The Circus Fire by Stewart O’Nan


351219Halfway through a midsummer afternoon performance, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus’s big top caught fire. The tent had been waterproofed with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline; in seconds it was burning out of control, and more than 8,000 people were trapped inside. Drawing on interviews with hundreds of survivors, O’Nan skillfully re-creates the horrific events and illuminates the psychological oddities of human behavior under stress: the mad scramble for the exits; the hero who tossed dozens of children to safety before being trampled to death.

Brilliantly constructed and exceptionally moving, The Circus Fire is history at its most compelling.


I’ve heard about the circus fire before, but always in passing – somewhere in the Northeast a big top burned mumblemumble so sad mumblemumble. Thanks to O’Nan we have the full story.

The first two-thirds of the book is harrowing, gripping reading. The narrative is pieced together artfully and while a lot of names are thrown around I didn’t feel pressured to keep them perfectly straight. A fire is not a pretty way to die, and the effects of the heat and flames are not sugarcoated. As someone medically-adjacent I found the way they treated burns in the 1940s interesting while being thankful we know not to do a lot of that stuff today.

The last third drags a bit, detailing money problems at the circus, prolonged recoveries, and the wild goose chase of a possible culprit. Things pull together by the last chapter though, with the case of Little Miss 1565 just as powerful today as it was seventy years ago.

O’Nan uses vocabulary of the time and it adds wonderful flavor, bring the American homefront alive. For example, in passing he mentions Eastern War Time, something I didn’t even know existed. I appreciate this attention to detail and the rumors he squelches; one such debunking provides the most powerful line in the whole book:

Several survivors said the one thing they will never forget about the circus fire as long as they live is the sound of the animals as they burned alive. But there were no animals.

A great read for anyone interested in disasters and what can be learned from them.

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