroom at the same time but we were not to recognize each other.”

Whelan struck up a conversation with George W. Smith, who was steamed by a Times article about the city fireman who tried to direct water on the tent only to be pushed away by Blanchfield's men. Smith groused that Hartford was one of the few cities this size that didn't station a piece of firefighting equipment right on the lot. He had a date to keep and left Whelan at the rail.

The clown Felix Adler sat down beside him, and Whelan bought him a bottle of beer. Adler told him hed helped people out, then run back to his dressing tent to rescue his pig and his duck. He gave Whelan the burned nickel he'd found as a souvenir. His theory was that some drunk must have tossed a cigarette in a wastebasket. The fire definitely started in the men's room. Whelan bought him another beer.

His daughter was a spinner, Adler said, with the aerial ballet. She had guts. After the fire both of them went over to the armory, and she insisted on going in and seeing the bodies. She asked a trooper how she could get in; the officer told her she needed to be looking for a particular person. Adler himself refused to, but she gave a name and saw the bodies in the company of a Red Cross nurse and another trooper.


Felix Adler with his pet pig (one in a long series). 


Adler said the troupe would be drinking at the Hofbrau House on Trumbull Street later. Adler was going to catch a quick nap; if Whelan was still in the bar at 11:00, Adler would bring him along and introduce him to the Wallendas and other stars. Whelan said he'd probably be here since it didn't look like his date was going to show.

Across the room, the other detective had spoken with Leonard Aylesworth. In the lobby of the Bond, his partner slipped a note to Whelan. It read: “I am Supt. of that Department, an engineer and a graduate of Yale. I know textile. I was in Springfield, Mass. when this fire took place. In the year 1799 Geo. Washington attended a circus and from that day to this day the tents have been always treated the same. Now who is lax the circus or your city officials. I was before some of the ‘Big-Shots’ until six o'clock this morning then thrown in jail. ‘What for?’ ‘That's my business?’ ‘I will never tell you.’ ‘I did the best I could but they are not kidding me.’ ‘Of course there may have been some laxity but at these times, what can you expect.”'

At 11:00, Adler returned with a man named Bill Hudson from New York City. He wasn't part of the circus, just someone—like Whelan—he'd met at the bar. Hal Olver, the press flack, came along and told stories about how he'd broken people's cameras during the fire. Adler said he'd busted one too. Olver was sore about a fellow named Roden or Rodent who apparently was “a weak sister, who he told to shut his mouth.” He was surprised the cops hadn't picked him up yet. Adler wondered why they hadn't questioned Blinky Meck.

Olver left and Adler suggested he and Whelan and Hudson go out to a bar called the Spinning Wheel on Albany Avenue. Whelan said that was fine but he couldn't stay out too late. He excused himself to go to the bathroom, then ran outside and across the street to his car and removed its fishing pole antenna and hid it in the high grass of a vacant lot.

At the Spinning Wheel, Adler introduced the two men to Frankie Saluto, the famous midget clown. Adler and Saluto reminisced about the good old days in New York and signed autographs for people at the bar. Show folks there were wondering where “Cookie the Blow” disappeared to after the fire.

After last call, Adler said he'd buy them beers back at the railroad cars; porters sold them by the bottle. When they got there, Hudson paid. Two midgets drank with them. When Hudson went outside to pee, Whelan learned that Adler didn't know the man at all. Adler mentioned it was the first beer Hudson had bought in a long time, and when he returned, the show people seemed suspicious of him. Hudson told a circus story from years back, and another fellow tripped him up in his details. Whelan thought they might gang up on the man if he didn't get him out of there, so he said it was time he was heading back.

He dropped Adler off at the Bond. Once he was alone in the car with Hudson, he asked him a few offhand questions about New York. Hudson clammed up. Whelan asked him who he was and who he thought he was kidding. The remark sobered Hudson instantly. Whelan said he didn't think he was even from New York. He asked if he was a government agent.

“I could be,” Hudson said.

Whelan told him who he was and showed him his credentials. He demanded to know what Hudson's business was. When Hudson refused to say, Whelan told him he was taking him in.

Just short of the barracks, Hudson broke down and confessed that he was just a fireman from Stamford. He showed him his badge. Whelan hauled him in anyway, asking the duty officer to make a record of Hudson in the logbook. Hudson was terrified, afraid he'd lose his job. He'd been suspended for being drunk on duty a few weeks before. He begged Whelan to take his name off the log.

Whelan was sick of him and his stories. He dropped him at his hotel, swung back to the Hotel Bond and retrieved his antenna, then drove home. The nickel he stuck in an envelope and attached to his report to the commissioner, along with a cocktail napkin autographed by Felix Adler, King of the Clowns.

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