Schenectady, NY Big Top Circus Fire, May 1910




Ringmaster Ready to Start Performance Before Vast Throng of Spectators When Fire Is Discovered -- Audience Marches Out, Only a Few Being Scratched and Bruised.

Special to The Washington Post.
Schenectady, N. Y., May 21 -- The "big top" or main tent of the BARNUM & BAILEY circus was destroyed by fire this afternoon. Many of the bleachers were burned. Although the tent was filled with people many of the crowd being women and children no one was seriously hurt.
The fire is supposed to have started from a lighted match or cigarette carelessly thrown among the bleachers by some one sitting on one of the upper seats.
The afternoon performance, scheduled to begin at 2:15 had not begun at 2:45 when the fire started. The tent, the largest ever used seating 12,000, was nearly filled. The ringmaster was just about to blow his whistle as the signal for the grand entry or pageant, when the cry of "fire" was heard away over at the lower end of the tent.
Women Hysterical.
The blaze not larger than a man's hand spread, and circus men went with pails of water and endeavored to put it out. Still it spread and a section of the canvas was cut out but the fire had got well up toward the top of the tent beyond reach. Then women became hysterical and started to jump from the bleachers. Policemen and circus employes called out that there was no danger and averted what threatened to be a stampede. A few women fainted, but they were carried out and soon revived.
Few Only Bruised.
The flames swept clear across the top of the big canvas, stretching nearly an eighth of a mile from end to end.
Guy ropes supporting the series of tent poles were burned through and the mighty poles fell with a crash. In the meantime the circus men working with military precision managed to get the crowd out without injury beyond an occasional scratch or bruise.
As soon as the fire started the fronts on all live animal cages in the menagerie tent were closed and this prevented the animals from becoming panic stricken.
The elephants and horses were quickly led out and corraled in a neighboring field.
Manager BAILEY in commenting on the conduct of the crowd said tonight:
"I consider the attitude of the people something marvelous. In all my experience of circus life I have never seen anything like it. At least 10,000 of the crowd were women and children, and they all filed out like veteran soldiers. Well, perhaps a few of the women did faint and perhaps a few of the children whimpered, but they were taken care of by the others, the crowd never lost its head. There was no danger for one moment of a stampede."

The Washington Post District of Columbia 1910-05-22