Little Bits of History

Under the Big Top

Posted in History by patriciahysell on December 17, 2015
Niterói circus fire

Niterói circus tent

December 17, 1961:  The Niterói fire takes place. Niterói is a city located in southeast Brazil. It is across Guanabara Bay from Rio de Janeiro and has a population of about a half million living in about 80 square miles. It is considered to be part of the Rio de Janeiro greater metropolitan area and is the sixth most populous city in the state. On December 15 the Gran Circus Norte-Americano premiered in Niterói. It was advertised as the most complete circus in all of Latin America. There were about 60 performers as well as 150 animals. About another 20 people were employed by the circus which was owned by Danilo Stevanovich.

The owner had purchased a new tent for his fantastic show. The tent was said to be made of nylon and came from India. It weighed in at six tons, which helps explain why these performances were hosted under the “big top”.  The circus had come to town a week before their first show and set up the tent and all the necessary items for the grand production. They were located in the Praça Expedicionário in the city center. The first two day’s performances went well and the Sunday performance was a thrill for all the local children. They were eager to see the various entertainment acts and the wild animals. The show was packed.

There were about 3,000 people in attendance. The show had been delighting the youngsters and their parents. With only about twenty minutes left to day’s performance, the trapeze artists took to the air. From that vantage point, one of the them noticed a fire. It took only about five minutes for the entire circus to be completely enveloped in flames. Unlike some other disasters of this nature, the doors had not been barred, but due to the number of people inside and the quickness with which the fire spread as well as the limited number of exits, there were 372 people who died in the flames. Many more were injured and by the end, over a hundred more died from their injuries bringing the total of dead to 500. Another 800 people were injured. About 70% of the victims were children.

Investigation found the tent was not made of nylon as advertised. It was instead made of cotton covered with paraffin wax. This made the fire spread even more quickly. The cause of the fire remains under debate. One theory is that a couple of disgruntled circus workers started the blaze. However, an independent investigation laid the blame on electrical problems. Two other circus fires claimed many lives, but not even the Hartford (Connecticut, United States) fire in 1944 nor the Bangalore (India) fire in 1981 came close to the number of dead or injured as this disaster in Brazil.

Ceremony, circus, farce, melodrama, tragedy, … nothing else offers all at once the whirl, the excitement, the gaiety, the intrigue, and the anguish. – Arthur M Schlesinger Jr.

Circus, n. A place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool. – Ambrose Bierce

To me clowns aren’t funny. In fact, they’re kind of scary. I’ve wondered where this started and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus and a clown killed my dad. – Jack Handey

I remember in the circus learning that the clown was the prince, the high prince. I always thought that the high prince was the lion or the magician, but the clown is the most important. – Roberto Benigni

Also on this day: Wilbur and Orville – In 1903, the brothers took the Wright Flyer up to the skies.
D’oh – In 1989, The Simpsons premiered.
Decree – In 1807, Napoleon I issued the Milan Decree.
Hot Time in the Old Town – In 1837, the Tsar’s home in St. Petersburg, the Winter Palace, caught fire.
Trendy – In 1892, Vogue’s first issue was published.


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