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The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy

3.93  ·  Rating Details ·  1,709 Ratings  ·  202 Reviews
The acclaimed author of A Prayer for the Dying brings 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
Paperback, 384 pages
Published June 12th 2001 by Anchor (first published June 20th 2000)
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Non-fiction Disaster Books
10th out of 117 books — 168 voters
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Community Reviews

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Sep 05, 2016 Connie rated it really liked it
The circus tent had been waterproofed with six thousand gallons of white gasoline and eighteen thousand pounds of paraffin--a disaster waiting to happen. The circus played to an afternoon crowd of 7,000 people in Hartford, Connecticut. It was July 6, 1944, and the circus and the city workers were both shorthanded since so many men were away fighting in the war. The largest exits were blocked by animal chutes where the lions and other big cats were exiting. A small fire of unknown origin quickly ...more
May 27, 2016 ☕Laura rated it it was amazing
This book was so well-done in every way. It was thorough without being tedious and affecting without being melodramatic. There is an abundance of interesting information in here, from the details of the tragedy itself to background material on the workings of the circus and the treatment of burns. Through vivid descriptions of the mayhem that occurred under the big top in July 1944, of unimaginable injuries and deaths, of parents who lost children and of children who lost parents, the events of ...more
Tamora Pierce
Aug 04, 2013 Tamora Pierce rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, adult
This is the absolutely harrowing story of a major American fire, one that took place in Hartford, Connecticut in 1944, in the big top of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. 8,000 people were trapped inside; 167 people died of burns, and many, many more suffered scarring and injuries, physical and psychological. It was the beginning of the end of the tent circus, which was finished off by the arrival of television.

Author O'Nan conducts an exhaustive investigation into the lives of th
Oct 21, 2013 Chrissie rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I have listened to almost four hours (total 11 hours 17 minutes) of Dick Hill's narration of this audiobook. It is unbelievably gruesome. Four hours focused upon the description of maimed, burned and dead bodies, human bodies. Not one circus animal was killed. Now I have had it. That's enough. It is more than I can bear.

The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy is written and narrated to shock. Others warn in their reviews that it is gruesome, but there ought to be another word to ad
Growing up in Connecticut I have been interested in the Hartford Circus Fire since I first found out about it. It was surprising to be that at the time I had first learned of this disaster there were no books published that were just about this incident. Stewart O’Nan, a well known novelist, took on the grueling task of writing this non-fiction account of the historic circus disaster and hit it out of the park!

The first thing that really catches the eye of the reader in this book is the forward
Apr 26, 2016 Matt rated it it was amazing
On July 6, 1944 - one month after the Allies landed in Normandy - some 9,000 people turned out to watch the Flying Wallendas in the Big Top of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The Big Top had been waterproofed with 24,000 gallons of white gasoline and paraffin. Somehow, a fire started, and the potently flammable tent went up like a Roman candle. There was a rush to escape. Merle Evans, the band leader, like some latter day Wallace Hartley on the Titanic, cued Stars and Strip ...more
Dec 03, 2011 Chaybyrd rated it it was ok
Bottom Line: A grueling bore about a tragic event.
The biggest flaw with O'Nan's telling of the Hartford circus fire is how he tells the story. As other reviewer's have stated the book is super choppy - to such an extent that it becomes unreadable. He jumps from event to event in such a way that it's impossible to follow the survivor's incredible stories. Terms and events are left unexplained and characters are thrown in without creating the proper context.

The silver lining: I hear O'Nan is a go
Mauoijenn ~ *Mouthy Jenn* ~
This book sure is NOT scarce with gory details. Interesting read about how the circus worked back in the day and how things came about that fateful day.
Mari Anne
Aug 25, 2009 Mari Anne rated it it was ok
This true life event was amazing and horrific but unfortunately the author's retelling of events is much less interesting. O'Nan account is choppy and jumps around in time and place to the point of making the reader feel dizzy. He has packed his narrative with so many names and references that it's impossible to keep track of anyone and therefore the reader isn't able to relate to any of them.

I ended up skimming most of this book. I wouldn't recommend to anyone but hardcore disaster book or circ
Jun 23, 2009 Sarah rated it really liked it
For some reason I'm fascinated by old circuses; I think a combination of my fascination with freaks and transients/my undying love for tatty retro glamour of all kinds/too many episodes of Circus of the Stars watched as a kid. I found the book's ridiculously macabre subject matter totally compelling and couldn't-put-it-down-even-though-I-probably-should-because-I-might-have-nightmares-because-I'm-a-wimp readable. I'm a fan of Stewart O'Nan's fiction, and was a little surprised by how totally str ...more
Jan 08, 2008 Susan rated it it was amazing
My friend who owns my favorite bookshop kept telling me about this book. I wasn't all that interested. Then last Saturday, he put a copy in my hands and ordered me to read it so I did. On July 6, 1944, several thousand people attended the afternoon show of the Ringling Bros. And Barnum and Baily Circus under the big tent. Just as the show started, the tent caught on fire. The result was death and mayhem. This books chronicles the people involved. Those with the circus and those who were injured ...more
Jan 11, 2008 Kitty rated it really liked it
I originally read this book as part of a book club that I never showed up for. It took me forever to read this book due to a class and other distractions, last winter. However, it heald my attention. It is a difficult subject matter. It was one of the worst domestic losses of life in the history of nation. The horrible thing was the amount of children that died. I actually know a woman, who is a former Lt. Gov. of our fair state, who was a six year old girl and survived this fire. A young circus ...more
Aug 27, 2010 Eric_W rated it really liked it
Although the circus industry had not been immune to fires — one in Cleveland had killed several animals — the largest of the shows, P. T. Barnum, could brag that no one had lost a life because of a fire. There had been several close calls, however. Another fire had burned the big top, the canvas catching fire from sparks of a fire down the road. The canvas was covered with a mixture of 6,000 gallons of white gasoline and 18,000 pounds of paraffin to make it waterproof. Unfortunately, that also m ...more
First off, I started reading this book and I didn't have a real reason why. I love the circus, but I knew exactly what I was getting into here: a really depressing nonfiction with a lot of unsolved history and more questions than answers. As I was finishing it today, I happened to read the date of the fire for the ten millionth time... and realized that the anniversary of that fire is today. Just a creepy little bit of synchronicity to bring everything around full circle.

Anyway, this book was de
Charlie Newfell
Nov 06, 2015 Charlie Newfell rated it it was amazing
Excellent account of the biggest tragedy in the state of Connecticut. Impressive, heartfelt account with many survivors adding lots of details. The fire raged over the big-top -- in the days (1944) when circuses travelled city to city via train and set up their own huge canvas tent. Somewhere between 9,000 and 10,000 were there for the matinee show, with the fire completely sweeping over the arena in a matter of minutes. First responders arrived within 10 minutes, but there was nothing left. It ...more
Jan 20, 2015 Jeanette rated it liked it
This is a telling in minutia of the Hartford 1944 Circus disaster. It's pure non-fiction, with no connective relief for the 8000 or 9000 stories of the individuals that experienced this horrific day. For the 167 fatalities there are gruesome and beyond tragic renderings. It's instructive for the reality of results for flashing high heat for human bodies and stadium structures. So many tragedies have occurred with vast death in crowds but few have had such impact for non-recognition of human rema ...more
Dec 18, 2009 Pam rated it it was amazing
Okay, maybe it's morbid, but I love reading about disasters -- fires, floods, earthquakes, plagues, etc. This book has gory detail but O'Nan doesn't wallow in it -- he doesn't sensationalize. There's a lot of interesting information about the circus itself, how it travels, how things work, and also some interesting stuff about how people behave in a crisis, how we can be tripped up by habit and expectation. Example: People tried to get out of the tent the same way they went in, even though other ...more
May 25, 2013 Florence rated it really liked it
I used to be a dedicated circus fan going to see performances of The Greatest Show on Earth as well as following "mud shows" under canvas. Gradually I began to realize that the life of a circus animal is dismal. Being confined to a cage for its whole life is certainly cruel to any animal, especially a wild one. This book starts off describing a circus menagerie fire in the 1940s in Cleveland. The details of death and suffering are too horrible to think about.

The narrative of the famous Hartfor
This is a really horrific story with details that the faint of heart won't want to read about but O'Nan does a terrible job of weaving together the many different stories of survivors and those who worked to sort out the chaos after the fire.

His style of writing is awkward unnatural and clumsy. He adds confusing tid-bits related to the story that seem to have no purpose but to further confuse the reader. There were a lot of people to keep track of and I found it difficult to do.

I almost felt lik
Nov 22, 2010 Graceann rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Waterproofing with paraffin and gasoline - what could go wrong? When Stewart O'Nan moved to the Hartford area, he heard about a devastating fire that had taken place in July 1944. It had killed 167 people; most of them women and children. He went to the library to get a book on the disaster, only to find that none had been written yet. He started collecting materials, with the object in mind of passing them along to a non-fiction writer, given that he had always written fiction and had no intent ...more
Bob Redmond
Jul 18, 2010 Bob Redmond rated it it was ok
Shelves: americana
If you want to know everything there is to know about the Hartford (CT) circus fire from 1944, read this book. It will numb your brain with all of the detail. There are no jokes, not that there should be--the tragedy took 167 lives and helped bring an end to the outdoor big tent circus, at least until Cirque du Soliel helped revive the tent spectacle in the late 20th century.

But O'Nan mentions cultural implications only in passing; his sole focus is total documentation of the fire and its specif
Jan 11, 2015 Booklunatic rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
4 Sterne

Grausam, aber packend. Warum liest man sowas nun? Ich habe halt ein Faible für Zirkus und für wahre Begebenheiten, auch dramatische. O'Nan hat gut recherchiert. Obwohl er recht nüchtern berichtet -oder vielleicht auch grade deswegen - , nimmt einen das Geschehen ungeheuer mit. Besonders das Schicksal von "Miss 1565" hat mich sehr berührt. An sie werde ich noch lange denken... Oh, und ich bin gottfroh, dass heute bei Großveranstaltungen bessere Brandschutzvorkehrungen getroffen werden.
Gerri Leen
Jan 04, 2011 Gerri Leen rated it liked it
Shelves: favorite-author
This was hard going and not because of the material--the details of the fire itself were mesmerizing and chilling; unfortunately, they didn't take up that much of the book. I expected to be more engaged: my uncle was a clown and while he was never in the circus, he had friends who were, so I was in the audience when they were in town. They weren't in the big top, but still I have fond memories of the circus (if not clowns--yes, they scare me). I think in some ways this book suffered by trying to ...more
Edward Lengel
Nov 24, 2009 Edward Lengel rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
At first glance, this is a decent if not overly impressive entry in the disaster genre. O'Nan's prose is surprisingly a little pedestrian considering that he's a novelist, and he has a little trouble juggling the characters in such a way that the reader can keep track of them. But it is a powerful story, told in unsparing detail.

Alas, there is a much bigger problem. O'Nan subtitles his book "A True Story," and he makes a number of contentious assertions about the origins of the fire, the identit
Pam Kennedy
Oct 20, 2015 Pam Kennedy rated it liked it
I was living in the Hartford area when I read this and had read other books by this author. I found the topic so compelling but the narrative disjointed and not very compelling. Still not a bad read and such a sad true story!
Aug 24, 2009 Marsha rated it it was amazing
This book is about a July 1944 fire under the big tent in Hartford, Connecticut, which resulted in the death and injuries of hundreds of people. Due to panic, people were trampled to death by other patrons running out of the tent to escape the fire. Others sustained horrible injuries from burns, and many died from the fire or from their injuries. The cause of the fire was never disclosed, but theories have it that it was started, most likely from a lit cigarette or match in the
men’s room. Despit
Nov 19, 2014 Michael rated it really liked it
This is a great book. Very tragic. I wanted to give it 4 and half stars. Sometimes tragedies are waiting to happen. This was a matter of many elements combining to create a hazard. It took one spark to set of a disastrous chain of events. Most likely the flick of a cigarette or match cost many their lives. This book is very well written and sticks to the story. I love a book that reads so well, so smoothly that you almost feel like you're watching it instead of reading it. This book accomplishes ...more
Kevin A.
Sep 06, 2014 Kevin A. rated it liked it
This book is O'Nan's account of the tragic fire that took down Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey's big top in Hartford in 1944, leaving 167 dead.

The author is a novelist, not a historian, so it's odd that while his research seems rock solid, the weak spot of the book is the storytelling. By sticking to a strict chronological format, he compromises the power of the individual stories of the survivors and the dead. This reader, anyway, was left unable to keep the stories of each family str
Jul 08, 2016 Diana rated it really liked it
I read this book years ago and I had a rough time doing it. He did so well describing the fire that I ended up with nightmares, my parents house caught fire and I was in a back bedroom when it happened, it brought back a few memories. It's a very sad and tragic event in American history and unfortunately quite a few people have no idea about it. If you like American history I highly suggest reading it, because it should be remembered like the more famous Triangle Shirt factory fire.
Jul 18, 2015 Kazen rated it really liked it
I've heard about the circus fire before, but always in passing - somewhere in the Northeast a big top burned mumblemumble so sad mumblemumble. Thanks to O'Nan we have the full story.

The first two-thirds of the book is harrowing, gripping reading. The narrative is pieced together artfully and while a lot of names are thrown around I didn't feel pressured to keep them perfectly straight. A fire is not a pretty way to die, and the effects of the heat and flames are not sugarcoated. As someone medic
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Stewart O'Nan is the author of eleven novels, including Snow Angels and A Prayer for the Dying, a story collection, and two works of nonfiction. His previous novel, Last Night at the Lobster, was a national bestseller, was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and was named one of the New York Public Library Books to Remember. Additionally, Granta named him one of the 20 Best Young Ameri ...more
More about Stewart O'Nan...

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“To be lost and forgotten-to be abandoned-is a shared and terrible fear, just as our fondest hope, as we grow older, is that we might leave some parts of us behind in the hearts of those we love and in that way live on.” 10 likes
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