Tragedies of the Circus…the South Carolina Connection

Tragedies of the Circus…the South Carolina Connection

In all likelihood most of us have attended a circus performance in our lifetime and watched in wonderment the skill of the trapeze artists, the fearless lion tamers, the animated clowns, the elephants’ compliance to the commands of their trainers. I am forever fascinated with the flawless orchestration of all of the acts and the coordination required to pull off each show. Few know that the life of circus entertainers and support personnel is filled with danger, hard work, long hours, and a commitment to the motto that “the show must go on.” Also, few people know of the long list of misfortunes and tragedies that have plagued circuses since the beginning of the very first circus to appear in America.

Circus FireUsually I write about stories that have taken place in the far distant past, but it came to me that there’s a piece of history that occurred forty years ago last December that may be of interest to our readers. The story centers around The Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus train fire that occurred around 5:30 A.M. on Tuesday, December 3, 1974, outside of Kingstree, S.C.

This incident is memorable for me because I had a role in the investigation of the fire which killed four of the show’s crew. Early in my career I worked as a Training Specialist with the Office of State Fire Marshal, and, although my primary responsibility was in the training arm of that agency, frequently I was assigned the duty of investigating the “origin, cause and circumstance” of large loss fires or those in which there were fatalities. Jesse C. Johnson served as the State Fire Marshal in those days and provided me the assignment to meet with railroad and local officials to gather the details of the fire.

My report to the Fire Marshal and to NFPA revealed that the fire gutted a “sleeper” coach located about midway of a 30 car train. The train was traveling south along Seaboard Coastline tracks at a speed nearing 60 mph. The circus had closed its final engagement for the season at New Haven, Connecticut, on December 1st. The train carried animals, performers, and equipment enroute to the circus winter quarters in Venice, Florida.

As the train passed through Kingstree, fire was detected by a number of the coach’s occupants. Nine of the thirteen occupants escaped to safety by existing through the north end of the coach. However, three of the victims died in their rooms, and a fourth victim died when she jumped from the coach. The body of the female who jumped from the flames was found near the tracks approximately one mile south of Kingstree. It was noted by the Coroner, Guy T. McIntosh, that the woman who jumped from the train also sustained burns on her arms and hands.

A number of witnesses said they saw the car “smoking” as it passed through several of the small communities about dawn. From all accounts the fire started near Lake City but went unnoticed until it was observed near Kingstree.

The engineer, once alerted to the fire, was finally able to stop the train about 15 miles south of Kingstree. Firefighters from Lane and Kingstree were unable to gain access to the burning coach due to the remote location. The engineer had to back the train about three miles to a point where firefighters and rescue personnel could position their engines to finally extinguish the flames and retrieve the bodies. According to the late Kingstree Assistant Fire Chief, George Hinnant, the fire department received a call from a railroad dispatcher around 6:45 A.M. requesting that they respond to the fire.

The fire broke out in an area near the front of the coach occupied by one of the circus employees. The coach was partitioned throughout into sleeping berths, or rooms. Each room contained a small bunk, lavatory, and space sufficient for a few personal belongings. It was noted that an electric hot plate was found among the remains near the origin of the fire.

Evidence reveals that the fire originated in the first room on the south end of the coach. As the fire intensified and spread, the windows began to break. A significant draft was created by the train’s nearly 60 mph speed and was further made worse when the female victim left the door to the coach in the open position before she jumped to her death.

Based on the evidence observed, I concluded (1) the fire started as a result of human carelessness or electrical malfunction of an appliance within the room of origin; and (2) the fire spread with great rapidity due to a combination of substantial fire loading and drafts created by the trains speed.

It wasn’t until a number of years later that it dawned on me that I was afforded the opportunity to be involved in a significant historical event in the life of the circus community. Only after doing some research did I discover some of the many tragedies that have beset this entertainment industry over the years. Written history of the circus in America, and there were many of these groups, reveal the idea of entertaining people in the “ring” had its beginning in the late 1700s when John Bill Ricketts first formed a horse show in Philadelphia. Sadly, in 1799, the amphitheaters of the Ricketts Equestrian Circus playing in Philadelphia was destroyed by fire with no loss of life, but, as a result of the fire, Mr. Ricketts went bankrupt.

A list of other fires which have plagued this industry is listed below:

(1868 in Bridgeport, Conn.)-Barnum & London Circus winter quarters burned…all animals died

(1900 in Bridgeport, Conn.)-Barnum & Bailey winter quarters damaged by fire

(1901 in Kansas City, Mo.)-Ringling Brothers’ Circus burned…no injuries or deaths

(1910 in Schenectady, N.Y.)-Barnum & Bailey Circus burned with over 15,000 people inside…everyone escaped unharmed

(1912 in Sterling, IL.)-Ringling Brothers’ Circus burned to the ground…no injuries or deaths

(1914 in Cleveland, OH.)-43 railway cars of Ringling Brothers’ Circus burned…no deaths of injuries

(1916 in Huntsville, AL.)-Ringling Brothers’ Circus stock tent burned…40 horses died & 40 others had to be destroyed

(1918 in Ivanhoe, IN.)-Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train wrecked…at least 85 circus workers died

(1924 in Bridgeport, Conn.)-another fire hit winter quarters of Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus…no injuries or deaths

(1923 in Gainsville, Ga.)-Miller Brothers Wild West Show lost 2 sleeping cars…no injuries or deaths

(1940 in Rochester, IN.)-winter quarters of Cole Brothers’ Circus burned…18 animals, including elephants, lions, zebras, etc. died

(1942 in Cleveland, OH.)-the menagerie tent of Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus burned killing 45 animals including camels, lions, elephants, etc.

(1944 in Hartford, Conn.)-the most horrific disaster to hit Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus destroyed the main tent and killed 163 people, mostly children

There have been other fires, wrecks, and windstorms that are too numerous to mention which have ravaged the circus world since those early beginnings. However, each event has only confirmed the allegiance of circus performers to the age old adage that “the show must go on.”


The Circus Report..”America’s Favorite Circus Weekly” (December 16, 1974)
“Important Fires of Circus History” by A. Morton Smith (1944)
The State (December 4, 1974)

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