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Big Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and The Greatest Show On Earth

Big Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and The Greatest Show On Earth

by Laura A. Woollett


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International Literacy Association Award Winner for Intermediate Nonfiction 2016
Eureka Children's Book Honor 2016

On July 6, 1944, thousands of fans made their way to Barbour Street in Hartford, Connecticut, to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performance. Not long after the show’s start, a fire broke out and spread rapidly as panicked circus-goers pushed and scrambled to escape. Within 10 minutes the entire big top had burned to the ground, and 167 people never went home.
Big Top Burning recounts the true story of one of the worst fire disasters in US history. It follows the tragic stories of the Cook family—including children Donald, Eleanor, and Edward, who were in the audience that day—and 15-year-old Robert Segee, a circus employee with an incendiary past. Drawing on primary sources and interviews with survivors, author Laura Woollett guides readers through several decades of investigations and asks, Wasthe unidentified body of a little girl nicknamed“Little Miss 1565” Eleanor Cook?Was the fire itself an act of arson—anddid Robert Segee set it? Young readers are invited to evaluate the evidence and draw their own conclusions.
Combining a gripping disaster story, an ongoing detective and forensics saga, and vivid details about life in World War II–era America, Big Top Burning is sure to intrigue any history or real-life mystery fan.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613731147
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 06/01/2015
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 10 - 18 Years

About the Author

Laura A. Woollett has a master’s degree in children’s literature from Simmons College and is a writer and editor of literacy curriculum for kids and young adults. Originally from South Windsor, Connecticut, Laura now lives in Massachusetts with her husband, daughter, and two cats.

Read an Excerpt

Big Top Burning

The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and the Greatest Show on Earth

By Laura A. Woollett

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2015 Laura A. Woollett
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61373-117-8



"Coming from Providence on its own trains of red and yellow steel cars, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus arrives in Hartford this morning." — Hartford Courant, July 5, 1944

You could almost hear the buzz of excitement in the air over Hartford, Connecticut, leading up to the arrival of the one and only Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Posters plastered on buildings and storefronts boasted the show's highlights: Mr. and Mrs. Gargantua the Great, a pair of enormous gorillas; aerialists performing a Cloud Ballet; and a pantomime by the famous clown Emmett Kelly.

Emmett Kelly was a "tramp clown." He dressed in drab colors and painted a large white frown and black stubble on his face. His routine was different from those of other, more colorful clowns, whose slapstick antics were intended to make people laugh. Instead, without speaking a word, Kelly made people feel sorry for him. Poor Weary Willie, the audience thought, chuckling as he tried unsuccessfully to sweep a circle of light into a dustpan. By the summer of 1944, Kelly had been traveling with the Ringling Bros. circus for three years, and Weary Willie was one of its most popular attractions.

In the 1940s, a trip to the circus was a rare treat. Though Hartford was a thriving city during the years of World War II, the average income was only about $52 a week. Many fathers and husbands served in the military overseas. More women entered the work force when they found themselves raising their families on their own. Kids often contributed to the family income or made their own pocket money by delivering groceries or newspapers. Buying food and paying rent took priority, and circus tickets were expensive — the nicer grandstand seats cost $1.20 each. But for an occasion as big as the Ringling Bros. circus, families saved their pennies all year long.

A poem in the circus program promised "the real Fairyland is right at hand, it's where the circus holds sway." Going to the circus was not only a delight for children; it gave everyone a break from the real world. Emmett Kelly claimed people loved the circus because "they want to laugh and forget their troubles." Worries about food rationing or bomb shelters faded away amid the bright colors and lively music of "The Greatest Show On Earth."

Even the government thought the circus was good for the morale of the country. During the war, railroad travel was restricted so that military supplies and machinery could be transported quickly and efficiently. However, the Ringling Bros. circus was given special permission to use the rails to travel from town to town. The government also used the circus to promote the sale of war bonds. People who bought bonds were loaning their money to the government to pay for the war. After the war was over, people could cash in the bonds and get their money back, plus interest. In addition, anyone who bought war bonds was given free circus tickets.

With many men fighting overseas, there was a shortage of staff to run the circus. Ringling Bros. placed this advertisement in Billboard magazine: "Good Salary and Expenses Offered to Ambitious Young Men Who are Not Subject to Call in the Armed Forces. Learn the Art of Outdoor Advertising with the Greatest Show On Earth." They also hired local boys in the towns where they stopped. Too young to enlist in the military, the boys had free time and were eager to help out. They took care of the animals by filling their troughs with water from fire hydrants, and they spread straw and sawdust on the ground. The older, stronger boys served as roustabouts. Roustabouts helped set up and take down the tents and did other physical labor around the grounds. Young boys made 50¢ for a day's work or received free passes to the show. Many kids thought that being part of the action and getting a free ticket to see the amazing Ringling Bros. circus was even better than money.

At the end of June 1944, 15-year-old Robert Segee thought he'd like to get a closer look at The Greatest Show On Earth. Robert lived with his parents and siblings in Portland, Maine. He was a tall boy, and strong, much bigger than other kids his age. Robert had few friends, though, and he hadn't done well in school. Because he had been kept back several times, he was older than all his classmates. Brooding and quiet, Robert spent most of his time alone in his room. To make matters worse, Robert and his father did not get along. Mr. Segee bullied Robert and yelled at him often. He always seemed to be punishing Robert for small mistakes.

So Robert ran away from home and joined the Ringling Bros. circus when it came to Portland. The manager of the lighting department, Edward "Whitey" Versteeg, gave Robert a job setting up the wiring and lights in the big top. Later, Robert proudly told people he had even worked the main spotlight during the shows.

Everyone in the circus family had been looking forward to the summer season. The performers and workers got settled in the train cars in which they lived and traveled. Animal trainers practiced their acts with the elephants and the panthers. The season had been off to a good start until the show reached Portland. There, the crew discovered a small fire on the tent ropes. Luckily, it was put out immediately and caused no real damage. The show went on without incident.

At the next stop in Providence, Rhode Island, bad luck struck again when a small blaze appeared on a tent flap. Like the flame in Portland, it was quickly extinguished before it did any harm. There was always dry straw on the ground for the animals, and cigarette smoking was common. So the staff wasn't alarmed when small fires popped up once in a while. The seat hands (circus workers who manned the bleachers and grandstand) were always able to put them out quickly with buckets of water placed throughout the tent. A cause for the fires in Portland and Providence was never determined, and the traveling show continued on its way.

As the circus was rolling into Hartford, the Cook family was enjoying a reunion. Nine-year-old Donald, eight-year-old Eleanor, and six-year-old Edward were visiting their mother, Mildred. Life had not been easy for the Cooks. Mildred's husband had recently abandoned his family, and Mildred suddenly needed a way to support her children. She got a job at an insurance company in Hartford and left Donald, Eleanor, and Edward in the care of her brother and sister-in-law, Ted and Marion Parsons, in Southampton, Massachusetts. While Uncle Ted and Aunt Marion were like a second set of parents to the children, they were excited about this special visit with their mother. They had taken the train from Southampton and couldn't wait to see the wild animal acts and silly red-nosed clowns.

The Ringling Bros. three-ring circus was scheduled to perform four shows in Hartford: two on July 5, and two on July 6. Mildred had tickets for the matinee on July 5, but when she and the children arrived at the circus grounds, they saw that the tents were not yet up. There was no smell of fresh, buttery popcorn in the air. There were no sideshow barkers enticing people to gawk at human oddities. The grounds were a mess of canvas tenting, ropes, and half-assembled food stalls.

Confusion on the tracks had held up the circus train for several hours on its way from Providence to Hartford. The performers and crew finally reached the grounds at 350 Barbour Street around noon, but it was too late. There was not enough time to get the big top and the side tents ready for the matinee. Disappointed circus-goers clutched their tickets, wondering what to do. The staff told everyone to return for the matinee the following afternoon. Mildred exchanged her tickets and assured her children that they would not miss out on the show.

The Ringling Bros. crew was disheartened at the train's late arrival. But there was still work to do, including setting up the enormous big top. The main tent was massive. It was 450 feet long and 200 feet wide — one-third longer than an entire football field. Elephants pulled on the ropes, hoisting 75,000 square feet of heavy canvas into position. Trainers got the animals comfortable, and the cook prepared food for the tired, hungry crew.

After the grounds were ready, Robert Segee ate with the rest of the crew and the performers in the mess tent, waiting for the evening show to begin. Many performers were superstitious about missing a show and considered their late arrival a bad omen.



"The last word in high wire thrillers, new hazardous and hair raising feats by world acclaimed artists who shake dice with death at dizzy heights." — description of the Flying Wallendas in the 1944 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus program

More than 6,000 people attended the circus on that hot July 6 afternoon. Circus programs became fans, and men pulled handkerchiefs from back pockets to wipe their sweaty brows. "The air was stagnant. There was no breeze," Arthur S. Lassow recalled. With high humidity and temperatures in the 80s, the muggy air seemed to cling to the skin. It's no wonder the stand selling glass bottles of Coca-Cola was a big hit. A long chug of ice-cold soda pop hit the spot.

Before entering the big top, people could wander through the animal menagerie — a traveling zoo where you could see the animals up close. The Ringling Bros. circus was home to many unusual and amazing creatures including: 1 anoa buffalo, 1 cassowary, 1 harte-beest, 1 pygmy hippopotamus and 2 large common hippos, 1 kangaroo, 1 llama, 1 mandrill, 1 springbok, 1 white-bearded gnu, 2 bears, 2 cranes, 2 donkeys, 2 giraffes, 2 gorillas, 2 guanacos, 2 king vultures, 2 lions, 2 tigers, 2 zebras, 3 chimpanzees, 3 cockatoos, 5 camels, 19 rhesus monkeys, 30 elephants, and 117 horses!

Betty Lou, the pygmy hippo, was a crowd favorite. She kept cool by wading in the water of her tank as patrons smiled over her. Betty Lou was one of the animals that had survived a fire in 1942, when a spark from a passing train had ignited the menagerie tent. The flames had spread quickly, and the staff could do little to stop it. All hands did their best to lead the animals to safety. No circus workers or audience members were hurt, but 45 animals died. Now, two years later, many of the animals in the menagerie were survivors of that tragedy. Old wounds had healed, and new animals had joined the show. People once again marveled at the long necks of the giraffes and the big humps of the camels. The disaster of 1942 seemed a distant memory.

Besides the animal menagerie, the circus offered sideshows before the main event. Sideshows presented a curious assortment that included sword swallowers, bearded ladies, and tattooed men. In one sideshow attraction, Gargantua the giant gorilla and his "wife," another large gorilla, sat quietly in their cage as people ogled them through the bars. Today, sideshows are considered cruel and inappropriate, but in the 1940s they were common. Among the acts that thrilled audiences in 1944 were Rasmus Neilsen, the tattooed strong man; Miss Patricia, swallower of neon tubes; Señorita Carmen, snake trainer; the Doll Family (Harry, Gracie, Daisey, and Tiny), the "world's smallest people"; Percy Pape, the living skeleton; Louis Long, the sword swallower; Egan Twist, the rubber-armed man; Kutty Singlee, the fireproof man; and Mr. and Mrs. Fischer, a giant and giantess.

All around the grounds were stalls where vendors sold programs and other souvenirs. One vendor even sold chameleons on little string leashes. When eight-year-old Donald Gale's mother bought him one, he carefully tucked the lizard into his shirt pocket to keep it safe.

Families enjoyed hot dogs and ice cream. Children's faces were sticky with cotton candy, and the intoxicating smell of freshly roasted peanuts lingered in the air. Residents of the nearby neighborhood set up lemonade stands and sold cool drinks.

Nine-year-old Eugene Badger got to go to the circus as a birthday treat. Eugene and his father headed to the circus grounds while Mrs. Badger went to the Red Cross to donate blood. Eugene and his father did not spend much time outside the tent before the show. They couldn't afford things like candy apples and sideshows, which cost extra. Instead, they made their way through the main entrance on the west end of the tent. Mr. Badger had a medical condition and used crutches to get around, so Eugene helped his father as they walked the length of the tent to their seats in the northeast bleachers.

Bleacher seats took up the four corners of the tent. The grandstand seats ran along the sides, where folding chairs were set up on wooden boards. These seats had backs, making them more comfortable and therefore more expensive. Unlike today's big arenas where seats are bolted to the floor, the grandstand chairs were free standing. People had to be careful not to knock over the chairs as they walked across the wooden planks.

The Cook family sat in the southwest grandstand. Like everyone else in the tent that day, Mildred and her children were eager to laugh at the clowns and to gasp in wonder at the acrobats and animal tamers. It was hot inside the tent, but at least the canvas roof gave protection from the blazing sun.

As the band warmed up the clowns put on their makeup and the Flying Wallendas, the famous trapeze artists, got ready to take the stage. Seat hands stationed themselves beneath the bleachers. During the show they would pick up trash and watch to make sure no one snuck in without paying. They also had the very important job of guarding against accidents, including fires. Smoking was not allowed in the big top, but this rule was difficult to enforce. In the 1940s, smoking was more common than it is today. Buckets of water were placed beneath each seating section before the show. If a seat hand saw a carelessly tossed cigarette or burning match fall from the stands, he could quickly put it out.

At 2:23 PM, the show began. Up first was a comedy act in which girls in bright sequined costumes "tamed" a performer dressed in a lion suit. Next came May Kovar and Joseph Walsh and their performances with real wild cats on opposite ends of the tent. Known as the "lion queen" of the circus, May astounded audiences with her bravery and control of the large, snarling felines. In Hartford, May deftly led 15 leopards, panthers, and pumas through their tricks as the audience watched, spellbound. Meanwhile, Joseph performed with lions, polar bears, and Great Danes.

"I was awestruck at the enormity of how large the [big cats] really were, never having seen a wild animal like that," circus-goer Anthony Pastizzo recalled. "And to see them performing with a human inside that cage, I was really amazed at how anyone gathered enough courage to work with an animal that size and as ferocious as that [cat]!"

May performed with masterful artistry when most people would be shaking with fear. In fact, just the year before, May had been attacked by one of her cats during a performance. A jaguar had leapt off of its perch toward her, teeth bared. May fended him off, but the jaguar attacked a second time, digging its dagger-sharp claws into her chest. Her injuries had required dozens of stitches. Performers like May enjoyed their work, but it could be a dangerous job.

At the end of their act, May and Joseph left the floor, and the Flying Wallendas began to take their places on a platform 30 feet in the air. The Wallendas — Karl, Helen, Joe, Herman, and Henrietta — were world famous for their performances. Karl and Helen's daughter Carla, only four at the time, would eventually join them. The troupe's high-wire pyramid was especially astounding. Joe and Herman pedaled bicycles on the high wire while holding a wooden board between them. On this board, Karl balanced himself precariously on a chair. Helen miraculously completed the pyramid, standing atop her husband's shoulders.


Excerpted from Big Top Burning by Laura A. Woollett. Copyright © 2015 Laura A. Woollett. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


ONE: The Circus Comes to Town,
TWO: "The Greatest Show On Earth",
THREE: Fire!,
FOUR: "The Day the Clowns Cried",
FIVE: Municipal Hospital,
SIX: "Who Knows This Child?",
SEVEN: Who Was to Blame?,
EIGHT: Accident or Arson?,
NINE: A Name for Little Miss 1565,
Author's Note,
Image Credits,

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