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The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy

The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy

4.2 19
by Stewart O'Nan, Alice Van Straalen (Editor)

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The acclaimed author of A Prayer for the Dying brings all his narrative gifts to bear on this gripping account of tragedy and heroism—the great Hartford circus fire of 1944.

It was a midsummer afternoon, halfway through a Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus performance, when the big top caught fire. The tent had been waterproofed with a mixture


The acclaimed author of A Prayer for the Dying brings all his narrative gifts to bear on this gripping account of tragedy and heroism—the great Hartford circus fire of 1944.

It was a midsummer afternoon, halfway through a Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus performance, when the big top caught fire. The tent had been waterproofed with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline; in seconds it was burning out of control. More than 8,000 people were trapped inside, and the ensuing disaster would eventually take 167 lives.

Steward O'Nan brings all his narrative gifts to bear on this gripping account of the great Hartford circus fire of 1944. Drawing on interviews with hundreds of survivors, O'Nan skillfully re-creates the horrific events and illuminates the psychological oddities of human behavior under stress: the mad scramble for the exits; the perilous effort to maneuver animals out of danger; the hero who tossed dozens of children to safety before being trampled to death. Brilliantly constructed and exceptionally moving, The Circus Fire is history at its most compelling.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A triumph of literary storytelling.”–The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“An extraordinary book. O’Nan is amazing in his handling of the abundance of fact, rumors and legends that have built up around this fire.”–USA Today

“[O’Nan’s]non-fiction is as accomplished as his fiction.... [The Circus Fire is] as gripping as any thriller.”–The Seattle Times

Ann Stephenson
Stewart O'Nan is amazing in his handling of the abundance of facts, rumors and legends that have built up around this fire in the years since it occurred. The author of several fine novels...this is his first work of non-fiction he shows here a journalist's restraint, using poetic description at only choice moments.

You can't ask for a more dramatic story, and Stewart O'Nan captures it all in an extraodinary book, Circus Fire
USA Today

To quote KLIATT's Nov. 2000 review of the Brilliance audiobook edition: For stark human drama, this excellent, emotionally draining, vivid yet sensitive account of one of the most catastrophic accidents in American circus history... will be hard to beat. A fire of undetermined origin broke out in the Big Top of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus during the July 6, 1944 matinee in Hartford, CT. The fire and the ensuing panic resulted in the deaths of 167 people and left many questions that have never been satisfactorily answered. The author begins by discussing previous circus fires and then sets the scene for the Hartford disaster...This story will send circus buffs and students of the human tragedy genre to the Internet and/or the library to find out more about this catastrophe. Excellent, but not for the overly sensitive. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Random House, Anchor, 370p. illus., $14.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Prof. John E. Boyd; Jenkintown, PA , September 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 5)
Library Journal
In 1944, in Hartford, CT, the big top of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus caught fire and burned to the ground in minutes. A capacity crowd of 10,000 was inside; many never got out. O'Nan takes us meticulously from the few stops before the setting up of the tent at the fatal site to the activities of some of the players into the 1990s. We encounter dozens of characters: people who almost went to the circus that day, families who did, along with the officials, investigators, and suspects. The cause of the inferno was never explained satisfactorily, but most observers eventually concluded that it was arson, and one unbalanced suspect seems the most likely candidate. The author devotes many words to horrible descriptions of injuries suffered--this is not a work for the squeamish. Interplay among the officials of the Ringling family is depicted, along with the political reaction to the disaster. Dick Hill's basic American intonations fit right in with this story; his approach is fairly emotionless here, and it works because the subject matter is so ghastly. A good selection for nonfiction collections.--Don Wismer, Cary Memorial Lib., Wayne, ME Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Michelle Phillips
With thrilling precision, O'Nan deftly describes the events leasing up to and during the fire...Accompanying O'Nan's superb writing are archival photographs, which add a visceral impact to the story.
Time Out New York
Edward Hoagland
[O'Nan's] lavish documentation (which so often reads as if he were a newspaperman on the scene, phoning in as many facts and impressions as possible) suggests a larger theme. Perhaps the circumscribed horror of a circus fire -- of fun gone wrong -- will typify not the old century but the new one, in which we may suffer a pox of isolated catastrophes rather than a few gigantic worldwide conflagrations. In capturing them, a writer of manifold talents like Stewart O'Nan ought to prosper.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Agonizing hour-by-hour retelling of the worst American circus disaster and its aftermath, seen with a restless, unflinching eye for the details—touching, ironic, and depraved. "The fire was the size of a baseball, a football, a basketball, a dishpan, a briefcase, a small window, half a tablecloth. . . . One thing people agreed on was that it was small." How the blaze started on July 6, 1944, in Hartford, Connecticut, remains unknown. At least 167 people died, and several thousand were injured. The resulting bad publicity (and nearly $5 million in civil judgments) not only pushed Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey's into receivership, it eventually forced the Greatest Show on Earth to discard its sideshow and abandon the outdoor "big top" for the gloomy (but fireproof) confines of concrete sports arenas. For novelist O'Nan (A Prayer for the Dying, 1999, etc.), the event is a small-town tragedy that grew quickly into a national scandal: the show business equivalent of the sinking of the Titanic, inspiring works of fact and fiction and setting off a nationwide hunt for a crazed arsonist, 25 years of courtroom battles, thousands of dollars in donated funds for survivors, and mountains of sensationalist journalism. O'Nan finds epic pathos in the heroics of common individuals and circus performers (clown Emmet Kelly and the Flying Wallendas among them), the bellowing of doomed animals, the panic of the mob, the shameless buck-passing of local officials, and the disgraceful efforts of circus staff to avoid responsibility. Fortunately, co-owner Robert Ringling's fatuous claim that his paraffin-coated tent could not be fireproofed during wartimewithoutmilitary approval did not sway a Connecticut judge from fining the circus $10,000 and convicting (and imprisoning) five circus staffers for involuntary manslaughter. O'Nan alleviates his gripping, tragic story with wry glances at circus history and its better-known personalities and performers, as well as interviews with numerous survivors whose lives the fire changed (not always for the worst). (96 photos and illustrations)

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
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Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.90(d)

What People are Saying About This

Rick Bragg
The Circus Fire is terrifying, compelling, and absolutely readable—because it is real. It happened in 1944, but Stewart O'Nan brings it to life again, along with its heroes and villains, and makes you feel like you are inside the big top as it starts to burn.
Rick Bass
Rick Bass

Taught and loving, this book strains to the heart's outer limits. The Circus Fire is journalism in the service of literature, literature in the service of history.
Jim Foster
A superbly written and absorbing book, admirably documented. This is a candid picture of humans at their best and their worst, and deserves a place on the shelves of any serious student of the American circus.
—(Jim Foster, editor, The White Tops, official publication of the Circus Fan Association of America)

Meet the Author

Stewart O’Nan’s novels include Snow Angels, The Speed Queen, A Prayer for the Dying and The Night Country. Granta has named him one of the Twenty Best Young American Novelists. He lives in Connecticut.

Brief Biography

Avon, CT
Date of Birth:
February 4, 1961
Place of Birth:
Pittsburgh, PA
B.S., Aerospace Engineering, Boston University, 1983; M.F.A., Cornell University, 1992

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The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
On July 6, 1944, around 10,000 people went to watch “The Greatest Show on Earth” performed by the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. Some of the people in Hartford, Connecticut had been waiting all year for the circus to come to town, but when it finally did, they were in for a very different show than normal. About halfway through the Wallendas act, a high wire act performed by three people, people began smelling smoke. Almost without warning, the entire big top was up in flames due to the fact that it had been waterproofed with gasoline and paraffin. 167 people went to the circus that day and never returned home. Everything about this book entertained me. The thrill of picturing each act as it would have been performed, being able to almost smell the smoke of the fire as it began to grow, and feeling the fear of what it would have been like to be running for your life as the fire envelops the entire big top. Stewart O’Nan does a wonderful job of putting as many facts together as possible to recreate the horrific day and to put the reader right into the story. Because O’Nan was not present the day of the fire, the book is put together through the community and through interviews with many of the people who were in attendance that day.  Although the facts from people who experienced the horrific day are part of what makes the book so great, they are also what makes it not as great. Some facts are repeated multiple times throughout the book and make it drag on I parts. Some of the facts are very important to the story and trying to find the cause of the fire and should be repeated, but others are of lesser importance and slow the pace of the book. Even with those slow parts, the book is an excellent read and provides a lot of information about the day of the fire.  I would definitely recommend this book, especially to people who have fallen in love with the circus. This is one of the largest tragedies that has ever occurred in the circus world, and it is very well represented through O’Nan’s writing. I woulod also recommend it to people who love history but are looking for that thrill as well. 
sandiek More than 1 year ago
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.
JennGrrl More than 1 year ago
It's amazing that so many people went to the circus to forget their troubles, and instead ended up at best traumatized and at the worst dead. I'll definitely never look at a circus the same again, or for that matter any event that happens under a tent. Worth a read, definitely, but very graphic in parts so not for the faint of heart.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I listened to the unabridged audio version, which was compelling indeed--especially, but not exclusively, if the listener is or was a 'local' to the Hartford area. I think the audio might have made it more dramatic than reading it; on the other hand, the book has some photos that you miss with the audio. One thing about the audio that I seem to recall was a few place names mispronounced, which was a little annoying--it doesn't seem to me an unreasonable expectation for the reader (who was not the author) to have checked on the proper pronunciation. But it was a minor annoyance & nonlocals wouldn't even notice.

Some of the background stuff at the beginning about other circus fires tested my patience a little as I wanted him to 'get to the Hartford stuff,' but once he got into the Hartford stuff, the reason for all that background stuff became clear & was helpful. I thought the amount of research he did to bring all this together was impressive.

I thought he did a very good job of writing about a very complex subject and making it 'followable.' To say it lacked some dramatic emotionality is like saying that the events of 9/11 needed reporters to add drama to the events to make the response emotional--the events are sufficient unto themselves & don't need anything added.

It is very true that some of the description can be gruesome, but I would say anyone who can handle what's on TV these days can probably handle it.

One way it haunted me, besides thinking about certain locations as I drive around Hartford, is that I'm now a little more uncomfortable when in a crowded place--I'm constantly conscious of when a place must be beyond its fire code occupancy level & how would all those people get out, & I pay attention to where the exits are & stay near one of them--which is much like the PTSD some of the victims experienced, & I got it (to a smaller degree of course) just from hearing about it! So I'd say it was dramatic enough!

Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was amazing. While gruesome in parts it was necessary to really show the reader and do justice to the horrific events. The desription really puts you there. You can almost smell the smoke and hear the screams. This was a tragedy thaf should never be forgotten...and thanks to this authors brilliant writing no one who reads this book will.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book covers in detail the terrible tragedy of that day. Highly reccomended for the circus or history buff.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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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Guest More than 1 year ago
This story brought the tragedy to life and made the fire even more heartbreaking. The in depth interviews and accounts of the disaster are extremly vivid and interesting. Great read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
In the preface to the book, the Author writes that he wrote a non-fiction account of the Circus Fire because even the most well written fictionalized account could not tolerate the lapses, coincidences and gaps that occur in real life. Truth really is stranger than fiction!!! First and foremost this story is a gripping human saga that will leave you talking about the story and thinking about the book for weeks. I would love to see a follow up book detailing what happened throughout the later lives of the survivors and the families of victims. Read this book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Effectively describes the horrors of the fire, its causes, repercussions. O'Nan debunks myths about the disaster, and has his own take on the identity of Little Miss 156
Courtney Owen More than 1 year ago
my first nook book and enjoying it thus far