Circus, Circus

14 Apr

In the late 1800’s there was no internet, television, radio, movie theaters–people had to physically seek entertainment.  Thus, dozens of circuses were prominent during that era and as such, traversed (the mid-west and northeast especially) in animal-drawn caravans.

The Cooper and Bailey Circus is notably significant for exhibiting, “Columbia,” the first baby elephant born in the United States.  The little elephant was born in Philadelphia, March 1980 and P.T. Barnum immediately (who was salient in his own right for having his own wandering circus) wanted to buy the live attraction.  When this was not possible, Barnum and Bailey combined forces and journeyed all over the U.S. for various circus shows before the elephant was euthanized (by strangulation [1]) for aggression in 1907.

Side-note paragraph:  As much as I always enjoy seeing animals, and am amazed at the feats they can be trained to do, I don’t like to think of wild creatures born in captivity, and (roughly, I’d wager) peregrinated from place to place.  It makes me sad to think of poor little Columbia being housed (in inadequate areas with poor nutrition and medical care, I suspect), and trained with (more than likely) questionable methods.  It is certainly not fair to a wild animal when it is made to perform in front of thousands of loud people, which is contrary to its natural temperment, then killed–probably for acting like a normal elephant.

I choose a cartoon b/c pics that came up devastated me and made me want to barf

At any rate, back before the 1966 Animal Welfare Act was signed into law this was not just acceptable, but highly entertaining.  The AWA marked a decided turn (for the batter!) in America’s history of animal use.  It is an outstanding and comprehensive legislation that regulates not only circuses, but zoos, research facilities–really any entity that transports, houses, cares for, or uses animals in any way.  This group of statutes provides minimum standards of care and really makes our country more accountable for the way animals are treated.

Back to the topic at hand:  By the time the elephant was murdered put to sleep, both Barnum and Bailey had died.  In 1907 the Barnum & Bailey brand was purchased by The Ringling Brothers to become the Ringling Bros & Barnum & Bailey Circus, or “The Best Show on Earth.”  The circus did well during the 1920’s and one of the five original Ringling Brothers purchased the circus, absorbing all five traveling shows, for $1.7 million.  Though the circus struggled through the Great Depression, like everything else, it was a really big deal for spectators to see the Greatest Show On Earth.

Despite WWII, until the fateful day of July 6, 1944, the circus seemed to have the world in its pocket.  The President had even allowed the circus to continue to travel on railroads, an anomaly considering the heavy restrictions enforced for the rest of the war-weary country.  All supplies went to the military first, and the circus felt that impact.  One example:  The circus officials were not niave about the possible consequences of tent fires in their big top and asked the army, repeatedly to spare fire-retardent.  The military had been given absolute priority on the material and refused to let the circus have any.  Ringling Bros & Barnum & Bailey perservered through any wartime hardships-moral of the country was at stake.  Though the delays and malfunctions due to staff and equipment shortages had become ever-present, tickets still sold.

Superstition as a Premonition:  Two shows were scheduled for the July 5 and 6 Hartford, Connecticut location.  Because of delays common in that WWII period, the train arrived late making the first show too late to set up.  It had to be canceled.  In circus lore, missing a show is an extremely bad omen.  The circus performers were on high alert the next day, half expecting some catastrophe due to the poor luck they had suffered.

People from Hartford and smaller surrounding towns purchased tickets for the show.  It is difficult to know how many people from rural towns came to the circus, because at the time smaller areas kept poor residency records.  The circus also handed out an unknown number of free admission tickets in a wide radius surrounding Hartford.  There were also drifters spotted enjoying the show that day.  Total attendance was uncertain, but estimates place the number of spectators around 7,000.

About 20 minutes into the show, band-leader, Merle Evans, spotted a fire on the south wall of the tent and immediately cued the band to play, “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” the known distress signal for all circus personnel.  In those days, the circus tents were myopically waterproofed with paraffin wax dissolved in gasoline.  Maybe it seemed a good idea at the time, but anyone could see the potential for trouble with that method.  Though the ring-master tried to initiate a calm, exit of patrons, the power cut out and a short-sighted panic ensued.  Approximately all 7,000 people tried to leave the big top at once, melting , fiery paraffin raining down on them.  Just prior to the fire the big cats had been performing.  Their cages blocked two exits, creating a big problem.  Though the cats were herded through chutes to caged wagons, and only sustained minor burns, the people in the audience weren’t so lucky.  The tent collapsed in 8 minutes, trapping hundreds of spectators under the flaming tarps.  People were consumed in the flames, trampled to death by unthinking escapees, escaped narrowly but went back in the blaze to find loved ones, or were burned as they patiently sat inside expecting the flames to be promptly doused and the show to go on.

Emmett Kelly, in his quest to control the burn, was pictured holding a bucket of water and looking remorseful to the point of tears.

there must be a copyright on the most recognized photo w/the bucket

He is the clown forever immortalized as the symbol for this tragedy which became “The Day the Clowns Cried.”  Fittingly for the troubled times the circus faced after the fire, Kelly’s persona was “Weary Willy” a figure that embodied many depression era hobos.  People were outraged and circus employees were called into question.  The city of Hartford was also challenged in the form of lawsuits by 600 families of victims.  The circus management, deeply sorrowful about the episode and came to an agreement with city representatives to pay all damages resulting from the fire.  On July 7, charges began flying.  Five officials of Ringling Bros were indicted on involuntary manslaughter.

The aftermath of one of the worst fire disasters in the United States was discordant.  Many of the bodies were charred so badly (cremated, if you will) they could not be identified–even with today’s DNA tests.  Because the attendance records at the circus and in the rural areas were so poor, there were people that perished and were never missed.  Mix-ups ensued as loved ones tried to identify bodies burned so badly that they were unrecognizable.  Dental records were scrutinized.  Some families accidentally claimed victims as their relations mistakingly.  Other families never found a loved one, because either there was just nothing left of them or someone had previously claimed them.

Any of these scenarios could be likely in the case of “Little Miss 1565” whose picture was tirelessly used to identify her unclaimed, well-preserved body.  The number was assigned at the morgue when nobody came forward to claim the blonde girl in a white dress.  It remains unclear to this day, who the little girl was–though many people have theories on the matter.

In 1944, when the five contrite men were tried, four were convicted to prison terms.  The judge allowed the men to continue with the circus to Sarasota, FL to help get the show back on its feet, and were eventually pardoned all-together.  By 1954, the apologeticRingling Bros Circus paid a total of $5 million to the city of Hartford.  This money had been all circus profits since the fire, which had been set aside for the purpose of paying relations of the victims.  They took responsibility for the tragedy, but not the fire itself.

It seems there are more questions than answers in the case of the Hartford Circus Fire.  It has not been proven how the fire started.  Some think a cigarette was carelessly flicked, others believe it was arson.  One man, Robert Segee from Ohio, with known, mental illness, confessed to arson then later recanted.  We may never know how the blaze began, or if it was arson, who might have been responsible.

Reading about the circus fire was enlightening.  This is exactly the reason I have a fire-phobia.  It made me happy that there are more rules for animal welfare.  It also made me think twice about going to see trained animals of any kind.  I am motivated to learn exactly how the circus treats their creatures too–I know it is a LOT easier to find PETA’s misinformation online than it is to find true facts.

Ridiculous and Uneducated

I wasn’t only concerned for the animals–I also thought about the people that may have been exploited in circuses from that time period.  I am now interested in finding some book about the “freaks” that were paraded from town to town for amusement of residents. Reading about the circus fire made me glad large shows have more guidelines to prepare for disaster.  I think circuses, concerts, and any large gathering has more of a contingency plan–not to mention better attendance policies.  I am also thankful that when there is a crises the Red Cross is so quick to step in and deal with it in an organized manner–it doesn’t sound like we had that support in those days.  Feel free to comment if you know of reading materials or other research relating to the subject matter above.

[1] http://www.elephant.se/database2.php?elephant_id=1013

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