A recent “Time’s Up” blog jogged Ladyjustice’s memory regarding missing children and the events of the tragically famous Hartford (CT) Circus Fire of 1944 and “Little Miss 1565,” who became the symbol of the most heartfelt fire related disasters in decades. Much has been written and speculated concerning the facts of this case…and the identity of the blonde haired little girl in the white dress.
Ladyjustice has a very special reason for caring about this event more than others….. She cares because her mother was ready to go to the circus that day in July 1944 along with nearly 7,000 others in attendance. Patricia _____, was 9 years old, just shy of her 10th birthday. She was really looking forward to the circus and enjoying its many offerings with her friends. She had permission to go and there was a plan in place. A family friend was supposed to drive Patricia and her friends to the circus, as her own mother had to work. However, fate intervened… Just as they were about to go, the driver who happened to be an obstetrician, learned that a patient’s baby was due and would not wait for any circus!
As LJ’s mother has related the story, that 9 year old was mad… and disappointed! For how could she have known what would happen? She could not, nor could anyone else on that scorching hot day. Just the thought of it brings tears to this writer’s eyes when she thinks that Patricia could have been severely injured or killed….. and Ladyjustice, her first born, would never have been born! The two books referenced include A Circus Fire, A True Story of an American Tragedy” by Stewart O’Nan and “A Matter of Degree: The Hartford Circus Fire and the Mystery of Little Miss 1565 by Don Massey and (Lt. Fire Investigator) Rick Davey. Each can be purchased at Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=The+Circus+Fire&x=13&y=22. Although each author has different facts and opinions, it is interesting to note that readers rate each book equally.
Ladyjustice finds the dogged pursuit by investigators of yesteryear just as intriguing as the other aspects of the tragedy. Prior to talking about the investigators, here are a few facts concerning the fire:
It occurred on July 6th, 1944 and lasted 10 minutes;
The waterproofing method used was to apply paraffin wax dissolved in gasoline which caused the tent to collapse in minutes;
The exact number of those who died has been reported as 167 to 169. However, given the transient nature of circus performers-“drifters” the total attendance was estimated from 6,789 to 7,000;
The fire was so hot that it had the effect of cremating bodies, thus leaving no evidence behind;
Edward Hickey, a political appointee with no investigative experience, ruled the fire to be attributed to “careless smoking.” In contrast, Lieutenant Davey proved that “it is virtually impossible to start a grassfire when the humidity is above 23. Humidity levels that day were measured at 42;
At least two exits were blocked by chutes that allowed the lions and leopards to pass in and out of the arena. Some people died as exits were blocked or asphyxiated under layers of people. Others leapt from bleachers or were trampled;
Arson was concluded as the real cause after Robert Segee, a roustabout with mental illness confessed in 1950 and then recanted;
The most controversial piece of history is the actual identity of Little Miss 1565. Stewart O’Nan believes that Eleanor Cook who was identified by her brother, was actually “body number 1503.” Although facial measurements and other identification markers lead to Davey’s conclusion about Little Miss 1565 being Eleanor, Stewart O’Nan disputes this claim based on different hair color, age, height and facial shape. O’Nan felt that “the most plausible explanation was that another family mistakenly identified Eleanor Cook as their own child with Eleanor being buried under the other child’s name.
Badge #33, Sergeants Barber and Lowe
Sargent Thomas Barber and Edward Lowe were the official police investigators who spent their days and nights photographing victims, taking fingerprints, footprints and obtaining dental records in order to identify victims.
Sargent Barber, who outlived Lowe, made of ritual of putting flowers on Little Miss’s grave three times a year for 32 years until Barber passed away. They also kept the photo of her in their wallets.
Lieutenant Davey worked 10 to 12 hours on regular fire cases and was on the verge of “cracking” the big case of 1944 on his own time by 1990. Early on, it all began when he gave a speech to a local high school group in 1981… and then he was hooked! He became the expert on the case. He was a perfectionist with a department conviction rate of 100%.
He thought it strange that a little girl who died of a stress fracture to her skull and one so pretty could not positively be identified in all these years. This case kept Davey awake at night… He arrived to work two hours early each day to work in secret. His search took him to the local library, TV studios searching for old film footage and newspaper accounts. He had migraine headaches and gulped aspirin like candy.
Davey worked feverously for 18 months by the end of 1983, with 30 theories to check out. By 1984, he was ready to pack it in as the information was like Swiss cheese. Suddenly an archivist at Hartford Hospital suggested Davey check the Connecticut State Library for missing information and sure enough…. 20 new boxes were located! He settled on Eleanor Cook with some evidence pointing to her… and other evidence not.
Davey photocopied 20,000 pages with his own money at 25 cents each during his pursuit. He learned of possible political reasons not to investigate a known arsonist…after $3.9 million in settlements had been paid out and six circus officials had already served time for involuntary manslaughter.
Writer Gary Smith’s account at http://gangry,com described Davey’s final actions on behalf of Little Miss 1565 in the following way:
“At midnight on the eve of Eleanor’s birthday, March 17, 1991, Davey went to her grave for the first time. He laid a black stuffed kitten on it, just like the one he learned she once had. He laid some flowers, and a card with a note.
“Our only gift is the thing you once had-your name! How we all wish it could have been possible to correct a more terrible wrong and bring you back. You may join other loved ones and members of your family. But you’ll never be forgotten. I’ll always love you.
If you are so sure, so confident, can it be so that Eleanor was the real Little Miss 1565? The dogged determination of three investigators in particular, wants to believe with all their hearts!
Donna R. Gore, M.A.