Of all the mysteries that still surround the Hartford Circus Fire, the most compelling is the identity of a small blonde girl in a white dress. Though her body was curiously unmarked by the fire, the child dubbed 'Little Miss 1565' had never been identified with certainty.
The Hartford Circus Fire was one of the worst fire tragedies in U.S. history, killing about 170 circus-goers and injuring more than 700. It happened 18 months after the Cocoanut Grove Fire killed 492 people in Boston.
The Hartford Circus Fire broke out during the Thursday afternoon performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus on July 6, 1944. About 7,000 people came to see the circus under the big top -- a huge canvas weatherproofed with 1,800 pounds of paraffin wax dissolved in 6,000 gallons of either kerosene or gasoline.
Not only was the enormous canvas highly flammable, but some of the exits were blocked, contributing to the death toll. We will probably never know the exact number of victims will nor the cause of the Hartford Circus Fire. The identities of some of the victims, like Little Miss 1565, have never been established.
The Hartford Circus Fire
The Hartford Circus Fire began after the first act, the lion performance, and shortly into the second as The Great Wallendas performed their daredevil highwire stunts.
Bandleader Merle Evans probably spotted the flame first. He quickly instructed the band to play The Stars and Stripes Forever, the tune signaling distress to circus people. They played during the fire until a pole fell and forced them to quit.
The ringmaster, Fred Bradna, tried to tell the audience not to panic, but the power failed. People stampeded toward the exits, but animal cages blocked them.
World War II was still raging, and many adults were at work in war-production plants when the fire broke out. Sixty-eight of the approximately 170 who died in the Hartford Circus Fire were 15 or younger.
Spectators and circus workers sliced open the tent and pulled children out, or lifted them over the barriers that blocked their escape.
'A big ball of fire'
Maureen Krekian was 11 years old and had gone to the circus by herself. Sixty-three years later she recalled the Hartford Circus Fire:
I remember somebody yelling and seeing a big ball of fire near the top of the tent. And this ball of fire just got bigger and bigger and bigger. By that time, everybody was panicking. The exit was blocked with the cages that the animals were brought in and out with. And there was a man taking kids and flinging them up and over that cage to get them out. I was sitting up in the bleachers and jumped down — I was three-quarters of the way up. You jump down and it was all straw underneath. There was a young man, a kid, and he had a pocketknife. And he slit the tent, took my arm and pulled me out.
Few who survived ever forgot it. The late actor Charles Nelson Reilly, then 13, made it out of the big top. Many years later he said he rarely attended the theater since the audience sounds reminded him of the crowd at the Hartford Circus Fire.
Little Miss 1565
About eight minutes after it first caught fire, the flaming big top collapsed. Victims were burned by melting paraffin, trampled to death in the panic or asphyxiated or burned when the canvas fell. Seven hundred people suffered injuries. The only animals in the tent at the time, the lions, survived with minor burns.
After the Hartford Circus Fire, officials sorted and laid out bodies on army cots in a nearby armory for the families to identify.
No one came to identify a little blonde girl wearing a white dress died of asphyxiation. Her body was well preserved, with only a few burn marks on her face. Investigators named her Little Miss 1565 after the number given to her.
Hartford Police Sgt. Thomas Barber and Sgt. Edward Lowe grew obsessed with finding out who she was. Barber, a widower, had two children who planned to attend the circus but hadn’t arrived when the fire broke out.
Barber and Lowe took dental impressions, fingerprints, footprints and photographs. A Life magazine story in 1965 described their efforts:
They sent the dental charts to hundreds of dentists, questioned mailman, doctors, tradesmen, Sunday school teachers. They tried, futilely, to match her to adult victims of the fire.
The police officers showed her photo to everyone who claimed a body on the night of the fire. They visited orphanages and welfare agencies, and they wrote to every primary school in Connecticut enclosing their little friend's picture. During the futile search Barber often stopped by the grave to brood about the child at his feet.
Barber spent the rest of his life trying to find her. Not once did he fail to place flowers on her grave on those three days. After Barber died in November 1977, local florists continued the tradition of laying flowers on Little Miss 1565’s grave.
In 1981, Lowe’s widow told the press he had learned the little girl’s identity and told her family, who didn’t want any publicity. Six years later, someone left a note on her gravestone that read, “Sarah Graham is her Name! 7-6-38 DOB, 6 years, Twin.” Notes nearby said her twin and other relatives were buried nearby.
In 1991, Hartford arson investigator Rick Davey published a book claiming Little Miss 1565 was Eleanor Emily Cook. Eleanor’s brother Donald worked with Davey to establish Eleanor Cook's identity. Authorities exhumed Little Miss 1565 and buried her in Southampton, Mass. She lay next to Eleanor Cook’s brother Edward, who also perished in the Hartford Circus Fire.
An American Tragedy
Ten years later, Stewart O’Nan published The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy. O’Nan argued Little Miss 1565 could not have been Eleanor Cook. Their dental records didn't match and her mother insisted all of her life that the child was not Eleanor.
O’Nan believed another family misidentified Eleanor Emily Cook as their own, and other members of the Cook family began to question the identity of the girl buried next to Edward Cook.
At the conclusion of his book, O’Nan explains why the story of Thomas Barber and Little Miss 1565 is so compelling:
To be lost and forgotten--to be abandoned--is a shared and terrible fear, just as our fondest hope, as we grow older, is that we might leave some part of us behind in the hearts of those we love and in that way live on. Perhaps, in the end, we will not be lost. In that respect, she was received the only gift we can give her, a gift we wish desperately for our loved ones, a gift we all want, finally: to be remembered.
Watch newsreel footage of the Hartford Circus Fire investigation here.
With thanks to The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy. This story about the Hartford Circus Fire was updated in 2019.