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NHS Chief Advocate

The Girl in the Flower Dress; Who is she?

Circus Fire 1944 Website
Taken from the east parking lot, this photo shows the big top on fire having already collapsed. (Photo Credit: Mike Skidgell)

HARTFORD – July 6 1944 should have been a happy, cheerful day in Hartford, CT. The Ringling Bros and Bailey and Barnum circus was in town bringing with it a nice afternoon’s worth of entertainment. And it was – to the audience at the very least. The circus had arrived late the day prior and, as a result, had to skip one of the two shows that day. In the circus business this is considered to be bad luck leading many performers to be on guard. Fortunately, nothing bad happened on July 5 and it seemed everything might be okay. 

It was not all okay. During the second show on July 6, Bandleader Merle Evans spotted the warm orange glow of fire. He began to have the band play “The Stars and The Stripes”, a song used to signal distress to circus personnel. Now, for this next part, I want you to be imaginative for a moment. What do you think would happen when you add fire to a paraffin wax and gasoline mixture? If you thought “huh that fire is gonna spread fast”, you’d be right. 

Very right. 

The previously mentioned mixture was used to coat the big tops canvas to waterproof it. Obviously this also made it very, very flammable. That, combined with the rather windy conditions lead to the fire growing fast. 

There’s also a third problem: human nature. 

See, we have a tendency to panic and not think straight in stressful situations like, oh I dont know, a fire. What certainly didn’t help this was the fact that, at the time two of the four big top exits were blocked by chutes used to get the big cats in and out. So, yeah. Total pandemonium. Good news, most people got out. Of course some fell victim to human nature, running back into the tent upon getting out to look for family, or not even leaving the tent in the first place for the same reason. Others were crushed by the crowds attempting to get out and some even suffocated beneath the piles of bodies. Eventually the tent would collapse leaving most still alive people to burn aside from a few lucky individuals. 

Now, I’m not here to discuss the fire and how it was started. Instead, I’m here to discuss perhaps the most famous victim of the fire: Little Miss 1565. A little girl, about 6, possibly older, with blond hair whose well preserved remains were found after the fire. The poor girl’s identity is a topic of much debate with many thinking she is Eleanor Cook, an eight year old from Massachusetts. Others, myself included, disagree with this and instead tend to align with the theory that her body was claimed by another family or that Eleanor was one of two children burned beyond recognition. 

Eleanor Cook, one of 167+ victims. She was only 8 years old and died alongside her younger brother Edward.
(Circus Fire 1944 Website)

This only (at least hypothetically) answers the question as to what happened to poor Eleanor not to the identity of 1565. Unfortunately, that isn’t what I’m here to discuss (this is an opinion piece, afterall). I’m actually here to present my case and to try and convince you that these two girls are not the same person. So I’m guessing at this point you want evidence. Well, ask and you shall receive. 

Personally the most convincing piece of evidence is the fact that Eleanor’s mother, Mildred Corintha Parsons Cook was adamant that 1565 was not her daughter until her death in 1991. Eleanor’s aunt and uncle also said that she was not Eleanor, alongside her brother, Donald. 

If that isn’t proof enough then let’s talk teeth. So one method used to identify  Jane/John Does is dentals. Teeth x-rays of a possible identity will be compared to those of the does. If they match you’ve got a name. 1565’s dentals were compared to Eleanor’s. It was found that they didn’t match, with 1565 having only two adult teeth and Eleanor having 8 according to her aunt. 

Teeth weren’t the only physical difference though. Eleanor and 1565 were both different heights. Eleanor reportedly stood at 4”4 but the doe was just about 4 feet tall. They had different hair colors as well, the doe being a blonde and Eleanor having light brown hair. 

They also had different clothes. Eleanor, according to her aunt, had a red and blue plaid playsuit, red socks and white summer shoes. The doe was found wearing a white, flowery dress and brown shoes. 

Ultimately Little Miss 1565 was determined to be Eleanor Cook through hair samples. She was exhumed and buried next to Eleanor’s brother, Edward, who had also died in the fire. Whether or not she truly is Eleanor Cook may just remain a mystery forever. 

 This is an opinion piece written by junior Kathryn Hartery ’25. 

About the Contributor
Kathryn Hartery '25
Kathryn Hartery is a junior at Nonnewaug and a first-year reporter for the Chief Advocate.
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