July 6, 2019 marks 75 years since the Hartford circus fire, one of the worst disasters in Connecticut’s history. One hundred and sixty-eight people, 71 under the age of 19, died when the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus’s big top caught fire in 1944. The blaze was aided by a strong wind and the paraffin wax dissolved in gasoline that was used to make the tent waterproof.
Since the fire, the Connecticut Historical Society has collected a variety of material to preserve the story of the tragedy. In our collection, we have photographs, books, and personal accounts. In 2017, we received a donation of four items related to the fire that tell eight-year-old Uriel Goldsmith’s story. Uriel came from New York City to Hartford to visit his aunt Senta, uncle Manfred, and cousin Louis. The collection consists of a circus ticket stub from July 6, 1944; two letters written by Uriel to his parents about going to the circus, one before and one after the fire; and a telegram from Uriel’s uncle to Uriel’s grandfather, Herman Goldschmidt, declaring that the two boys were unharmed.
Uriel’s letter detailing his experience in the fire is particularly poignant – he describes sliding down a pole from the stands after the fire started, and becoming separated from Louis. In the parlance of children, he says that a “big boy” asked him what was wrong, and Uriel told him he was lost. Shortly thereafter, Uriel and Louis were reunited. On the back of this letter, there are two annotations in German in an adult hand, presumably written by Uriel’s aunt or uncle to his mother and father.
Recently, the CHS was in contact with Uriel Goldsmith’s daughter, Monica Colvin, about her 2017 donation. She shared that her father, who has Alzheimers, never discussed the fire with her when she was growing up. However, inspired by the 75th anniversary, she asked him if he recalled anything about the fire. She was surprised when he told her that he did remember it and recounted that his cousin panicked and disappeared with the crowd, and how he climbed up and down a pole amid the chaos trying to figure out the fastest and safest way out. This recollection is validated by his letter where he writes about sliding down a pole and losing sight of his cousin Louis.
In commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the circus fire, the Connecticut Historical Society will have a display where these and other items will be shown beginning July 5.