On the 6th of June 2019 history was told in remembrance of the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the successful landings of Operation Overlord at the Battle of Normandy. But we are not done marking 75th anniversaries this year just yet. On the 6th of July 2019 we will again remember The Day the Clowns Cried! I’m going to let the late Charles Nelson Reilly tell his story the way that only Charles could; on stage, and in just 5 minutes!
To introduce my story today click on this link for his short video.
Didn't he do a great job?
I hope you liked it, and now have an image of what actually happened.
Charles Nelson Reilly was born January 13, 1931 in the South Bronx of New York City, New York. He was 13, and he was there that day. The day that will forever be remembered as The Day the Clowns Cried. As a child of the 70’s I use to watch Reilly in his acting role as the Mad Hatter in Lidsville as Horatio J. HooDoo. At the time I didn’t know the connection, just that I liked the tv show. What child of the 70’s didn’t?
|Charles Nelson Reilly remembers.|
The 70’s have many memories for me. The tragedy under the big top haunted my dreams at night as a young child. I often awoke from a nightmare and would tell my mom that we burned up in a circus fire and had to get out. She would tell me it was just a dream, night after night and to just go back to bed. Thinking back now, I probably had just over heard my aunt Dorothy talking about the circus fire in the summer of 1969. I would have been old enough to have “Big Ears” and be listening to the adults talk as I often did. As that summer would have been the 25th anniversary of that tragic day. Or was that all it was? As I grew older I always was curious as to who in our family had died in a circus fire. As we never talked about it. It wasn’t until I was 18 years old, working at Disneyland, when a friend and fellow Disneyland coworker and I went to have a reading my a physic. I had never done that before, but my friend really wanted to go. I sat there as the mysterious Madam turned over the tarot cards one by one on her table in front of me. As she made sounds of hmm and ah with the inflections of her sounds going up and down in her voice. I became more worried with the turn of each card. She then told me that I was going to die in a tragic fire! Then she stopped, and said NO! “You died in a tragic circus fire!” She said. This was my first introduction to what we all know today as past lives. Not sure I understood it all back then, nor do I today. I just always knew that someone close to me did not get out of a circus tent that was on fire. Though no longer a child. At 18 I still had the images and what I thought were memories running around in my mind.
Ivan Smith Bashaw was born May 26th, 1928 in Newport, Orleans Vermont. He would have been just two years older than Charles Nelson Reilly the day the two boys went to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Hartford Connecticut that hot and humid summer day, on July 6th 1944.
Thinking back, I have lost track of time now when I first discovered who Ivan and his mother Grace were in our family tree. It was probably late 2016 or early 2017. Working one day on Ancestry, the online website for genealogy as I always do. I was in my normal process, adding census records and other documents to my Smith family line. I was adding another cousin, Grace Dorothy Smith, but I could not find any death nor burial records for her. So, I turned to Google, and online newspapers and any other searches I could think of to research the death of Ivan’s mother; Grace Dorothy Smith.
|Grace Dorothy (Smith) Fifield|
Photo courtesy of The Connecticut State Library.
State Police investigation file # RG161
Grace was one of my 1st cousins 2x removed. Her grandfather was my 2x Great Grandfather. Luther Rominor Smith (1813-1902). Her father was Luther Rominor Smith Jr (1861-1927). Like most of our family, Grace was born in Saint-Armand, in Quebec Canada. She was born June 17, 1897, one hundred and twenty-two years ago! Like many Canadians of the day, and prior to my own grandparents immigrating to the United States. Grace also moved to the United States to become a U.S. citizen. On May 18, 1920 at the young age of twenty-two she crossed the Canadian border into the United States to become a permanent resident. Her occupation was listed as stenographer, and she was described as being 5’6” tall with a medium complexion, brown hair and brown eyes. On the documents it showed that she had $200 in cash, and that Harvey W. Smith of Philipsburg, Quebec, Canada was her nearest living relative. Harvey William Smith (1867-1948) was one of my 2nd great uncles. Brother to both Grace’s father Luther and to Nettie, my Great Grandmother.
Grace met and then married soon after Roy John Bashaw, on August 25, 1923 in Richford, Franklin, Vermont. Together they had three children:
Beverly Grace Bashaw, and twins: Barbara Joyce Bashaw, and her brother Ivan Smith Bashaw. Her husband Roy was a U.S. Customs agent and border patrol inspector on the Canadian / U.S. border. They lived at 77 Caswell Avenue in Derby Line. You may remember from a prior post I did. The Haskell Free Library is at 93 Caswell Ave. in Derby Line. Grace divorced Roy in 1931. But if you just happen to look at the 1940 U.S. Census he was still listing her as his wife. However, she had remarried and was living with her three children and her new husband; William Elisha Fifield in Newport. William and Grace married on Thursday, March 23, 1933 in Newport, Orleans, Vermont. It must have been difficult for the two men. As they worked together as U.S. border patrol agents.
|Beverly Grace (Bashaw) Darby|
|William Elisha Fifield|
In the early 1940’s the nation was at war. Food and gasoline were being rationed. And while the men were away, the women were working more than ever before. Grace was now 47 years old, and her second husband William Fifield was 63. Thankfully Ivan was too young for the war. He was a young teenager at just 15 years of age. It is unknown to me where his older sister and also his twin sister were that day. Or even if all of them made the four hour 250 mile drive sometime earlier to Wethersfield CT. But on that day Ivan and his mother Grace set off from Wethersfield Connecticut where they were visiting family; to spend a day at the largest circus on earth when it came to town in Hartford. A much needed escape for many families on that day. When the circus came to the town of Hartford Connecticut so did approximately 9,000 spectators. Mainly women and children. The train was late, and the circus did not perform the first two planned shows on Wednesday. So the tent was at full capacity by 2:00pm Thursday afternoon.
The story of the 1944 Circus Fire has been told time and again. Over and over for the past 75 years, by the survivors, their families and by the people and residence of Hartford. While I knew my version of the story. From the nightly dreams and nightmares as a young boy. It was not until reading the newspaper headline stories during my research when it all really became clear to me of the tragedy of that summer day. I met and corresponded online and through email with Michael Skidgell. In 2014 he authored the book:
He had been doing research for years to write his book, and even he had no answers as to what happened to my cousin Grace Dorothy Fifield. Of course I purchased his book, and read it cover to cover. The personal stories, images and accounts were often just too much. But what happened to Grace? I was lucky to find a photograph of Grace in his book, on page 82. The image gave me chills; and Michael wrote a brief paragraph as a biography for Grace. “Grace was five feet, four inches tall, 145 pounds, she had dark blond hair and was believed to be wearing a brown-and-white flower print summer dress, white shoes, no hat or jewelry and according to the missing person accounts had a black handbag with about $40 in cash.” Michael Skidgell had used many sources in his research for his book. Often times pulling from the actual accounts found documented in the newspaper, “The Hartford Courant.”
After the fire family, friends and reporters came from far and wide to join the victims who survived. Grace’s husband William came down from Vermont to visit the makeshift morgue at the Hartford Armory to help identify his wife’s body. But she was not found. Michael writes in his book, “William thought that his wife may have possibly got struck on the head by one of the falling tent poles and had amnesia.” Possibly taking a train to Canada lost and confused, as their son Ivan reported that his mother left the tent exit ahead of him in the rush and confusion they got separated.
William went on to marry a third time in his life. In 1948 he married Ethel Badger. William died in 1953 at the age of 73. Never to have seen again his wife who he lovingly called Dorothy. Beverly & Barbara, Ivan’s two sisters also went on with their lives. Both getting married, and raising their own families. The mystery continued year after year, never actually knowing what happened to their wife and mother. But some of the victims of the fire had no next of kin at all. Which brings us current with today.
Today I read in the Hartford Courant online edition that Sandra Sumrow has been working with local officials to put this case to final rest once and for all. I won’t give out more information than has not already appeared in the news for respect of privacy for our cousin. But Sandra is the grand-daughter of Grace Fifield. Sandra’s mother was Beverly Grace Bashaw.
Sandra is married to Joe Sumrow and has a family of her own in North Carolina. Obviously, like myself, our cousin Sandra had never met her grandmother. She just grew up knowing the story which is very close to her family. She tells the Hartford Courant that it has been an unsettling family mystery for 75 years. Last Monday when Sandra gave an interview with reporters, she said, “she doesn’t understand the delay” and that “she had hoped to learn if her grandmother was one of the unidentified bodies before this years anniversary marks 75 years!”
|Beverly Grace Darby (Bashaw)|
Michael Skidgell, and his book THE HARTFORD CIRCUS FIRE might possibly be credited with bringing this entire story fresh again so that no one forgets. If it weren’t for all his research and visits to the Hartford Courant the newspaper might never have inquired if the bodies could be exhumed. There are two female bodies left unidentified for the past 75 years. Known only by their case file numbers 2109 and 4512. The final figure is that 168 people lost their lives under the big top that day. However five victims are still buried at the Northwood Cemetery with just a brick with four numbers pressed into it to mark the end of their lives.
Back in April of this year, Connecticut State Chief Medical Examiner James Gill had submitted the request to the Hartford State’s attorney Gail Hardy seeking a court order to exhume the body parts of the unidentified two female victims. One of them probably being our cousin Grace Dorothy Fifield. James Gill intends to use DNA and compare it with the DNA of Sandra Sumrow to hopefully identify her remains. I am no expert on DNA. What I have read and learned over the years is that DNA is actually very fragile. The likelihood of finding anything from burned and decomposing 75 year old remains is probably less than one percent. Not to mention the cost. What was classified as the last victim, 168 was actually a mismatched collection of burned body parts which were collected from various locations of the fire scene. Dr. Weissenborn described each part as he included it in the board of healths report back on July 10, 1944. It is too gruesome to describe here. But if it sells newspapers, let's do it! What are your thoughts? There was no such thing as DNA testing in 1944, and probably many families miss identified remains as their loved one. What remained of Grace may just be buried under a headstone with some other victims name.
Things may have been moving too fast. Judge Susan Cobb on Monday, June 17th, 2019 ordered that a public service announcement be placed in the Hartford Courant and one also in other media outlets to notify the family and the public to ensure that everyone who may have an interest in the exhumation of our cousin and the other women has an opportunity to be heard. Until such time all efforts to exhume anyone will be delayed. Grace’s grand-daughter Sandra Sumrow just wants the mystery to be solved. Myself, I would also like closure. Actually I would like to see a proper headstone placed with her family burials and a proper final resting place with her name on a headstone, and not just a four digit number.
|Just some of the 168 victims.|
Judge Susan Cobb just wants to make sure that no one comes forward and objects to the bodies being exhumed. She told the Courant, “we’ve never really done this before.” It is unclear to me if Judge Cobb has never been out to the memorial or just to the cemetery. But, State attorney Gail P. Hardy brought with her to Monday’s court hearing several photographs of the graves each marked with a single brick.
Currently there are so many recent videos being uploaded to Youtube which document pretty much the same story of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus fire of 1944. That I can't actually recommend one. They all tell the same story of that summer day in Hartford. A tragic disaster that became known as “The Day the Clowns Cried.” I guess with this post I am now officially introducing DNA to my blog for the very first time.
Dorothy was never found! Her estate was awarded $9,000 by the arbitration board. Will the judge order an exhumation, and what if anything will they actually find among the parts? Read more at the following links, and follow the story online as it unfolds in the Hartford Courant News.
Here are the two links that Judge Susan Cobb ordered.
If you have not heard the story and this is all news to you. I first recommend buying the book. You can also learn more at CIRCUS FIRE 1944
Along with just using Google search, or going on Youtube and watching videos.
If someone does come forward, and the court must block the exhumation. Then we will be right back where we were and have always been. Except now the story has been told, and new light has been placed on the story and the city of Hartford. I guess this year on July 6th 2019 more people will show up for the memorial than the city of Hartford has ever seen at prior years memorials.