July 10, 1944

As the courts and law offices opened, scores of suits against the circus clogged the docket, dozens of them naming the city as co-defendant. Always the populist, Mayor Mortensen spoke with the president of the local bar on behalf of citizens who couldn't afford legal counsel.

The mayor also appealed to storekeepers and owners of vacant buildings to take circus posters out of their windows. He personally paid to have a large billboard with the Ringling banner stripped.

The forecast for Monday was cloudy with showers, a warm rain breaking the heat wave. It ruined Coroner Frank Healy's last day of vacation. He'd missed all the commotion, down on the shore in Milford. Now he had to shut up the beach house and head north. His inquest started tomorrow.

The morgue opened at 8:30. No one was foolish enough to be hopeful at this point, though they showed up just the same: Barber and Lowe and Butler and Weissenborn. William Menser called in sick. They waited in the chilly room, blowing into their hands; when it was apparent nobody was coming, Weissenborn called in a state police photographer to take some pictures for the files.

From the official notes, the six unidentified were:

1503—9 year old female, white (probably), 3′11″, 55 lbs., slender build, light brown hair with red glow. Upper and lower permanent incisors and first molars present. All baby molars present, the four baby second molars all have fillings, these are the only fillings in the mouth.

1510—11 year old male, white (probably)—badly burned. 4′4″ (estimated), 70 lbs., muscularly developed. Wore white ribbed shorts, undershirt with shoulder straps. Only three baby teeth present (upper cuspids and lower left second molar); five fillings in four teeth.

1565—6 year old female, white, blue eyes, 3′10″, 40 lbs., moderately well developed, head circumference 20½″, blond or light hair, shoulder length. Curly hair. All baby teeth present except lower central incisors, the incisal edges of which are even with the occlusal plane of the lower lateral baby incisors. Brown shoes (pair); flowered dress.

2109—30 plus female, white, 5′1″, 148 lbs. (approximately), small boned, stocky, head circumference 22,” light brown or blonde hair, appendix operation about 8 years ago. Wore Spencer corset, pink pants, and tan rayon stockings. Gold crowns in upper left laterals; other dental work indicates intermittent care.

2200—55 to 60 year old male, white (probably), 5′3″, 170 lbs. (approximately), short moderate build, head circumference 20.” Well kept, regular dental care; good deal of gold work and bridges.

4512—30 to 35 year old female, Black (probably), 5′2″, 160 lbs. (approximately), short stocky build, wide hips, head circumference 21,” married and probably a mother. Wears ornamental ring on right ring finger, wedding ring on left ring finger. Very good teeth; all teeth present except lower left first molar.

While the photographer popped away, Dr. Weissenborn filled out the death certificates. Where the form calls for “Name of Hospital,” he filled in “Barbour St. Circus Grounds” for all six, though at least 1565 had died at Municipal. He gave all six the same cause of death: “Burns by fire, 3rd and 4th degree.”


Six different funeral homes had offered their services free of charge. At 10:30, as planned, Weissenborn turned the bodies over to them.

At noon, on orders from Commissioner Hickey, Adolph Pastore gassed up the Cadillac and set off for Rochester with Hartford police officer George Sanford. Hickey trusted only Eastman Kodak themselves to develop Sanford's 8mm film.

The police photographer followed 1565 to the Taylor & Modeen Funeral Home, unwilling to give up so easily. The undertakers there touched up her face and combed her hair back, and he took two more shots for future identifications, one head on, one a profile.

Apparently Robert Ringling was worried about the possibility, as president of the corporation, of being arrested like James Haley. Circus attorney Dan Gordon Judge checked with associates at his New York firm, one of whom wrote back: “Dreyfuss has found authorities (both New York State and Federal), indicating clearly that Mr. X is not subject to extradition.” Rumors placed Ringling in New York City, holed up in the Plaza Hotel under an assumed name, but of course these were only rumors.


The burial of the six unidentified victims at Northwood Cemetery, Monday July 10th, 1944. Rabbi Morris Silverman officiates while Father Thomas Looney and Reverend Warren Archibald pray with him. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE HARTFORD COURANT

The cortege left Hartford Hospital shortly before 3:00, six hearses escorted by city police and firemen behind Chiefs Hallissey and King. The procession turned from Jefferson onto Main Street, private cars falling in behind, rolling slowly through the canyon of office buildings and department stores. Around them, traffic stopped; men on the sidewalk doffed their hats. At city hall Mayor and Mrs. Mortensen joined the mourners. The cortege proceeded up Main and through the North End, passing within blocks of the circus grounds before turning into the iron arch of Northwood Cemetery.

The cemetery was the city's Soldiers Field, its veterans from the Spanish-American War and Pershing's Mexican Expedition and the Great War laid out in neat rows, the identical gravestones even as teeth. A small private corner backed up to Keney Park. Here the city had selected a plot large enough for all six. The graves were open, framed by boards crossed to hold the coffins. 1565's was conspicuous, the only white one; even the two other children had adult boxes.

It hadn't rained, but the air was thick. A reverend read the 23rd Psalm. The rabbi from Emanuel Synagogue read the Kaddish and the Mole Rahmin. Finally Father Looney read in Latin the committal service and sprinkled the graves with holy water. The crowd joined in prayer.

As the last cars filed out, gravediggers lugged the coffins aside and jumped down into the holes. They hadn't finished digging. On the grass lay six stakes, each bearing a number.

By the cemetery entrance stood the nameless dead's opposites—rows of graves with no bodies. Headstones commemorated local men killed in faraway places or buried elsewhere: Manila and Tunisia, Belgium and Honolulu. Killed in Action, one said, the location insignificant. Lost at Sea. Missing in Flight.

In Center Cemetery in Southampton, Massachusetts, a cenotaph would remember Eleanor Cook, her brother Edward's stone right beside it. The children held their own memorial service. Rev. James Yee led a procession from the town center, gathering neighbors and friends from Eleanor's grade and Edward's Sunday school class as they moved down East Street toward the Parsons' house. The boys wore church clothes—slacks and a shirt and tie—the girls their best dresses. Edward's casket was in the Parsons' three-season porch, a long room with a hardwood floor and windows on three sides. On the lid stood a picture of the Cook children, a flower arrangement blocking Donald. Rev. Yee conducted a full service for the town's children; later at the Congregational Church he would perform another for their parents.

Thomas Barber missed the services for the dead he'd watched over for the past four days. He had to give his daughter Gloria away. Because Orville Vieth was going overseas, they couldn't postpone the wedding. Father Looney married them in St. Michael's before a small crowd of family and friends. They needed to cut the pictures short and head off to the reception; the church had a hectic schedule with all the funerals. Immediately following the ceremony, the hearse from Farley's rolled up with Billy Dineen's coffin.

The Barbers and Dineens were good friends. Last Friday, knowing they wouldn't be able to make the boy's funeral, Barber and Gloria had visited with them to pay their respects. The Dineens apologized for having to miss the wedding.

Cities as far away as Houston held services for the dead. Hartford's namesake in England, Hertford, sent its official sympathy. Telegrams rained in from across the country. Hartford and St. Francis Hospitals had to ask well-wishers not to send any more flowers, citing the extra heavy load on maintenance workers.

In Chicago, where the circus had an office, the Tribune noted that “a report by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey investigators, prepared independently of the official inquiry, said that sisal hemp, a product of the Yucatan and as combustible as dry kindling, was employed for the lacing which held the six-sectioned big top together. Flames raced along the shoestring fashion lacework of these seams to reach the center pole bail rings supporting the canvas, the report said.”

The vault at police headquarters reeked of the fire. Among the items still unclaimed: a child's shiny black patent leather sandal, a Glastonbury Fire Department badge, draft cards, blankets (taken from car trunks to cover the dead), checkbooks, snapshots, and several yards of “summer cotton dress goods.” Police were especially impressed with the honesty of people turning in ration coupons for food, shoes and gasoline.

Not everything could be replaced so easily. One daughter wrote to the coroner looking for a sizable diamond ring and large emerald her mother wore. Circus performers The Four Macks beseeched the police; they needed a new table built for their roller-skating act but weren't allowed back on the lot to measure the old one.

The lot itself was becoming cluttered—specifically the backyard. The mayor met with health department officials, hoping to find a solution. A homeowner at 95 Cleveland Avenue made a complaint about the latrine behind the cookhouse. Its six toilets, servicing several hundred workers, stood just thirty yards from his back door. The circus cleaned it twice daily, but inspectors said their sanitation was only fair. The health department discussed it with the chief steward.

Worse than the toilets for some neighbors were the smells and sounds of the animals. The elephants and big cats were loud, sometimes in the middle of the night, and with the heat, Sponzo's meadow was decidedly aromatic. And who knew how long they would be there?

On their end, the circus was running out of supplies. They were supposed to be long gone by now, finished with Springfield, doing tonight's show in Albany, then heading for Schenectady Instead, they were stuck on Barbour Street, paying inflated prices for ice and meat and hay, and no end to it in sight.

The crackdown on tent shows didn't let up. At the city's insistence, the Colored Elks Club on Bellevue Street removed a tent from their lot, and the building and fire departments refused a permit for a revival show hoping to set up in the North End. Yet somehow Dick's Paramont Carnival met Commissioner Hickey's strict criteria. They opened that night in Berlin, under the lights, playing through the 15th with a fat lady as well as snake, posing and ape shows.

At Hartford and St. Francis, the night was quiet, but early that morning the halls at Municipal were suddenly busy. The boy who'd shared a bed with Jerry LeVasseur right after the fire weakened after midnight. He hung on through the early morning, the doctors working elbow to elbow over him until he was gone. Down the hall, his mother slept, her face and arms scarred. She had another son, but this was her baby. The doctors wouldn't tell her for months.

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