Cover image for The circus fire : a true story
The circus fire : a true story
O'Nan, Stewart, 1961-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Doubleday, 2000.
Physical Description:
xiii, 370 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
F104.H3 O5 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
F104.H3 O5 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
F104.H3 O5 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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The acclaimed author ofA Prayer for the Dyingbrings all his narrative gifts to bear on this gripping account of tragedy and heroism-the great Hartford circus fire of 1944. Halfway through a midsummer afternoon performance, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus's big top caught fire. The tent had been waterproofed with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline; in seconds it was burning out of control, and more than 8,000 people were trapped inside. 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 hero who tossed dozens of children to safety before being trampled to death. Brilliantly constructed and exceptionally moving,The Circus Fireis history at its most compelling. From the Trade Paperback edition.

Author Notes

Stewart O'Nan was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on February 4, 1961. He received a B. S. from Boston University in 1983 and received a M. F. A. in fiction from Cornell University in 1992. Before becoming a writer, he worked as a test engineer for Grumman Aerospace from 1984 to 1988.

He has written several novels including The Speed Queen, A Prayer for the Dying, Last Night at the Lobster, The Circus Fire, and Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season. In the Walled City won the 1993 Due Heinz Literature Prize; Snow Angels won the 1993 Pirates Alley William Faulkner Prize; and The Names of the Dead won the 1996 Oklahoma Book Award. Snow Angels was made into a feature film in 2007. In 1996, he was listed as one of Granta's best young American novelists.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Esteemed novelist O'Nan turns from fictionalizing history in A Prayer for the Dying [BKL Ja 1 & 15 99], a novel set in Wisconsin six years after the Civil War, to writing a nonfiction account of a terrible tragedy that left emotional scars on the community of Hartford, Connecticut. After becoming intrigued by the story of a circus fire that killed 167 people in Hartford in 1944--the biggest disaster in the history of the state--O'Nan was surprised to discover that no one had written a book about the incident. He set out to do the job himself, knowing that by doing so, he "would assume the obligation of telling hundreds of survivors' stories." On July 6, 1944, the big top of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus caught fire during an afternoon performance. Panic broke out as quickly as the fire, resulting in nightmarish carnage as people stampeded toward the exits and were trampled or burned alive. Body identification proved extremely difficult, and charges of involuntary manslaughter were brought against a group of circus employees, who were found guilty. The survivors were all damaged in their own way, and O'Nan fulfills his obligation by telling their stories fully and sympathetically. This poignant, gripping book is certain to generate interest in New England and beyond. --Brad Hooper

Publisher's Weekly Review

On July 6, 1944, the big top of the Ringling Bros. circus caught fire during an afternoon performance in Hartford, Conn., and quickly burned to the ground. One hundred and sixty-seven people were killedDmost of them women and childrenDand hundreds more wounded. When acclaimed novelist O'Nan (A Prayer for the Dying, etc.) moved to Hartford 50 years later, he discovered that the town was still haunted by the tragedy. His history of the event is lyrical, gruesome and heartbreaking. At the heart of the narrative is O'Nan's harrowing, minute-by-minute account of the actual burning, during which nearly 9,000 people scrambled to escape through just seven exits. One boy saved himself (and hundreds of others) by cutting a hole in the tent wall with his fishing knife. Another man literally threw children to safety before losing his footing and perishing in the blaze. Above them, the tent canvas, which had been waterproofed with gasoline andn paraffin, "rained down like napalm" on the necks and shoulders of the fleeing crowd. By the end, O'Nan reports, the heat was so intense that people died not from smoke inhalation, as in most fires, but by being cooked alive. O'Nan goes on to describe the bleak days after the disaster, when local families set about the morbid task of identifying loved ones, often possible only by using dental records. He also chronicles the four decades of detective work that led to the identification (in error, O'Nan believes) of a little girl whose body originally went unclaimed. This moving elegy does tribute both to the terrible tragedy and to O'Nan's talent as a writer. B&w photos. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Celebrated novelist O'Nan re-creates the 1944 burning of a circus tent in Hartford, CT, which killed 167 people. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

The circus was in town, and for Hartford, Connecticut area children, July 6, 1944, was their day to experience the delight of the Big Top. In anticipation, they gleefully streamed into the canvas palace. Shortly after the matinee performance began a small fire started, creeping up the sidewall, and in moments jumped to the paraffin-coated canvas roof and exploded. In pandemonium, adults and children fought for survival. Many escaped without injuries; others did not. Thousands were injured, and 167 lost their lives. Among the dead was an unclaimed young girl who was buried as Miss 1565. It is 57 years since this hellish fire, and it continues to be of interest. O'Nan has written a horrific account. In a chronological order, and using available resources including interviews, the author carries the reader to the 1990s when the most recent attempt to determine the fire's cause, and to identify Miss 1565, took place. This is more a compelling journalistic account than a scholarly work, and as such has a place in public library collections. Lacking notes, an index, and necessary appendixes, it is not a needed acquisition for most academic libraries. J. J. Fox Jr. emeritus, Salem State College

Table of Contents

Forewordp. xi
Cleveland, 1942p. 1
July 4, 1944p. 19
Principalsp. 24
July 5, 1944p. 25
July 6, 1944p. 37
Circus Dayp. 39
Showtimep. 48
The Point of Originp. 68
Our Boys in Uniformp. 73
Blue Skyp. 78
Animal Actsp. 82
The Bravest Girl I've Ever Seenp. 86
This Ain't No Time to Faint, Ladyp. 91
Don't Look Backp. 95
The Stars and Stripes Foreverp. 100
Ten More Bars!p. 105
Death by Firep. 109
Alive, Alive, Alivep. 114
Have You Seen Him?p. 119
Bringing Out the Deadp. 127
Triagep. 131
Unexpected Guestsp. 137
Extra, Extrap. 143
We Can't Reach You, Hartfordp. 147
A G.I. Partyp. 153
The Names of the Deadp. 160
Bad Facep. 174
Evidencep. 180
In the Evening, Sun Is Going Downp. 186
Go to Sleepp. 188
Bad Newsp. 195
Were You in Cleveland?p. 199
All Through the Nightp. 204
And on Till Morningp. 205
July 7, 1944p. 213
July 8, 1944p. 229
July 9, 1944p. 239
July 10, 1944p. 243
July 11-July 15, 1944p. 251
July 15-July 31, 1944p. 261
August-December, 1944p. 273
1945p. 289
1946-1950p. 303
1950p. 313
1950-1990p. 329
1990-1991p. 343
1991-1999p. 355
Acknowledgmentsp. 365