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The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2000


    I had only the most superficial knowledge of this tragedy, including the 'unidentified little girl' known in O'Nan's book as 'Little Miss 1565.' 'The Circus Fire' answers some questions and raises others about not only how and why this tragedy took place but how humans collectively behaved in the face of adversity. The passages detailing the children going through skin grafts are by far the most heartbreaking. As effective and compelling as the story is told, the style is repetorial in a non ground breaking way; this is no Truman Capote/'In Cold Blood.' As an account of the tragedy this is definitive; as an account of a fire disaster it cannot surpass 'To Sleep With The Angels' by David Cowan and John Kuenster, detailing the December 1, 1958 fire at Our Lady of Angels School in Chicago. Images in that haunt me to this day. O'Nan's account is fascinating, if a bit clinical. An effective investigation of a tragey lacking the emotional resonance it ought to put its subject over.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 4, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Well-Done Historical Research

    On July 6, 1944, nine thousand people, mostly women and children, attended the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus in Hartford, Connecticut. It was the matinee show and started at around 2:00 p.m. Moments later, the circus tent caught fire and in minutes was completely consumed. Pandemonium reigned as petrified patrons fought and clawed to escape the inferno. One hundred and sixty-seven people died that day.

    Stewart O'Nan has painstakingly recreated this horrific event. He covers the individual stories of various victims and survivors. The history of the circus is covered, along with the war factory environment of Hartford in 1944. Possible causes of the fire are considered. Was it an act of arson? Or was the fact that the tent was waterproofed with a mixture of gasoline and paraffin the main culprit? The survivors are followed through their months of hospitalization and the various legal issues and court cases are covered. The lives of various circus performers are told, as well as the stories of the men who investigated the fire and its causes for years. The later lives of those involved are covered, especially the struggle to identify one little girl that stretched for decades.

    Although a horrific event, the painstaking research O'Nan has performed makes this a fascinating subject. The changes that took place due to the fire and the general change in the country as it moved to new entertainment venues such as television made the circus under the big tent a thing of the past. O'Nan takes the reader inside the tent and shows them a world that no longer exists. This book is recommended for readers of nonfiction and circus fans, as well as those who enjoy tales of heroism.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 11, 2001

    Circus Fire In Connecticut! Lives Lost! Read All About It!

    During the dog days of summer in a small city in Connecticut during 1944, the Big Top came to town, promising a diversion from the depressing news of World War II and the oppressing heat. A tent was pitched in an open field, the animals and concessions set up, and tickets were sold. During one afternoon's performance a fire was started (you'll have to read how), and the tent went up almost instantaneously, trapping hundreds of people inside and starting an hysterical stampede towards the few available exits. This is an account that is meticulously researched and grippingly told. It will continue to haunt your thoughts long after you've finished the book. Beware that this book is not for the faint of heart; the descriptions of burned survivors and charred bodies seem awfully vivid. Otherwise, a memorable cautionary tale.

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    Posted September 5, 2013

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2013

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