Little Miss 1565 became the face for which the Hartford, Connecticut Circus fire will be long remembered. Who is she really? Will the mystery ever be solved?
How excited the little girl must have been that beautiful sunny July 6 day in 1944. To be just 5 or 6 years old and going to the circus. Not any circus mind you, but The Greatest Show on Earth. The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus! I can picture her with her eyes wide with excitement as she joined the thong of almost 7000 people entering the big top.
With the War going on Hartford, Connecticut like the rest of the country had been consumed for so long with the war effort that an event such as the Circus probably seemed a welcome reprieve. A chance to laugh a little and to forget for a little while the horrors of war, death and destruction that had griped the country. How could any one know, particularly that little blonde hair girl, that before the day was over they would all witness as much death and destruction within that big top as you could find in many battles in any war.
Before the day was over, of those nearly 7000 people approximately 168 would die, another 500 to 700 would be injured, the rest scarred for life, and that a little blonde girl in a white dress would become not only the poster child of one of the greatest fire disasters in American history but a mystery that remains unsolved to many even today.
The afternoon performance had barely begun that day. The crowd had just watched Mary Kovars and her big cats perform and had turned their attention to the Great Wallandas when the band leader suddenly lead the band into a rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” the spectators did not know it at the time, but that song was a the circus's signal of distress and a call of help to all circus personnel.
For the bandleader, Merle Evans had spotted something no one else had seen. A red glow high up on the side of the tent made by a small flame.
Everyone went into action. The big cats were, at great risk to their trainer forced through the chute they were just entering. The Ring master Fred Branga and others tried to get the crowd to leave the big top in an orderly fashion, but by now others had spotted the growing flame and panic reigned. With the crowds trying to escape there was pushing and shoving, people fell got trampled, and things were only to get worse. The paraffin that was used to coat the roof from rain began to melt and drop on the panicked crowd and made a perfect means for spreading the blaze quickly. Within minutes the burning big top came down trapping many under the burning rubble.
There would be many heroes that would emerge that day. People who helped others escape, circus personnel who would fight the blaze and try to rescue those before it was too late. Hospital personnel who would treat the victims, and those whose sad duty it was to carry out the charred remains of those who perished to tents for identification.
Among those who had perished in the fire, would be the little blonde hair girl in a white dress, who oddly enough seemed untouched by the ravages of fire. Her face as pure and unmarred as when she walked into the tent. She would be laid with the rest of those who had died that day.
No doubt those who were there assumed that she would be quickly identified since her body was so well preserved. That was not to be however, when bodies were claimed only a few bodies that were badly burnt and this little girl would remain unidentified. From that day forward she would become known as little Miss 1565 and her face would become the face of the fire no one would ever forget.
Two detectives Thomas Barber and Edward Lowe who worked the case from the beginning were so struck and haunted by this little girl's features that they swore they would not rest until they found her family. Her picture were splashed across the nations newspapers as the search for any information about the child's identity began. Year after year, the newspapers would carry her image and the story of the search for who she was and who her family were.
Barber and Lowe would keep their vow, not only continuing to search for this girl's family but also visiting her grave and placing flowers on it each Christmas, Memorial Day, and July 6. They continued to do this for 30 years, never giving up their search or their hope, and always remembering the child that lay in the unmarked grave. After their death the Allied Flower company would continue to place flowers on the young child's grave and others would take up the search for her identity. All to no avail.
Then in 1990, it seemed that at long last little Miss 1565 was finally identified. A man named Cook who had himself been in the fire with his mother, brother, and sister came forward insisting that the little girl was his sister whose body had never been found. Her name he said was Eleanor Cook.
Relief swept over all who had been haunted by this little girl, she was reburied next to her brother who also perished in the fire, and in 1992 her death certificate was changed to the name Eleanor Cook.
However, that is not the end of her story, or the search for her true identity. It turns out that evidence has emerged that strongly indicated that Eleanor Cook and Little Miss 1565 are not one and the same child. First, Mrs. Cook had been shown a picture of Little Miss near the time of the fire and had stated emphatically that this was not her daughter. Second Eleanor cook was a brunette not a blonde and pictures of the young Eleanor show that their faces were shaped quite differently. It is also believed that Eleanor and this young girl buried in her grave were different heights and that their dental records do not match.
While it is easy to understand why this young girl would have been claimed by a brother who had lost a sister on that terrible day and wanted to put some closure to this chapter in his life, one has to continue to wonder why no real relative has ever stepped forward to claim this little girl.
I first came upon a picture of this beautiful little girl in the late 1970s when I visited the Ringling Brothers Circus Museum in Florida. I was struck by the story of the fire, but I was haunted by the face of this little girl. Like the detectives who vowed to find out who she was, her face would continue to haunt me over the years at the oddest times.
After so many years it seems unlikely that anyone will ever learn the true identity of this child. While I may continue to wonder about this, I do feel comforted by the fact that even if she has been wrongly identified that she was at last claimed by someone. Perhaps, in doing so, she has brought peace to the family who lost their sister and they in turn have given her a name even if it is not her own.