Judge OKs Exhumation Of Unknown Hartford Circus Fire Victims

Matt Dwyer
September 11, 2019 - 6:27 pm

File photo of a flower and a candle. (izzzy71 iStock / Getty Images Plus)


Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The remains of two unknown victims of the 1944 Hartford circus fire will be exhumed to see if one of them was a Vermont woman who vanished after the blaze that killed 168 people.

Judge Susan Cobb approved the exhumation request by Hartford State's Attorney Gail Hardy in an order dated Monday.

Connecticut's chief medical examiner, Dr. James Gill, will try to determine whether one of the unidentified victims was Grace Fifield, of Newport, Vermont. Gill's office will compare DNA samples taken from the remains with samples provided by Fifield's granddaughter, Sandra Sumrow.

A date for the exhumations at Northwood Cemetery in Windsor has not been set. Gill said officials are hoping to disinter the remains sometime next month.

The fire in the big top of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus on July 6, 1944, killed 168 people and injured 682 others. Fifield is one of five people still listed as missing from the fire.

The blaze spread quickly and was fueled by a mixture of gasoline and paraffin wax that was used to waterproof the tent. The cause has never been determined.

The unidentified remains of five victims are buried at Northwood Cemetery, which is near the Hartford line. Only two of the victims could possibly be Fifield — women buried under markers as 2109 and 4512, the case numbers assigned by the Hartford County Coroner in the aftermath of the fire. The remains of the two women are the ones that will be exhumed.

If one of the victims is identified as Fifield, the remains would be given to her family for reburial and a proper death certificate would be issued, Cobb said in her ruling. DNA samples of the other remains would be kept on file for identification attempts in the future, the judge said.

"Grace Fifield's family ... has a legitimate interest in discovering whether one of the unidentified victims of the fire is their relations," Cobb wrote.

Hardy, the state's attorney, said Wednesday that she hoped for the family's sake that the testing will confirm one of the women was Fifield.

"If the medical examiner ... is able to give a family the closure that they seek, I'm happy to go through that process," she said.