Seventy-two years ago today, in Hartford, Connecticut, someone photographed a clown carrying a bucket of water toward a fire. It’s a surreal image, haunting in the old black-and-white way. The clown is stepping through an arid landscape littered with what appear to be wooden crates, a lone railroad car, and the suggestion of bleachers. As clowns go, he’s the sad tramp kind, a pained grimace on his face. In front of him, to the left, someone is exiting the frame—a portion of a leg is visible—and the clown follows, gripping his bucket, exuding dread. He’s heading toward something unseen and tragic, something almost ghostly.
The Hartford Circus Fire occurred during a midafternoon Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus show on July 6, 1944. Some 167 people died; about 700 were injured. No one knows for sure how it started.
The show was twenty minutes in when the flames started near the entrance to the big top. The Great Wallendas were beginning a high-wire performance. The bandleader noticed the fire first and cued up “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” circus code for trouble. For waterproofing purposes, the tent’s canvas had been coated in paraffin and gasoline. The flames spread across the top quickly. There were about seven thousand people there, and panic followed: crowds surging toward small passageways, pieces of flaming canvas falling on people, horrific screams. Some broke ankles jumping from bleachers. There is a story of a woman who spent the rest of her life toting a pocketknife because a man pulled his out and cut a hole in the canvas to help people escape. The comedian Charles Nelson Reilly was thirteen and in attendance, and one story claims he avoided sitting in audiences for the rest of his life. The whole thing is said to have lasted fewer than ten minutes.
At some point, the sad tramp clown known as Weary Willie came running. He was the creation of Emmett Kelly, a cartoonist-turned-clown from Kansas who’d been performing in circuses for decades. By 1944, he’d been with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus for two years, and his Weary Willie character was cementing an iconic place in clown lore. Willie was forever down-and-out. He wore a dirty derby, threadbare attire, and had a frown painted on his unshaven face. In every performance, something good got away. Kelly once described the character this way: “Weary Willie is a melancholy little hobo who always gets the short end of the stick and never has any luck, but he never loses hope and keeps on trying.” For a generation who had lived through the Great Depression, this haplessness resonated. Willie became very famous. Loren MacIver painted his portrait. He met Churchill.
It’s not clear where Kelly was when the Hartford fire began. Stewart O’Nan’s book The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy puts him in his dressing room, drinking a beer, preparing to inhabit Weary Willie. Another version has him touching up his makeup; another has him just outside the big top, waiting for his cue to join the Wallendas’ show. Weary Willie would spread a handkerchief out to catch the performers if they fell from the high wires.
Wherever he was, once he heard the screams of “Fire!” Kelly is known to have acted quickly. Some say the bucket of water he picked up was the one he used to wash his makeup off after performances. Others say he picked it up and dipped it into a horse trough.
As Weary Willie made his way toward the big top through the hysteria, a circus attendee named Ralph Emerson snapped the famous photo of him in full stride. He’s gripping the heavy bucket in his right hand, and his left arm is raised up in a sort of balancing motion. As a result, the left side of his face is partly covered. You can sense his determination, though. Six years ago, on an Internet message board somewhere, one of his descendants wrote that when Kelly reached the raging fire he realized how futile a bucket of water was.
So Kelly pulled the canvas up and ushered children out. (With World War II raging, the majority of attendees were women and children.) Some escaped only to realize their loved ones hadn’t yet made it out, and tried to go back in. Kelly is quoted in numerous places as having screamed, “Keep moving! You can’t get back in there!” There was a young girl who emerged from the burning tent crying for her mother. Kelly sat her down and assured her that her mother would be along shortly. He never learned if the girl’s mother survived.
The official cause of the fire remains undetermined. Early investigators said a discarded cigarette was to blame. In 1950, a twenty-one-year-old from Ohio, a roustabout who’d been working the circus, claimed responsibility. He said a Native American riding a flaming horse came in a nightmare and told him to start the fire. He was never prosecuted for the fire but served time for another, unrelated incident. In 1994, he recanted his Hartford fire confession.
Because of the picture of Kelly, the day would come to be known as “the day the clown cried.” A persistent legend claims that from the summer of 1944 on, whenever Emmett Kelly appeared as Weary Willie, a small tear could be found on his left cheek. Emmett Kelly painted it on, the story goes, in honor of the Hartford victims. This is not true. But Kelly never shook the memory.
I learned of the Hartford Circus Fire only recently, when life landed me for a spell in Sedan, Kansas, a tiny place with no red light near the Oklahoma border. Kelly was born there, and one day I visited the Emmett Kelly Museum, housed in an old opera house downtown. It is a place of old circus posters, glass casings filled with Weary Willie dolls, and a few news clippings. Later, as I searched for more information on Kelly, I found Emerson’s photo. I know there are people who are scared of clowns; I’m indifferent to them. That image, though—the way Kelly’s character mirrors or even amplifies what must have been his true emotions—startles me. It’s like the fourth wall is being broken, only in reverse.
In the famous photograph Emerson took, there’s a second man whose identity, as far as I know, remains unclear. His back is to the camera. He has black hair and a white T-shirt. He’s standing still, gazing into the distance, frozen by the unfolding tragedy. He has met with resignation. Kelly was forty-five on the day of the fire, and would remain with the circus another decade-plus. He died of a heart attack in 1979, at the age of eighty, while taking his garbage out in Sarasota, Florida. He once said the Hartford Circus Fire was like a movie forever playing in his mind that he could not turn off.
Last week, I contacted Joey Kelly, one of his grandsons. “Because of the heartbreak,” he told me, “my grandfather rarely spoke of the fire to anyone other than family.”
William Browning is a reporter from Mississippi.