Two 1944 circus fire victims’ bodies exhumed in search for DNA

Dave Altimari
The Hartford Courant

HARTFORD, Conn. — For 75 years they’ve been numbers in a graveyard — 2109 and 4512 — but on Monday the state medical examiner began the painstaking process of exhuming their bodies in hopes of solving one of the enduring mysteries of the Hartford circus fire.

Armed with a court order, a forensic anthropologist arrived around 8 a.m. to supervise the exhumation. It is unclear how long it will take to exhume the bodies.

The key will be what condition the gravesites are in.

Anthropologist Kristen Hartnett-McCann said the hope is to extract DNA from either their teeth or femur bones to compare with the DNA of the granddaughter of a missing Vermont woman.

The Hartford police crime squad secured the scene, arriving shortly after 7 a.m. The backhoe came a few minutes later.

Looking for answers: Chief Medical Examiner James R. Gill hopes to use the latest forensic technology to extract DNA from the two long-forgotten females and compare it to the DNA of Sandra Sumrow, the granddaughter of Grace Fifield, who now lives in North Carolina. He started researching exhuming the bodies after The Courant began asking questions whether it would be possible, given the advances in DNA science, specifically genetic testing, to identify the unidentified circus fire victims.

Rather than dig up all five unidentified bodies, Gill has targeted the two that could match the DNA of Sumrow, who agreed to give a sample after The Courant located her. Under state law, Gill had to submit a request to Hartford State’s Attorney Gail Hardy seeking a court order to exhume the bodies of two females known only as numbers 2109 and 4512, the case numbers assigned by the Hartford County Coroner in the aftermath of the fire.

The two are among six that were buried as unknown victims of the July 6, 1944, fire that claimed the lives of 168 people and injured as many as 600 people.

While there are six unmarked graves at the Northwood cemetery, one of them is already empty. In the early 1990s authorities exhumed the body of a young victim known as Little Miss 1565 and identified her as Eleanor Cook. Her body was removed to Massachusetts and buried with her family.

Unsure if DNA is viable: The victims of the fire were badly burned, making it unknown if DNA samples will be viable. Gill has assigned Hartnett-McCann, a forensic anthropologist on his staff who has helped identify 9/11 victims, to oversee the possible exhumation and to follow the trail wherever it may lead.

Once the bones are exhumed, state officials have explored either having the state police forensic laboratory do the DNA extraction or perhaps sending samples to a laboratory in Texas that specializes in older cases.

If the DNA of the unknown females aren’t a match with Sumrow, Gill said he will consider submitting the profiles to the many private genealogy database companies to see if some distant family member has tried to trace their family’s history. That technique, known as investigative genetic genealogy, has proved beneficial to law enforcement authorities helping them to solve old mysteries. The so-called Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, was identified when authorities found a genetic match to his DNA left at a crime scene in a gene database.

Gill told Cobb that two companies have already contacted him about searching their databases for free if DNA samples are obtained. In her ruling Cobb said that the possibility of doing genetic testing on the DNA if it isn’t Fifield’s was another reason to proceed with the exhumation.

Grace Fifield: Sumrow said her grandmother, who lived in Newport, Vermont, was visiting relatives in Wethersfield and attended the circus with two of her children — Ivan and his twin sister Barbara, who both survived the fire. Sandra’s mother, Beverly, was Fifield’s third child.

William Fifield, Grace’s husband, came to Hartford following the fire and walked among the rows of dead laid out on cots in the auditorium of the State Armory but told officials his wife wasn’t there. A week after the fire, he sent her photo to investigators.

Grace Fifield was 5-foot-4 and 145 pounds, and had dark blond hair. She was believed to be wearing a brown and white flowered dress, grey or white shoes, no hat or jewelry, and a black handbag with about $40 in cash on the day of the circus.

Fifield is one of five people still listed as missing from the circus fire. There are two children on the list, Raymond Erickson and Judy Norris, who were both 6 years old. Norris attended the circus with her twin sister Agnes and her parents — all of whom died.

In the chaotic scene at the State Armory following the fire it is likely other people, like Erickson, were misidentified. One possibility investigators will confront is that the unidentified bodies are the relatives of people who thought they’d made an accurate identification back in 1944. In that scenario, it is possible that some victims thought of as “missing” may have been wrongly claimed by another family.

There are two other women on the list of missing — Edith Budrick, 38, from East Hartford, and Lucille Woodward, 55.

Circus comes to town: The circus rolled into town late in the day on July 5, but because of delays in getting to Hartford from Providence the matinee show scheduled for that day had to be cancelled. Local newspapers carried stories and photos of the caravan of performers and animals making the trek from Union Station downtown northward up Main Street to the circus venue on a 9-acre city-owned lot on Barbour Street.

According to interviews with hundreds of circus-goers who attended the July 6 matinee the heat was equally oppressive inside the 550 foot-long, 220 foot-wide tent when the performance began at 2 p.m. Friday afternoon. About 40 minutes into the show, shouts of “fire” rang out in the tent, which had been water proofed with a mixture of 6,000 gallons of gasoline and 1,800 pounds of paraffin wax.

The cry set off a panic in the stands. Many of those nearest the main entrance, where the fire first appeared behind the bleacher seats on the southwest side of the tent, ran to safety through the entrance or by jumping off the tops of bleachers and grandstands and then escaping by going under the side tent flaps, some of which were sliced open with pocket knives by those who got out first.

Others decided to work their way east out the back entrance toward Main Street but some ran into a blockade produced by three-and-a-half foot tall metal chutes that were being used by animals to leave the center ring. A number of bodies would be discovered piled up by the chute, which also blocked one of nine exits from the big top.

According to eyewitness accounts, the 48-foot tall big top burned in less than 10 minutes. Flaming canvass, sealed with gasoline and paraffin wax, burned some victims to death. Extreme heat suffocated others and and the ensuing panic also resulted in trampling deaths. The death toll included 59 children who were 9-years-old or younger.