MERIDEN — A blaze that ignited the tent of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Hartford on June 6, 1944, claimed 168 lives, including those of five Meriden residents.
Over 6,000 people reportedly gathered to see the circus that day, crowding under a massive tent coated with paraffin wax, a water repellent. According to a Meriden Record article published the day after the fire, witnesses reported spotting a fire small enough “to have been put out with a pail of water” near the entrance of the big top, but flames spread quickly, engulfing the tent.
Pandemonium ensued as circus-goers tried frantically to flee the big top, which had some exits blocked by large cages used to transport animals.
“Children were tossed by fear-stricken parents from lofty seats to the ground beneath, some to escape, but many to be caught in the folds of the flaming tent. Their cries rang in the ears of spectators,” a front-page Meriden Record article from July 7, 1944, reported. “Men, women and children alike were trapped beneath the canvas as it crashed to the ground in a fiery climax.”
Five high-wire performers from the Wallenda troupe escaped the blaze using their acrobatic training as others clamored in horror toward the blocked exits.
“We slid down the ropes and headed for the performers’ exit, but people were so crowded there that we saw we didn’t have a chance. So we climbed over the cage that lines the exit,” Herman Wallenda said at the time. “That was easy for us — we’re performers. But the public couldn’t get out that way.”
When the smoke had cleared, officials discovered Meriden residents Elizabeth de la Vergne, 37, and Theresa Matteson, 45, had died, along with siblings Arlen Birch, 13, and Shirley Birch, 9. The children’s mother, Marguerite Birch, was initially unaccounted for, but officials later identified her as a casualty of the fire.
“Tragedy struck swiftly into Meriden homes,” a front-page Meriden Record article reported. “Hundreds from this city journeyed to Hartford to see the circus, traveling by car, train or bus to join 6,000 spectators at one of the greatest holocausts in the history of the United States.”
An estimated $300,000 in circus property was damaged by the blaze.
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