Big Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and the Greatest Show on Earth by Laura A. Woollett

Published by Chicago Review Press 

Summary: On July 6, 1944, the big top of Ringling Brothers Circus caught fire and burned to the ground in ten minutes. 167 people died, including 59 children under the age of ten. This carefully researched book tells the story of many of the people who were at the circus that day and what happened to them when the fire broke out. It also looks at two questions that arose in the aftermath of the tragedy: did a troubled 15-year-old circus employee named Robert Segee set the fire? And who was Little Miss 1565, a little girl whose body was recovered from the fire but who was not identified by any relatives? In the years since the fire, Little Miss 1565 has been almost definitely identified as Eleanor Cook, but the cause of the fire remains classified as “Undetermined”. Grades 5-8.

Pros: This is a meticulously researched book, with 18 pages of notes and citations. It’s also a well-written, gripping account, both of the fire, and the detective work that continued on the case for decades.

Cons: 59 kids dying in a fire at the circus?  Probably not a subject for everyone.

2 thoughts on “Big Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and the Greatest Show on Earth by Laura A. Woollett

  1. Wow – I remember visiting the Ringling Brothers museum in Florida during our 1973 family vacation. I was 11 years old and was fascinated/haunted by the fact that a little girl could die in a fire and no one would ever look for her or know who she was. I can still picture the photograph of her, appearing to be asleep with smudges from the fire on her face. This review has inspired me to go online and read more about this story.


  2. I think I visited that museum in 1973, as well! It was around that time (I would have been 9); Disneyworld had just opened. The fire story was vaguely familiar to me, so I may have learned about it on that trip. So sad. It was called “The Day the Clowns Cried”.


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