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Almost 50 Years Later, Investigator Says Tragic Circus Fire Caused By Arson

March 12, 1991

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ An investigator who has spent nine years probing the nation’s worst circus fire has concluded it was set by a teen-age circus hand and not caused by a discarded cigarette, as authorities had long assumed.

The circus hand, now 61, denied setting the fire that killed 168 people in the big top of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus on July 6, 1944.

Among those who died was a girl known for nearly 50 years as ″Little Miss 1565,″ the number given her at the local morgue. Hartford Fire Lt. Rick Davey said in the course of his investigation he also uncovered her identity.

Based on Davey’s evidence, the state medical examiner’s office on Friday issued an amended death certificate for Eleanor Cook, the 8-year-old daughter of Mildred Cook, a former insurance adjuster who also lost a son in the fire.

State Fire Marshal David J. Paige said today that his office will re- examine the cause of the fire, but the case can’t officially be reopened until his findings are presented to Hartford State’s Attorney John M. Bailey. For now, the cause of the fire officially remains accidental.

″I can’t speculate on any law enforcement actions related to the circus fire on July 6, 1944,″ Bailey said at a news conference. ″The official finding was that it was accidental.″

Davey concluded that on the day of the fire it was so humid that even a cigarette tossed into dry hay would not ignite. Witnesses also said the fire started 8 feet up on the tent.

The fire came to be known in circus lore as ″The Day the Clowns Cried.″ Famous clowns, including sad-faced Emmett Kelly, and Karl Wallenda of the Great Wallendas high-wire act were among performers credited with heroic acts in trying to extinguish the blaze and rescue people.

As the result of his findings, Davey re-examined the confession of Robert Dale Segee, a 14-year-old runaway and circus hand at the time of the fire. Segee told authorities in Columbus, Ohio, in 1950 that he had set the fire.

He later recanted and Connecticut officials apparently never questioned him again. He served eight years on arson charges in Ohio in the 1950s and was arrested again on an arson charge in 1960.

Segee, now 61 and living in Ohio, declined to discuss the circus fire.

″I can’t talk to anyone about that,″ he said. ″It happened too long ago. I don’t want to. I’ve been tested enough and they ruined my life. I didn’t set the fire.″

Mildred Cook, who is now 85 years old and living in Easthampton, Mass., said she always believed that her daughter Eleanor was one of seven unidentified fire victims, but never tried to find out for sure because it wouldn’t bring the child back.

Cook took Eleanor to the circus along with her two other children, 6-year- old Edward and 9-year-old Donald. Edward also died in the fire.

Eleanor is buried in a Windsor, Conn., cemetery. Her tombstone bears the simple inscription ″Little Miss 1565.″ Mildred Cook said she wants to bring her daughter’s body home and bury her beside her brother.

″I’d like them to be together,″ Cook said.

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