June 21st, 2015 by Karen
Imagine it’s a warm summer day (maybe like today) and you’re going with your family to the circus. You get some snacks, enter the big tent, and take your seats in the stands. You watch in awe as a lion tamer cavorts with the ferocious beasts, and you hold your breath as acrobats glide effortlessly across the high wire. And then… someone yells, “FIRE!”
This is exactly what happened to 6,000 people in Connecticut on a balmy July day in 1944. They turned up to watch the famous Ringling Bros. circus, but by the end of the day 167 people would perish in the flames (59 of them were children under the age of 10).
It’s a true story — one that I’d never heard of before reading Big Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and The Greatest Show on Earth by Laura A. Woollett. But from the first page, I was drawn into this fascinating history.
The book gives you basic information about the tragic events of that day, but it also brings you into the world of the circus workers, audience members, and rescuers affected by the fire.
- Thirteen-year-old Donald Anderson, who helped hundreds of people escape with his quick thinking: He cut some ropes that fastened the tent to the ground and people were then able to climb underneath to safety.
- Eugene Badger and his father, who was on crutches: They got out by breaking through the wooden floor in the bleachers and then dropping through the hole down to the ground. Then they found a hole that had been cut in the tent wall and climbed outside.
- Circus performers May Kovar and Joseph Walsh: They successfully got every one of their animals out of the big top unharmed, then went back to help spectators get out safely too.
- Unidentified Body 1565: Buried without being claimed by anyone, this little girl may or may not have been Eleanor Cook, whose family was unable to confirm it in the days immediately following the fire.
The biggest mystery of all — how did the fire start — remains unsolved even to this day. But Big Top Burning won’t leave you hanging: The book explores the life and motivations of a possible arsonist, accused of setting fire to the tent on purpose. And even if there’s no definitive answer, one thing is for sure: You’ll find this true story easy to get into and really interesting to read.
Have you heard of this fire before? Leave a comment and let me know!
Review copy from the publisher.