By Barbara Austen, Archivist, Connecticut Historical Society
CHS recently received the archive of Thomas Barber, a detective with the Hartford Police Department. In 1944, he was one of the men charged with identifying the bodies found in the Hartford Circus Fire that July. It always haunted him that no one identified or claimed a young girl; she was buried under a stone with only her identification number, 1565.
Barber honored the little girl by making sure fresh flowers were placed at her grave in Northwood Cemetery in Wilson, Connecticut, every Christmas, Memorial Day, and July 6, the anniversary of the fire. He continued that tradition until a few months before his death in November 1977.
Included in Barber’s archive are newspaper and magazine articles about the fire and about Barber’s devotion to the unnamed child, and letters from politicians, journalists, and regular people who were touched by his generosity and perseverance. On a more serious side, there are copies of lists of identified and unidentified bodies, medical examiners’ reports, a copy of some testimony from the case, and photographs of the fire, of the grave of Little Miss 1565, and of Thomas Barber at the grave site.
The tragedy of the Circus Fire and the state’s reaction is reminiscent of a more recent tragedy, the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Although we prefer to commemorate positive events, sometimes it is important to remember the negative ones to give us more perspective.
About the Author
Barbara Austen believes that managing the stuff of history makes it come alive. An 11 year employee of the Connecticut Historical Society who holds an M.A. and M.L.I.S with a certificate in archives, she is the organization’s Florence S. Marcy Crofut Archivist.
While Barbara’s area of expertise is colonial American history, even yesterday’s history fascinates her. Responsible for acquiring and making available manuscript materials that illustrate Connecticut’s history in the far and recent past, she also answers research queries, manages conservation activities and supports CHS exhibits.
Barbara still gets chills when she reads about an event that has national significance when it is written in a diary or in a letter. She believes these very personal documents put the historic events we learn about in school in context, humanize the participants and help us empathize with the challenges, successes, joys and sorrows they faced.
About the Connecticut Historical Society
Established in Hartford in 1825, the Connecticut Historical Society is the official state historical society of Connecticut and one of the oldest historical societies in the nation.
Located at 1 Elizabeth Street in Hartford, CHS houses a nonprofit museum, library, archive and education center that is open to the public. The CHS campus houses a research center containing over 3.5 million manuscripts, graphics, books, artifacts and other historical materials.
CHS programs and exhibits help Connecticut residents connect with each other, have conversations that shape our communities and make informed decisions based on our past and present.