Gary Smith | Life | November 1991
In a housing complex for the elderly in Easthampton, Mass., lived a lady in her eighties with sharp and clear blue eyes.
The capital of Alabama is Montgomery.
Her life was busy for a woman her age. She still worked two half days a week as a clerk at a dress shop. She edited the church newsletter and pitched in at Sunday school now and then. She helped a neighbor who had no use of his right arm to write his checks.
The capital of Alaska is Juneau.
She drove herself to the store for groceries, to the doctor and dentist and laundromat. She did the crossword in the Daily Hampshire Gazette in the evening while she watched TV and kept a magazine open to read while she ate. She said, “It takes up your mind.”
The capital of Arkansas is Little Rock.
But sometimes at night when Mildred Cook lay down and there was nothing, finally, to do, thoughts tried to enter her mind, and so she began reciting. The capital of Arizona is Phoenix.Half-formed thoughts, too terrible to contemplate: Why did I take them to …? The capital of California is Sacramento. If I had pushed and shoved, like others did … The capital of Colorado is Denver. I should’ve held onto her hand … The Capital of Connecticut is … But it was only a circus … The capital of Connecticut is … a circus …
The capital of Connecticut is Hartford. On the third floor of the fire department offices there, on a winter afternoon in 1990, a man with a white shirt and black tie sat in a plume of cigarette smoke. A pair of reflector sunglasses hung from his shirt pocket, to kill the light when the migraines came. A black flag with white skull and crossbones hung on his cubicle wall. It was a constant reminder that for him the rules don’t apply.
Lt. Rick Davey worked 10 or 12 hours a day, often more, investigating fires. But he slept no more than four or five, so that still left hours to fill. His right top desk drawer was open. A photograph of a beautiful little girl, her blond hair tied in ribbons, lay inside it. He stared at her. She was the one who filled his hours. “I’m coming for you, honey,” he said to her, or to himself—he wasn’t even sure anymore. But she was dead. He heard a colleague’s footsteps approaching his cubicle. Over 40 years ago dead. He stood up quickly. Dead four years before he was born. He nudged shut the desk drawer with his thigh.
What would he say if they asked him what he was doing? That an unclaimed little girl buried beneath a gravestone marked only by her morgue number, Little Miss 1565, had obsessed him? That he was on the verge of cracking open the investigation of a circus fire that killed 168 people … in 1944?
Here come the M’s, a real nightmare. Try keeping all eight of them in alphabetical order. The capital of Maine is Augusta. The capital of … of …
On a night that same winter, Mildred Cook took a deep breath. If she weren’t careful here, it could all come rushing back. She could be 38 again, thrilled to finally have two weeks of vacation to spend with her children, to be clutching the hands of six-year-old Edward and eight-year-old Eleanor and keeping her eye on nine-year-old Donald. They could be climbing to their seats near the top of the stands at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that had just come to Hartford. It could be July 6, 1944, again.
It was so hot inside the big top that day, so sticky, but it really didn’t matter. It was wartime, and here was this magical tent, nearly two football fields long, that let everyone with a buck or two in his pocket walk inside and forget. The clowns came first, making everyone giggle. The parade of all the animals around the ring was next. Then came the lions and leopards, snarling and leaping through hoops. That’s when it happened. The big cats were being led through the two long caged chutes back to their wagons outside the tent, and everyone’s eyes had just lifted to the five sequined Wallendas poised on the platforms high above with their bicycles and balancing poles, when someone first noticed it, eight or nine feet off the ground, on the side of the tent behind where Mildred and her three children sat. It was a flame shaped like a horseshoe, no bigger than a basketball—a well-thrown bucket of water might have put it out.
But then a wind, blowing from the southwest, pushed it up the side wall to the big top—a twill canvas waterproofed, incredibly, by 1,800 pounds of paraffin thinned by 6,000 gallons of gasoline—and whoosh, The Greatest Show on Earth became three rings of hell. The tent top burned and fell like napalm, a hissing rain of flaming wax that ignited every blouse and sundress that it touched. People writhed on the floor to extinguish themselves, people toppled over them. The chairs, unattached to the floor, crashed and slid, tripping the mob in its rush to escape. Humans and animals screamed. The fire roared. At the far end of the tent, the circus band went on playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” trying to calm the frenzy, but it was hopeless. The tent was burning, one survivor recalled, like a crumpled piece of paper tossed into a fireplace. The crowd of 6,789, mostly women and children, fled toward the northeast, away from the blaze, but there many found themselves trapped by the animal chutes. Some were terrified that their hands or feet would slip between the meshing as they tried to scramble over, perhaps into the jaws or claws of some retreating beast. Some were simply not tall or nimble enough to make the climb. They paused, were pinned and trampled, found later beneath piles of bodies eight deep.
Flaming tent tops dropped from the sky, tremendous tent poles crashed. A crippled boy of 13 slashed through the canvas and hundreds escaped. A 29-year-old man hurled his child over the chute, remained and saved a score of others the same way before he was crushed to death by a falling pole. Coins fused in the terrific heat. Knuckles fused. A mother and child fused. Men passed out from the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh. The exits jammed, as people who had escaped turned back to look for loved ones. A woman ran outside screaming, “Where is my baby? Where is my baby?” was told the child had returned inside to look for her, and rushed back into the tent, where both of them perished.
Mildred and Edward and Eleanor found themselves in the middle of it all. Donald had always been the independent one; he ran to the right, hopped down from the stands and quickly escaped. But Mildred, the polite Liberty Mutual clerk, was following the crowd down the tiers, waiting for her turn, trying, somehow, to keep track of Edward and Eleanor in the stampede. She lost Eleanor, clutched Edward’s hand tighter, and then the billowing black smoke began to overcome them. Edward said he felt tired and wanted to lie down. Mildred lay down next to him. She would stay like that, clutching his hand, until someone at the hospital pulled them apart.
The whole incident took 10 minutes. And then there was nothing but an open field strewn with twisted metal and charred bodies, circled by children calling out for their mothers, by mothers staggering about and crying out for their little ones. In circus lore, it would become known as The Day The Clowns Cried. Emmett Kelly, who joined the fire fighting in full clown makeup, would paint a tear on his cheek from that day on.
The circus animals would all be retrained. But who would show the humans how to go on? Donald was picked up at the scene by a family and taken to their home, where he waited until his Uncle Ted and Aunt Marion retrieved him. Edward died the next day. Mildred lay in a coma for more than four weeks, 90 percent of her body burned. When she awoke, she was bandaged from head to foot, peering through a slit left open for her eyes.
She watched the doctor tell the woman across from her that her child had died. She watched the woman break down. The doctor walked toward Mildred. She clenched her teeth. She had been through this before. She knew how she had to act. Her brother and sister had died in infancy. Her two stepbrothers had died, one of polio at age 26. Her mother had died of cancer when Mildred was four. When she was 19, sitting in the church choir balcony, she had seen her father drop dead of a heart attack in a pew below her and not uttered a sound, not moved a muscle, not brought any shame upon herself or her family. It was weakness to cry; it was weakness.
Edward did not make it, the doctor told her. Nobody could find Eleanor; she too was likely dead. Mildred closed her eyes. “The other woman cried,” she said, “but I didn’t.”
If she didn’t think about it, she wouldn’t cry. If she was busy reciting the state capitals or doing puzzles, she couldn’t think about it. Certainly no one in her circle would be so indiscreet as to bring it up. Her husband was gone, separated from her three years before the fire—that was why she had had the children living in her hometown, Southampton, Mass., with her brother, Ted, and his wife, Marion, so the kids would have a normal life with two “parents” while Mildred worked two jobs in Hartford to help support them. Her family certainly wouldn’t mention what had occurred; they were one of those old New England families that responded to grief as they did to winter. They zipped up and stuck out their chins.
But the Dakotas could befuddle Mildred. Was Bismarck the capital of North Dakota and Pierre the capital of South Dakota … or was it the other way around? One hesitation like that and a drawer in her mind could open … Eleanor … Sometimes Mildred had to shift to a more rapid game, the counting game. One … one-two … one-two-three … How could no one have ever found Eleanor? … one-two-three-four … one-two-three-four-five …
The drawer opened. Lieutenant Davey stared at the photograph once more. Somehow, the picture of the little girl had done it to him—first, the one of her when she was dead, and now the one of her when she was alive. The morgue photograph was the same picture that had awed him when he saw it in the newspaper when he was seven or eight. This was his first look at death, and here it was in a child about his own age who simply looked to be asleep. Her face was barely marred by the flames or the trampling; she had died of a stress fracture to her skull. How could no one have stepped forward to claim so beautiful, so clearly identifiable a child?
The question haunted his city. Every July 6, The Hartford Courant published a story about her, and often her picture as well. Every Christmas, Memorial Day and July 6, Thomas Barber and Edward Lowe, two Hartford policemen who witnessed the horror and were assigned to a makeshift morgue at the Hartford Armory, visited her grave and left flowers. Barber, who outlived Lowe, paid the tribute three times a year for 32 years before he died in 1977.
The two men kept her picture in their wallets, investigated each new rumor about her identity. Some said she was a waif the circus had picked up along the way. Others believed her whole family had been destroyed by the fire and were among the five other unidentified bodies beside her at Northwood Cemetery, a graveyard used mostly for the poor and the war dead. Some insisted she was mistakenly buried by a family who had lost a child fitting Eleanor’s description.
A cult formed around the little girl. She became the little lost angel, she became a myth. Poems and songs were written about her, notes and balloons and toy animals were left on her stone. When public contributions that paid for new flowers three times a year ran out, a convicted burglar at Massachusetts State Prison sent a $10 check and a promise to buy them every year for the rest of his life, but the local florists’ association insisted on the honor. The little girl was nobody else’s—so she could be everybody’s. It was O.K. to cry for Little Miss 1565.
But years had passed since Lt. Davey had given that photograph or the ’44 fire much thought—until one day in 1981, when the fire marshal assigned him to give a speech to a local high school group on the subject. He thought he would bluff his way through it with the few crumbs of information he had, but when he opened the floor for questions, the hotshots were waiting. What day of the week did it occur? they asked. What time? What was the temperature? How they loved holding his badge to the flame.
He had lost, and he didn’t like losing. “I don’t care if it’s checkers,” he said. “I want to win, and if I don’t win, I’m pissed. Screw second place. Second place is for people who don’t mind second place.”
He and his partner, Tommy Goodrow, once spent four days on their knees in the soaked ashes and rubble of a YWCA fire, searching for a wire six inches long that would substantiate their theory on the origin of the blaze—they found it. His department’s conviction rate was 100 percent. If his checkbook was a penny off, it made him nuts until he did it all over again. He would learn a thing or two about that circus fire. He’d schedule a rematch with the hotshots.
That’s all it was at first, a poor loser’s pout, a perfectionist’s pang. But in every story about the fire he came upon in the library, there was this little girl. She drew him. She disturbed him. He had no idea why.
He didn’t need another child. He had three sons of his own by a marriage that had ended. And no, he wasn’t the soft sort. He had grown up in the projects in Hartford, been belted by his dad at eight for getting hit and not fighting back, and ended up in gang wars with bricks and bats. He had watched from the window as the sheriff took possession of every stick of furniture in his house. His mother had cried, but he hadn’t.
At the scene of a death, he would go up the ladder, take a good long stare, and come back down looking as if he had just perused his backyard for crabgrass. He’d light up a Marlboro, go back inside and start prowling, reading flame patterns and soot, reading depth of char and progression of fire, snapping pictures, drawing sketches, his mind churning like an engine, cause and origin, cause and origin. He would interview witnesses, then light up another cigarette and start pacing, looking right through anyone in the department new or foolish enough to ask a question.
It had gotten to him in the beginning—the smells that could drop a man to his knees, the humans burned like chicken forgotten on a spit. As a rookie fire fighter in 1973, he had raced into a house and had frozen at the sight of an old lady lying sideways, toppled from her wheelchair, her hairless head so blackened and distorted so badly that at first he thought she must be a mannequin. But then one of the veterans, clenching back his grin, told him that he had to give her mouth-to-mouth, just in case. He walked to the porch and threw up.
He watched the other men. He learned. A big fire was a “10-3.” A hired arsonist was “a torch.” A death was a “10-6.” A dead person was “the victim” or even “the roast.” You had to be cold to live around fire. With a little practice, you could carry off the body of a child so burned his skin stuck to you … and nothing stuck to you at all.
There was only one he had trouble getting rid of. It was a little girl who had cowered in a closet, screaming, as he charged into her bedroom one night back in the ‘70s. Blinded by smoke, he took a step toward her. Then the ceiling over the closet collapsed, and the screaming stopped.
“I dreamed about her every night,” he said, “for two or three years.” In the dream he could see her face clearly, surrounded by flames, and all of his movements were in slow motion. He would wake up in a sweat and torture himself. If only he hadn’t paused for a half second to hitch up his boots when the fire engine pulled up, if only he had hit the ground running …
He didn’t go to the little girl’s funeral. He never told anyone about it. “I go with the old school,” he said. “You just eat it.”
He found himself staying up at night over a little girl who died in 1944 instead.
He began arriving at his office two hours early, 6:30 a.m., to devour the files he had photocopied at the city library the night before. He didn’t tell a soul what he was doing—imagine their chortles. Evenings and weekends, he would go to local television studios for old film footage, to the newspaper library for old photos and clippings. He jotted notes to himself, photographed file pictures to take home and make studies of his own. But there were so many holes, so many original police files missing. Sometimes he found himself sitting on the sofa with all the lights out at midnight, waiting for the six aspirins he had just gulped to kick in and kill the migraines brought on by his inability to give Little Miss 1565 a name, by his frustration with the investigation of the fire that killed her.
From the beginning, the case rang wrong in his head. Edward Hickey, a political appointee with no investigative training for his job as Connecticut police commissioner, had ruled six months after the fire that it was caused by a cigarette carelessly tossed onto the grass. Cigarette fires smoked for a half hour or more before they combust—wouldn’t someone have noticed? Lieutenant Davey dug up the humidity reading at two p.m. on July 6, 1944—42 percent. Modern studies had shown that it is virtually impossible for a cigarette to start a grass fire if the humidity is above 23. He began conducting backyard experiments with lighted cigarettes and canvas that increased his doubts. He came upon the picture that showed the charred spot on a two-by-four beam, still standing, where Hickey claimed the fire had begun, and had the photograph enlarged. Not only was the char mark four or five inches above the ground, but the grass at its base was still there, unburned. Stranger still, the circus had experienced two smaller fires in the week before it came to Hartford, and in 1950 a young man named Robert Segee had confessed to Ohio authorities that as a 14-year-old circus hand, he had set them and the big one in Hartford that killed 168 people, as well as dozens more. A red man with fangs and claws, riding a fiery horse, materialized before him and ordered him to set fires, Segee said, giving his account of the Hartford fire and fitting a mold for a pyromaniac right out of the psychiatrist’s textbook—but Connecticut investigators had never even interviewed him.
By 1983, at the end of his first 18 months of study, Rick Davey had a list of 26 reasons why he questioned the official cause of the fire. He had a list of 30 theories concerning the identity of Little Miss 1565. He had 10 cardboard boxes full of information. He had eight more years to go.
“It’s her face,” he said. “If you stare at her picture long enough, she becomes any child. If you stare at it long enough, she becomes alive.”
Alive? That was the same sick trick Mildred Cook’s mind would play on her in the early years after the fire when she was alone in her apartment, crying. The same sick, beautiful, tortuous, sanity-saving trick. Maybe that’s why she didn’t want to know for certain whose unidentified bodies were in the ground at Northwood Cemetery. If she knew Eleanor was one of them, her despair would be total, she could no longer flirt with that one small possibility, that all-but-hopeless hope. She did it only in her darkest moments, when all the reciting had failed and all the walls had burst, because it scared her as much as it soothed her to believe that any day there could be a knock on the door and when she opened it, who would be standing there, her amnesia gone, her hair in ribbons, her eyes smiling, but …
For six months after the fire Mildred had lain in the hospital, swimming in and out of a morphine haze, recovering from skin grafts so painful that the nurse had to turn away. Her sister, Emily Gill, had gone to the makeshift morgue after the fire for the grisly job of identification, had walked between row after row of little dead bodies. The authorities had shown her a body that, yes, looked a little like Eleanor … well, maybe … no, not quite. Eleanor had always been so ladylike, every hair in place, that it was hard now to tell. And besides, Eleanor’s dentist, working from memory, had said she had eight permanent teeth. This little girl only had four. Emily may well have been shown the wrong body. No, she decided. That wasn’t her niece, Eleanor Cook.
What was Mildred to do when the hospital finally released her a half year later—challenge her sister Emily, demand that the unidentified bodies be dug up, wrench her family all over again? It took all of her strength just to hold her grief behind her teeth, to look at her scarred face in the mirror, to worry about the thoughts running through Donald’s mind.
Next to Edward’s grave, in Southampton’s Center Cemetery, a tombstone was placed in memory of Eleanor. For the first few years, Mildred had to go inside whenever she saw children playing, to turn the other way when she came upon them on her way home from work. She scanned the TV listings each week, to make sure she wouldn’t stumble upon any movie about children, or circuses or death.
Ted and Marion, Mildred’s brother and his wife, invited her up to the house each July 6, tucked away the pages in the newspaper that referred to the fired before Mildred could see them. Perhaps she saw the photograph of Little Miss 1565 at one time or another over the years—she doesn’t think so but isn’t sure. Even if she did see it, she didn’t see it. She couldn’t see it. Four decades passed. She advanced from file clerk to training supervisor at Liberty Mutual, was known by all for her kind heart and cheerfulness, and then retired. She became a grandmother of two, and then a great-grandmother. She was safe now. Surely she was safe.
Lieutenant Davey gave up. He had packed the little girl away in one of the cardboard boxes in his basement in 1984, hadn’t glanced at a word about the circus fire for six weeks and driven south to Virginia Beach to get away from it all. There were just too many contradictions in the records, too many dead ends. He was stretched out on the hotel room bed one evening, resenting himself for having failed to save another burned little girl. “I’m sorry, sweetheart,” he said to himself, “I just don’t know where else to go.”
He didn’t believe in an afterlife. “You hit the box and it’s over,” he said. So it couldn’t have been Eleanor’s voice that day; he’s sure he must have imagined it. “I’ll help you,” he thought he heard a little girl say. He got out of bed, checked the television, checked outside the window. He scoffed at himself, then heard himself promising, for the hundredth time, he would start all over. He returned to the archives at Hartford Hospital, the last place her body was before it was buried. He found nothing new, but the archivist there suggested he try the Connecticut State Library—bingo! What he had been searching for and hadn’t found, the files purged by the state police years ago in a housecleaning—20 more boxes of material.
In the middle of one he came upon a photograph of a blond-haired girl in ribbons. He had never seen a picture of Little Miss 1565 when she was alive, and the child in this picture was far from a dead ringer for the girl in the morgue shot. He had no way to explain this, but he knew it was her, he knew it. He got out his magnifying glass and calipers, began measuring the space between the child’s nose and upper lip, the size of her earlobes, telltale I.D. markers that police weren’t aware of in 1944. Yes. He discovered a lab report comparing samples of hair taken from Little Miss 1565’s head and Eleanor Cook’s hairbrush. Yes, they appeared to match, another lead apparently lost in the paper shuffle. He refused to settle for any of the original investigator’s summary reports; he dug until he found their initial reports, their raw data. His case must be airtight, it could have no punctures, to survive the hurricane it would raise in Hartford.
He made the library photocopier pant, the librarian’s eyebrows arch; Davey Xeroxed 20,000 pages at a quarter a pop, five grand invested in paper, easy. He discovered memos written by Police Commissioner Hickey, transcripts of phone calls that Hickey had taped, indications that Hickey was determined to torpedo the arsonist’s confession in Ohio. Slowly, it all began to make sense. Segee’s admission had occurred in 1950. The circus had already paid out $3.9 million in settlements, six circus officials had already served time in prison for involuntary manslaughter. Heads might roll in high political circles were it to come out that Hickey and the police had botched the investigation of the worst disaster in the history of the state. That might explain, he thought, why no Connecticut official had ever spoken to Segee.
One day in 1987 the mass of evidence became so overwhelming that Lieutenant Davey became certain. He looked at Miss 1565’s picture. He called her Eleanor Cook. “For two days, I floated,” he said. “I’ve never been that happy in my life.” But then he hesitated. Perhaps he had gone to far. Perhaps his discovery would tear open a family’s old wounds.
No. He owed it to her to press on. Never considering that Eleanor’s mother might still be alive, he began tracking down her brother. That would take several more years of investigation, of fruitless letters to other Donald Cooks, of climbing through the family tree limb by limb.
Late in 1990 he received a reply to a letter he had written that had been forwarded to Granger, Iowa. It was the Donald Cook. Lieutenant Davey sent him two pictures, one of a little girl very much alive and the other, the morgue photo. Yes, said Donald. That’s Eleanor.
When the news about Little Miss 1565’s identity broke last March, the TV crews and photographers converged on Mildred Cook’s tiny house as her son had warned her that they might. She looked into the cameras with dry eyes and spoke in even, measured words. “I think I’m relieved,” she said. “I’m not really sure how I feel.”
Calls and letters flooded The Hartford Courant, some praising Lieutenant Davey’s work, others expressing anger. Some had expected to see a sobbing old woman, overcome by the new disclosures and the old pain. They didn’t know about the laminated map of America in Mildred Cook’s living room with the capitals inked in on each state. They didn’t know how many ways a human being learns to live with grief.
At midnight on the eve of Eleanor’s birthday, March 17, 1991, Davey went to Little Miss 1565’s grave for the first time. He laid a black stuffed kitten on it, just like the real one he had learned she once had. He laid some flowers, and a card with a note.
“Our only gift is the thing you once had—your name! How we all wish it could have been possible to correct a more terrible wrong and bring you back … You may join other loved ones and members of your family. But you’ll never be forgotten. I’ll always love you.”
He didn’t sign his name. Just his badge number, 33.
In fire fighting, there is a phenomenon known as backdraft. It occurs when a fire has consumed all the oxygen in a room, when it becomes a confined, superheated gas smoldering in silence, invisible, waiting only for a door to open, a trace of oxygen. And then it explodes with enough force to hurl a human being 30 feet.
Fire fighters learn to stay behind doors when they open them—or not to open them at all. In a not so different way, people who have experienced unspeakable horrors do too. On June 22, 1991, at Center Cemetery in Southampton, Davey stood a few steps from a freshly dug hole. Mildred Cook was sitting. Two people who knew all about backdraft.
At their feet, there lay an angel’s coffin, tiny and white and smothered by flowers. Cameras poked from nearby bushes, microphones strained to catch the minister’s eulogy. Davey eyed them, making sure they kept their distance. A vague depression had settled over him. Robert Segee was still alive, a 61-year-old living in Columbus, Ohio, who now insists he didn’t set the fire, and the reinvestigation of the fire that FBI and state police had promised seemed to have gone nowhere.
His nine-year quest had succeeded, but it wasn’t enough. He hadn’t saved the little girl. She was still dead. He had wondered how he would feel today, watching her casket go into the ground. But he didn’t feel much of anything. He was in uniform, helping to keep the reburial private, a fire lieutenant with a job to do.
Mildred Cook stared straight ahead. Her throat trembled once, and she reached for a handkerchief when a friend of hers strummed an Autoharp and sang “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.” But then it was over, and she was back in the church reception hall sharing punch and cookies with the others who had come. “You’ve just got to prepare yourself,” Mildred was saying. “I began preparing myself last night. I told myself, ‘I’m not going to cry … I’m not going to cry … I’m not going to cry ….’”
Writer bio: Hands off, Gary Smith is ours. We claim Smith, a four-time winner of the National Magazine Award, as our own. He grew up in Delaware, graduated from LaSalle University and covered the Eagles for the Philadelphia Daily News before spreading his wings at Sports Illustrated. He is one of the most celebrated narrative journalists of our time. And he’s ours.