Robert Segee remembered the day in 1944 the children burned in Hartford. The day black smoke rose over Connecticut and the smell of burning canvas mixed with human flesh. It was a day that had haunted the capital city and the circus for decades and had become inextricably linked with his own life. And on March 16, 1993, he knew why the detectives from Connecticut had come to his home in Columbus, Ohio.
“Christ sake I was only 13 years old back in ’44 and that was a hot goddamn day in July 6 of ’44,” he told Sgt. James Butterworth and Det. Bill Lewis, Connecticut state police fire investigators. “And nobody would believe me that I was downtown in Hartford watching the movie ‘Four Feathers’ when that damn circus burnt down.”
It was 1993, a year shy of the 50th anniversary of the Hartford circus fire, which left more than 160 dead, most of them women and children. Butterworth and Lewis had traveled from Connecticut to Segee’s home, where the former circus worker agreed to talk to them.
A few years after the fire, Segee had been arrested in connection with a series of arsons in Ohio and told authorities a demonic specter he called the “Red Man” appeared to him in dreams and commanded him to start fires. He said the “Red Man” appeared right before the Hartford circus fire. It sounded to most who heard it like a confession, but for decades there had been a question over whether it was coerced unintentionally: the confused words of a disturbed young man who had been abused as a child and was just telling authorities what he believed they wanted to hear. Segee recanted his statements within a few months and, despite the publicity surrounding him in 1950, had never been formally interviewed by Connecticut authorities.
Four decades later, Butterworth and Lewis were in the process of changing that.
“Now the only thing I got on my side is my word. So now if you guys don’t believe me I haven’t got a goddamn chance in hell,” Segee told them.
“OK,” Lewis responded. “What we’re here for today is the truth about the Hartford circus fire according to the knowledge that you have.”
Segee, who was a teenager working in the lighting department for the circus at the time of the fire, repeated that he didn’t have to work the matinee that day and had seen The Four Feathers in downtown Hartford. But there was a problem with his account. The movie came out in 1939 and was not playing in any theaters in Hartford in July 1944.
July 6 marks the 75th anniversary of the Hartford circus tragedy, which has long cast a shadow over Connecticut and circus history. Despite all that has been written and said about it, so much about what actually happened remains a mystery. We know the fire started during a performance by The Flying Wallendas, a legendary high-wire circus family act recruited to the show from Europe; that as flames were first spotted, the circus band began playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” known as “The Disaster March” in the circus world and a signal to all personnel that something had gone terribly wrong; that safety precautions broke down; that hundreds were injured and there were blocked exits and parts of the tent canvas had been waterproofed with a tragically flammable mix of paraffin wax and gasoline. As the big top burned, some people died from smoke inhalation, others were burned, and some were trampled in the dash for the exits. But so much else about what happened that day is the subject of fierce debate among a small but passionate group of historians, circus enthusiasts, journalists, investigators and armchair sleuths who study the fire the way others analyze the Kennedy assassination.
The death toll from the fire is usually listed as 168, but author Stewart O’Nan questioned that number in his book The Circus Fire, arguing that a bag of various body parts was incorrectly counted as an additional person. But even 167 fatalities is only half-accurate, says Michael Skidgell, author of The Hartford Circus Fire, because insurance payments were made to the families of several other people who died later from injuries obtained or exacerbated during the fire.
A number of remains were not identified after the fire and there is intense disagreement over their identities. This spring, Connecticut’s chief state medical examiner, James Gill, requested permission from a judge to exhume two unidentified female victims of the circus fire in the hopes of positively identifying more victims, including Vermont woman Grace Fifield, who went to the circus the day of the fire and was never seen again.
Still, the big question lingers. The question that has remained frustratingly unanswered for 75 years. How did the fire start?
Over the past few months, I’ve searched for the answer to this question, trying to understand why some believe it was an accident and others are certain it was arson. Through a Facebook group ran by Skidgell dedicated to the circus fire, I connected with several survivors and met with one of them. I talked with Butterworth and Lewis, and listened and relistened to their 1993 interviews with Segee, hoping for some new insight. In a Wethersfield diner, I heard charges of a conspiracy and cover-up by the state. Skidgell led me to a largely overlooked piece of testimony from the 1940s that might or might not confirm some aspects of Segee’s apparent confession. I studied this testimony and pages and pages of other old documents. Like others before me I was caught in the strange disaster march of this story, seeking answers in the ashes.
On the second day of interviews, Butterworth and Lewis brought up the film The Four Feathers. But before they mentioned it wasn’t playing in Hartford, Segee started to backtrack.
“Now I’m not sure that was a picture that played but you know in every movie theater in that day they had newsreels, too,” he said. Maybe he hadn’t seen the actual movie but just a preview, he said.
The investigators didn’t know what to make of this. Even if he hadn’t seen The Four Feathers, it didn’t mean he had committed arson. So many years later, maybe he was confused about which movie he was at.
And they didn’t know what to make of Segee in general. Though they couldn’t find any links of direct Native American heritage in his personal history, Segee identified as Indian and said he was a shaman prone to visions. During the interview, he wore his hair in braids. He was happy, even eager to talk with them, but much of what he said didn’t make sense. He talked of feeling close to death and seeing omens of his demise. He talked of spirit guides and visions of the past, future and other realities. He talked of not being paid by the circus and of being afraid of the men he worked with, roustabouts like himself who he knew only by nicknames like Sparky and Sharky and Butch. He said he was only 13 at the time of the fire but in reality he was 15.
Recently Butterworth tells me that generally “you determine during the course of the interview if somebody is being truthful,” based on their behavior. But that didn’t work with Segee. The “normal tells” you would look for didn’t exist with him. “He was difficult to interview,” Lewis says.
Segee told them he had been a shaman since his childhood and frequently had visions as he traveled between the “white” man and “red” or “Indian” realities. In response to one question about his recollections, he reminded the police officers that what he recalled about one minor point might not have happened “in this reality.” Instead, it might have occurred in “another reality because I am an American Indian shaman. And I pass between the two realities like openin’ a door.”
Segee wouldn’t have been interviewed in 1993 if it hadn’t been for Rick Davey. A Hartford firefighter and arson investigator, Davey began to study the case in the 1980s. He was inspired to investigate it after being assigned to speak before a local class of junior high school students who had researched the fire. He found himself woefully unprepared to talk about the case. “I offered what little I knew, but they proved most of my information wrong,” he says via text message. (Davey now lives out of state and declined a phone interview.) “I vowed to learn all I could about the tragedy from that day on.”
Davey began to research old archives with documents pertaining to the fire and to peel back the layers of time between him and the tragedy. What he found astounded him.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus arrived in Hartford on July 5, 1944. The capital city, like the country as a whole, had its attention focused overseas where World War II was in full progress and the Allies had launched the D-Day invasion the previous month. The circus was in town for two days and had four performances scheduled. It promised escape from the grim realities of the time. One poster advertising the Hartford shows had the circus’ famous tagline, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Another advertised a new dance segment featuring the world famous “clown with the sad face,” Emmett Kelly, and sequined dancing girls.
But even the circus felt the war pinch. It was short-staffed because so many were fighting overseas or needed for factories, and it had suffered delays all season. On July 5 the circus arrived so late in Hartford that the matinee planned that day was canceled. Missing a show was considered bad luck to the circus performers and workers. About 8,000 people were at the next day’s ill-fated matinee on July 6; under normal circumstances some of these masses would have attended the circus the previous day.
In one of many strange twists of fate, Edward J. Hickey, the state police commissioner and state fire marshal, was at the circus with his nieces and nephews as the fire started. He and his family escaped unscathed, but he saw others burned and struggling to get out. On the circus grounds, he was able to help coordinate initial rescue efforts and the early stages of the investigation. As the wounded filed into Hartford’s hospitals, authorities began to talk with circus personnel, survivors and anyone else they could find who might know something. Circus employees were ordered to stay in Hartford and undercover state police officers were dispatched to eavesdrop at the Bond Hotel as circus workers drank.
Studying this history, Davey realized, as investigators at the time had, that there were significant safety issues with the setup of the circus. Before the start of the season, parts of the tent canvas had been waterproofed with a mixture that included gasoline, and there were temporary animal cage chutes blocking exits when the fire broke out. As he exited the tent, Hickey had even witnessed people being trapped by these obstructions. “I saw people trying to climb over the chute cages in the track on the north side, and when I left the tent, owing to the heat and fire settling there were people piled alongside of this chute cage, and these folks were flaming and burning, and shrieking and hollering,” he later recalled.
Two days after the fire, five men working for the circus were arrested and charged with manslaughter for various safety oversights. The following year, Hickey’s report concluded that the fire had been caused by a carelessly discarded lit cigarette that landed in grass (an assertion that would be shown to be unlikely decades later). The accused circus men pleaded no contest to the charge and four of them served time in Connecticut prisons. The circus agreed to shoulder the financial burden of the disaster and to pay almost $4 million (not adjusted for inflation) to the victims and their families. But lawyers for the circus disputed the cause of the fire from the beginning. In March 1945, the Ringling Bros. defense team filed a motion, writing that, “We feel very strongly that the fire was of incendiary origin and on trial we will have substantial evidence to support such a possibility.”
This appeal was not made public at the time, but circus folklore and rumor has long held that the circus fire was no accident.
As Davey studied the fire in the 1980s, he became captivated by the memory of “Little Miss 1565,” a young girl who died in the fire. Despite being left remarkably unscathed, she had never been identified beyond the number her body was assigned in the morgue. Davey vowed to learn her true identity and delved deeper into the history of the fire. As he read old newspaper accounts and witness testimony, he was shocked to learn someone had confessed to starting the blaze.
In April 1950, almost six years after the fire, in Williamsport, Ohio, there was a grain fire that appeared to authorities to have been deliberately set. A man named William Graham, who had previously confessed to starting a fire at a storage facility for an Ohio circus, was arrested in connection with it. Graham admitted to setting the fire, but while being questioned he told authorities that a friend he recently lived with, Robert Segee, had started several fires and worked with the Ringling Bros. Circus in the past. Graham led them to Segee’s family who confirmed Segee had been with Ringling Bros. at the time of the circus fire. The authorities then questioned Graham about a series of alley fires set in Circleville, and Graham implicated Segee in some of them. When authorities picked Segee up, in addition to the Circleville fires, he confessed, or nearly confessed, to setting fires in Maine and New Hampshire and to setting the Hartford circus fire.
According to Ohio authorities,
Segee stated that his starting of numerous fires was caused by his seeing a burning man, which he called the “Red Man.” The “Red Man” would tell him to start fires and that if he did not start fire he himself would be burned. The appearance of the “Red Man” was immediately prior to the Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus fire at Hartford. He stated that his first recollection of the [Hartford fire] was when he was awakened and came to himself, at which time he was at a tent where the horses were kept. The only thing he remembered prior thereto was the seeing of the “Red Man” and seeing a man strike a match to the tent where the tent had been soaked in oil to make it water proof and that the flames shot up to the big top. He stated that what he saw could actually have been he himself starting the fire. He also stated that after he was awakened he recalled helping to get people out of the tent.
In May 1950, Segee was driven around by Ohio authorities to sites in Circleville where he claimed to have set fires in barns and garages in 1947. He was charged with arson, attempted arson and malicious destruction of property. The 20-year-old pleaded guilty on all counts and was held for psychological evaluation. He later confessed to additional arsons and multiple murders. The first supposedly occurred when, at only 9, he claimed to have beaten a girl to death with a rock in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Segee said that in Portland, Maine, he strangled a man who caught him setting fire to warehouse docks, and in Cape Cottage, Maine, he strangled a boy on a beach, though he wasn’t sure if the boy died. The latest murder, Segee said, occurred the previous year in Japan, while he had served in the Army, after a native there had called him a derogatory name. He said he had been court-martialed for this murder.
An Ohio investigator was dispatched to New England, and with the help of local investigators and newspaper accounts, found a series of fires around the homes Segee had lived in, and discovered his family had been living in Portsmouth at the time of the girl’s murder and had lived near the location where she was murdered. There had also been a body found burned in a building near the Portland waterfront. But police in Cape Cottage had no record of a strangled boy, and Segee’s claim that he had been court-martialed for murdering the Japanese boy could not be verified. (Years later, Skidgell, the circus fire historian, would try to obtain Segee’s military records to verify or disprove the murder. Those records, along with many others, had, ironically, been lost in a fire.)
Investigators confirmed with circus officials that Segee was working at the circus at the time of the fire. News of Segee’s arrest and his possible connection to the Hartford fire made national headlines. But for reasons that remain unclear, Connecticut and Ohio authorities developed a contentious relationship and Connecticut investigators were never able to interview Segee.
Meanwhile, a psychologist who examined Segee in Ohio prepared a report on him. He said his father would burn his fingers with cigarettes when he was a child. Segee also said he had started fires at the circus in Portland and Providence, Rhode Island, the two stops the circus made before Hartford. There were indeed eyewitness accounts of small, insignificant fires in both locations, but these types of small fires were so common at the circus that there were employees tasked with putting them out. One employee said there were “two to three” fires like the Providence fire a week.
Segee’s sister recalled him setting two fires as a child, and his mother talked about how mean his father and the other kids, including his brothers and sisters, were to him and how he was sensitive and had such bad dreams that he hated going to sleep.
Psychologists had Segee draw pictures inspired by his dreams. Many were filled with flames. But he offered few specifics about his crimes, and his stories frequently changed and had details that did not seem believable. One psychologist examining him believed he had done the things he said he did, but noted “he is often confused and sometimes his accounts of the same incident may vary but the variation is unintentional.”
Asked how he started the circus fire, Segee said, “I could have set it any number of ways. They had the tents covered with gasoline and oil to keep the rain off. Even the slightest bit of fire would take hold of it very quickly. I don’t know why I set it.” He added that he couldn’t remember how he had set it.
Lewis and Butterworth showed Segee a crude picture he had drawn while being psychologically evaulatued in the 1950s. It showed the head of someone whose body had been engulfed by flames.
Lewis: Okay. Then we have ‘8CR.’ It has a picture of a face, ah, looks like fire.
Segee: Does it look like fire to you?
Lewis: It sure does. What does it look like to you?
Segee: Somethin’ that might have happened back in 1792 or ’93.
Lewis: OK. What do you think is [interrupted]
Segee: When the Indians were fighting the white men so the white men wouldn’t take their land.
Lewis: OK. What do you think this means?
Segee: Just what I told you.
Carla (Robert Segee’s daughter): You see, my father has many spirit guides and many animal totems that help guide his spirit life. This is part of the Native American culture. One of these spirit guides is called Death Wind. Death Wind was in a battle in the late 1700s with the white man and even though the Indians had won that battle, the surviving white men set fire to the plains around him, and he and his horse perished in that fire. Ah, and that may be one explanation, you know, of the drawing.
Segee: A lot of these things, if you ask me for explanations, you have to try to understand that we’re talking about two sets of realities, two separate minds, an’ somethin’ like that, which in ordinary terms and that has nothin’ to do with each other because they happened, even hundreds of years apart.
As the investigation in 1950 wore on, Connecticut authorities still couldn’t get close to Segee. Hickey criticized the way Ohio was handling the situation in a press release, and Ohio authorities criticized Connecticut’s lack of collaboration. Combing through documents in the 1980s, including transcripts of Hickey’s telephone conversations, Davey thought Hickey’s actions were defensive. To Davey, Hickey seemed motivated to protect the conclusions of the original investigation, to justify the arrest of several Ringling Bros. employees rather than finding the truth.
Seventy-five years ago, 11-year-old Arlene Hauschulz went to the circus in Hartford. It was …
In particular, Davey was struck by the wording of the psychologist’s report about Segee in which the mental health expert wrote that Segee had been questioned by “Eastern authorities regarding crimes he admitted committing in their cities, especially the circus fires,” and Segee later told the psychologist that “these officials confused him with threats to take him back East if he admitted these fires.”
Davey came to believe Hickey had engaged in an active cover-up to silence Segee. “The state of Connecticut could have acted to bring all facts to light — whatever they were, wherever they led — in 1950. Their decision to conceal and deny did not serve the public, or the truth,” he tells me.
Don Massey, who co-authored Davey’s book about the investigation, A Matter of Degree, also reiterates this sentiment to me and says the state was never motivated to solve the crime. While researching the book, Massey spoke with Guy Cline, a former Ohio prosecutor who worked on the Segee case. Cline told Massey that “officials in Connecticut reacted badly” to news of Segee’s arrest.
But since Hickey was at the circus during the fire with his family, a cover-up would mean he was willing to not pursue a man who had murdered more than 160 people and had almost killed him and his nieces and nephews.
Regardless of his motives, viewed today, Hickey’s efforts in response to Segee’s confession seem lacking. O’Nan, the author of Circus Fire, is skeptical of the case against Segee in his book but can’t help but question the way the investigation was conducted. He notes that Hickey “never checked exactly what job Segee did with the spotlights,” and left no record of investigating other members of the lighting department from Portland. Before long, Segee’s story began to change.
“I actually believe I done ’em, but now I doubt whether I done half the stuff. Things I was certain of before, I’m not so certain of anymore,” he told a Hartford Courant reporter months after his initial statements. “My life has been full of bad thoughts, bad breaks and bad dreams,” he said. “When you got a bunch of brothers who call you dopey all your life, you’d understand a little bit. Actually, I never had a happy day in my life.”
Segee was convicted on the original Ohio charges and spent several years in prison. But he was never charged in the circus fire, nor for any of the other crimes he had confessed to.
After a nine-year investigation, in 1991 Davey presented his findings to the state and shared them with a Hartford Courant reporter. Based on Davey’s research about Little Miss 1565, Connecticut medical examiner Dr. H. Wayne Carver II and his deputy chief identified her as Eleanor Cook later that year, though some circus researchers still question that identification. State fire investigators, led by Lewis and Butterworth, were also assigned to examine the historic case.
During the two-year re-examination of the circus fire, Dr. Henry Lee of the State Police Forensic Science Laboratory performed burn tests that confirmed Davey’s assertion based on past tests that a lit cigarette on grass alone couldn’t have started a fire on a day as humid as the day of the circus fire. However, Lewis and Butterworth noted that in a circus environment there could have been trash or other items on the floor that a discarded cigarette could have ignited.
The state police learned where Segee, now in his 60s, was living and in March 1993 Lewis and Butterworth went to Ohio to meet with him. After interviewing him for two days they were unable to learn more about the fire’s origin. Ultimately they changed the official cause of the fire from “accidental” to “undetermined” and closed the case.
Butterworth says the word “undetermined” sums up their examination. “We don’t know. That’s the whole thing. Our standard of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal forum and we did not have that.”
The case may have been closed as far as the state was concerned, but people continued to study the fire. Almost a decade later, a project manager and engineering manager at Steeltech Building Products in South Windsor named Michael Skidgell became fascinated with the fire. Over time he became one of the foremost experts on it, and came as close as anyone to discovering the truth about its cause.
Skidgell became interested in the fire one morning in 2001 while examining a box of belongings of his father, who had died a few months earlier. The box had a newspaper from the morning Skidgell’s father was born: July 8, 1944, two days after the fire. The newspapers were filled with stories about the disaster. As he read one story he realized that he had just taken his son to a playdate at a house where one fire victim had lived. This coincidence and the memory of his father drove him to learn more about the fire. He went to the state library’s archive and spent many Saturdays there, snapping photos for hours on end, creating a massive file on the tragedy with thousands of photos and documents.
He started a website and a Facebook group. He collected and shared survivor stories and other documents related to the fire, and ultimately wrote a book, The Hartford Circus Fire. As he learned more about the disaster and met survivors and their family members, he was moved by the stories of sorrow and loss, which in some cases had reverberated for generations in the communities in and around Hartford.
As he studied the work Davey had done on the fire, he found himself agreeing with others who felt the identification of Little Miss 1565 had not been accurate. He read the psychology report and other primary sources about Segee and initially thought his confession wasn’t credible. Then a few years ago while looking through the files he had digitized, he came across the testimony of Mrs. Martha “Mattye” Menard.
A member of the Red Cross Motor Corps, Menard arrived at Municipal Hospital a few hours after the fire at 4 p.m. She was near the front entrance when a man whom she would later identify as Harry Lakin came in. His behavior seemed suspicious enough to Menard that she reported it afterward. When he arrived at the hospital, Lakin was shaken and upset but didn’t appear to be seriously injured, though she thought he was drunk. She said “the upper part of his body was reddened, as though it was sunburned.” He asked her to come and hold his hand. “I thought I would humor him, so then he began to talk, and some of the things he said sounded peculiar.” He said he was an electrician with the circus who worked with the spotlights, and though she couldn’t remember verbatim what he said, it was something like “I’m not squealing,” and later “I never knew it would be like this,” and “I don’t know that I can take it.”
On its own it wasn’t much, but as he read the account, Skidgell began to connect the dots. “He hooked up with the circus in Portland, Maine, the same day that Segee hooked up with the circus,” Skidgell says. “He worked in the lights department; Segee worked in the lights department.”
Years before Segee’s confession in 1950, Lakin had sounded like a man who saw something bad happen just before the fire. Skidgell now believes that Lakin did indeed see something. One new theory Skidgell goes back and forth on is that Segee started the fire as a joke in front of Lakin and it got out of hand. There’s no evidence of this, but Lakin and Segee likely knew each other.
Lakin and Segee were not the only Portland sign-ons to the circus who acted strange.
Another man who joined in Portland, Roy Tuttle, disappeared from the circus after the fire. He was found admitted to the Maine General Hospital some days later and was treated for third-degree burns. Allegedly he had told people he knew how the fire started. When a Connecticut investigator found Tuttle in Maine after the fire, Tuttle said that when he heard the big top was on fire he tried to help people get out, but that he passed out near the animal chute. (Police in Portland told Connecticut authorities that Tuttle, a local vagrant, was subject to epileptic seizures.) After the fire, Tuttle said he woke up in an open lot and spent the night there. The next morning he decided to walk home, which took more than a week. When the pain from his burns got to be too much he’d sit in water wherever he could find it. The wounds become infected and he had to be hospitalized.
Connecticut authorities seemed to believe the story, which was surprising. As O’Nan notes, the investigator got “nothing out of Tuttle about how the fire started, just this vague, implausible story. Perhaps he felt Tuttle was harmless, or that it was pointless to dig further into his recollections. In any case, he took his statement and left.”
Three separate people who signed on to the circus during its Portland stop behaved after the fire in ways that independently raised suspicions. The more I looked at these three cases the more that taken together they seemed to suggest something had indeed been witnessed by each man, though just what was not clear.
As I read and reread Mrs. Menard’s statement about Lakin, one detail stood out. She had noted Lakin’s reddish skin, using the word “reddish” more than once. I thought it must have turned red as a result of a burn from the fire, but maybe it was a sunburn. Was Lakin the “red man” of Segee’s visions? Had he told Segee to set the fire or be quiet about it? It was possible that Segee and Lakin would have seen each other before and after the fire. Had his red-hued skin right before or even after the fire inspired Segee’s nightmare vision? Or had I stared into the flames so long that I was beginning to see things that weren’t there?
As Butterworth and Lewis’ 1993 interview with Segee went on they asked him questions about the fire from different angles, hoping to get him to share more. Butterworth asked Segee, “How would somebody do it? If they were going to do it?”
Segee: Well, they wouldn’t have to use matches or that as you well know [interrupted]
Carla (Robert Segee’s daughter): They could use a mirror.
Segee: They could use a mirror or [interrupted]
James Butterworth: Yup.
Segee: Or they could use a magnifying glass and plants from nature to start off a magnifying glass and start a grass fire that way and the grass fire could spread to canvas and so on and so forth. They could’ve done it that way. They coulda done it any number of ways.
This exchange stuck with Butterworth. “I was intrigued by that statement. I felt that it was kind of a very specific act. Bill [Lewis] didn’t feel the same way about it as I did because we’re both human beings with different ways of looking at things. When he made that statement to me I kind of suspected that that may have actually been how it was caused. But again I don’t have the physical evidence to corroborate that.”
Butterworth added he would have liked to have “had a shot at Segee” back in 1950.
Segee died in 1997, about four years after talking with Butterworth and Lewis. It was the only time he spoke on the record with Connecticut authorities. Before returning to Connecticut, Butterworth left his card with Segee’s daughter and told her to call him if her father ever had something he wanted to get off his chest before the end. That call never came.