The Greatest Show on Earth
July 6, 1944: A fire consumes the circus big top of The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus in Hartford, Connecticut, and kills 168 people, injures another 700, and makes it the worst circus disaster in history. The fire was probably caused by a discarded cigarette during an afternoon performance. There were between 7,500 and 8,700 people in attendance. A lasting image from the disaster is that of Emmett Kelly, a famous clown, throwing a bucket of water at the burning tent.
The Big Top was a canvas tent that could have easily been escaped had people just realized that they could have lifted the material between the stakes and escaped the fire. The canvas was not fire treated. This was war time, and the Army had control over all the fireproofing material in the US. They would not release the amount needed to the circus. Regardless, the circus was found to be at fault for the deaths. Several executives served jail sentences in connection with the deaths.
P.T. Barnum (1810 – 1891) started his circus in 1835 and was billing his act as the greatest show on earth by 1872. James Bailey (1847 – 1906) carried on with the circus when Barnum died. The seven Ringling Brothers had been building up their own circus and the two circuses combined in 1907. They continued to be run as two separate circuses until they were joined into one Greatest Show in 1919.
Many claims were brought against The Greatest Show on Earth and it took all the profits from the next ten years, before all claims were paid in full. Yet even today, with DNA testing, not all who died in the conflagration have been identified.
“By laughing at me, the audience really laughs at themselves, and realizing they have done this gives them sort of a spiritual second wind for going back into the battles of life.” – Emmett Kelly
“Fire, water and government know nothing of mercy.” – unknown
“If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire, then you got a problem. Everything else is inconvenience.” – Robert Fulghum
“Without promotion something terrible happens… Nothing!” – P.T Barnum