The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy

The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy

Paperback(1 ANCHOR)

$15.38 $16.95 Save 9% Current price is $15.38, Original price is $16.95. You Save 9%.
View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Friday, November 15


The acclaimed author of Emily, Alone and Henry, Himself 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385496858
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/12/2001
Edition description: 1 ANCHOR
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 491,505
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.98(d)

About the Author

Stewart O'Nan is the author of fifteen previous novels, including West of SunsetThe OddsEmily AloneSongs for the Missing, Last Night at the LobsterA Prayer for the Dying, and Snow Angels. His 2007, novel Last Night at the Lobster, was a national bestseller and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He was born and raised in Pittsburgh, where he lives with his family.


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

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 27 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.
Anonymous 9 months ago
Excellent account
drebbles on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
On the afternoon of July 6, 1944, a fire broke out during a performance of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus in Hartford, Connecticut. The circus tent had been waterproofed with gasoline and paraffin and the fire spread quickly with 167 people (mostly women and children) ultimately dying and many others horribly burned. "The Circus fire" details the events leading up to the fire (although the worst, this was not the first fire to hit the circus), the fire itself and the ensuing panic, and the aftermath of the fire, up until 1999. There are accounts from victims of the fire, the firefighters, circus performers, and neighbors that helped out, as well as many pictures that show the horrible results of the fire. The book follows several survivors through their recovery and how they are doing years after the fire. "The Circus Fire" is a well-written and well-researched book. Stewart O'Nan is a gifted writer and his description of the fire and the frantic attempts of the circusgoers to escape are written so that the reader can picture what is happening as they read the book. In fact, he described it so well that I had to put the book aside at times because I was having nightmares about the fire. His description of the confusion after the fire as parents searched frantically for their missing children and how neighbors and strangers pitched in to help is equally moving (and unsettling at times as some neighbors actually charged a fee for the victims to use their phones). He mentions Little Miss 1565 who died in the fire and was never identified despite the fact that her face was barely burnt (O'Nan successfully debunks the theory that Little Miss 1565 was Eleanor Cook). Her story will haunt the reader as will the story of Raymond Erickson who was taken to a hospital and whose clothes were found there but his body was never located. Also moving is the story of how the survivors dealt with the aftermath of the fire; many had nightmares years after the fire. The only problem I had with the book is that it switched from person to person and it was often hard to keep track of who was who, especially when there were long gaps between their story. I wish there had been a list of victims at the back of the book or at least a list of the fate of the people specifically mentioned in the book. "The Circus Fire" is a moving account of a real life tragedy.
extrajoker on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
first line: "They played by the lake, their tops guyed out on the lot by Municipal Stadium."Even though I'm not terribly far from Hartford, I'd never heard of the 1944 circus fire until I stumbled across this book. The fire took place during a matinee show under a big-top canvas waterproofed with paraffin and gasoline, and stitched together with material that was also highly-flammable.O'Nan's account of the tragedy is really riveting, though often graphic and sad. For its wealth of detailed information, I'd recommend The Circus Fire to any persons (fiction writers, perhaps?) researching circus or disaster-relief history, the effects of extreme heat and fire on people and objects, or even human mob/crisis behavior.
nbsp on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
..someone said they heard the animals screaming inside the blazing circus tent...but there were no animals..
silenceiseverything on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was born and raised in Connecticut (and a big chunk of that happened to be in Hartford), but I didn't hear about the Hartford Circus Fire until about three years ago when I went to the Manchester Public Library for the first time and saw about 50 copies all around the library (In fact, there are 145 copies in that one branch alone). I was intrigued about what had happened, yet I didn't check out the book. Instead, I went to wikipedia (I know, I know...) to get a broad overview about what happened. That satisfied me at the time. Well, the Ringling Bros. circus showed up in Hartford a few months ago and that brought all my intrigue on the fire back, and now here we are. The Circus Fire is a heartbreaking book. It's heartbreaking that 167 people died and it's even more heartbreaking that a bit chunk of the deceased were children. Then, you have the fact that most of the people who died didn't die of smoke inhalation. Some of them were trampled to death, but most of them were burned to death. However, I think the most heartbreaking thing is that these deaths could have been prevented. This wasn't the first circus fire that the Ringling Bros. had experienced and other circuses were using some chemical to fireproof the big tops. Yet, the Ringling Bros. circus didn't do this citing that they couldn't get the materials because they didn't have military priority (which Stewart O'Nan just proves is crap). It's enough to make anyone angry. The most intriguing part of The Circus Fire were the mysteries that surrounded it. The cause of the circus fire, the true identity of Little Miss 1565, the identities of the other five victims who were never identified, these mysteries were never solved. O'Nan writes this story with chilling detail and painstaking honesty. It's hard to read about those people who pushed others out of the way so they could get to the exits first, but it is uplifting to hear about those who risked their lives to try to save the others who were still trapped inside. The Circus Fire is a heartbreaking book, but I commend Mr. O'Nan for knowing that it was a story that needed to be told without trying to exploit the survivors and their grief (the way another Circus Fire book did). This story is saddening, but not without hope. He brings the events that happened to life for those who weren't there to see or feel the effects of the fire. I urge everyone to pick up a copy of this great book.
tapestry100 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My family is from Sarasota, FL, where the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus had their winter quarters for many years. My great-grandmother on my mother's side used to watch some of the circus kids while their parents trained, and my mom had heard stories about this fire, and then when I was younger, I had heard the same stories. We had known Merle Evans, and he told us about that day.I had not known about this book until reading about it in a thread on LT, so I thought I would give it a try and learn a little bit more about that awful day. O'Nan presents what is clearly a well-researched, if not always well-written, history about that day, and the events that (may or may not have) led up to it, and the circumstances that followed. After O'Nan introduces each person, he continues to write about these people as if the reader is as familiar them as he is due to his researching them. If you can let go of trying to keep track of who is who (there is a huge number of people involved) and simply read the book and accept the facts as they are presented, you will have a better chance of getting something out of this book. I kept trying to keep straight in my head who was who, but after awhile I simply gave up on this and just read.Due to the nature of the tragedy, I don't know that it's possible for O'Nan to write this without some sense of sensationalizing the facts, but everything that he writes clearly gets across the horror of the day. The accompanying photographs help you visualize exactly what happened during the fire. The book itself suffers from some writing errors throughout, and these probably could have been fixed with a stronger editing, but they are not overly distracting. O'Nan clearly researched his facts, and while he tries to present some possible explanations to the cause of the fire and circumstances surrounding it, he doesn't try to present these as fact. He relies on the established facts that have been proven, and draws on these to present the story as best he can. This book won't be for everyone. It was a horrible day, and O'Nan doesn't try to sugar-coat the events or what happened to the victims of the fire. For those that are interested in learning more about the fire, however, this will prove to be an interesting read.
J.v.d.A. on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Interesting read, particularly that element of the tragedy about the unidentifed body of the young girl.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!