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BIG TOP BURNING by Laura A. Woollett


The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and the Greatest Show On Earth

by Laura A. Woollett

Pub Date: June 1st, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-61373-114-7
Publisher: Chicago Review Press

In 1944, 167 people died in a circus fire in Hartford, Connecticut; 59 of them were children under 10.

Some were trampled when the audience of 6,000 tried to flee the tent; others died from burns. This chronological account vividly describes the circus, the fire, the rescue, and the medical care that followed. The polished text draws from interviews the author conducted as well as legal documents, newspapers, letters, and more. Black-and-white photographs of mixed quality add both information and a sense of the time. Much of the book focuses on mysteries surrounding the fire, such as its causes and unidentified bodies, puzzling them out from official reports from the time and subsequent investigations. Woven throughout is the story of a child’s unclaimed body, perhaps that of Eleanor Cook, a missing girl who wasn’t identified at the time. Details about the child’s clothes, her injuries from being trampled, and even a dental chart provide clues for readers to assess. It remains uncertain if the fire was caused by arson or if the body was Eleanor Cook’s, leaving readers with the realistic but possibly disappointing view that not all mysteries from the past can be solved.

History buffs and fans of forensic television shows will especially appreciate this exploration of one of the worst fires in American history.

(author’s note, notes, bibliography, index) (Nonfiction. 10-13)