“I still see the fire from where it was coming”- Hartford Circus Fire survivor reflects on her life

Aurora Rose Horn, Lead Copy Editor

On July 6, 1944 in Hartford, Connecticut, a Barnum and Bailey circus tent caught on fire, likely due to someone carelessly flicking a cigarette. At least 167 people died, most of whom were children. Over 700 were injured. Nearly 80 years after the Hartford Circus Fire, our country’s most devastating fire, hardly anyone remembers it, but 86-year-old Ruth Gilbert, the mother of temporary Masters Upper School history teacher Martin Gilbert, does. “In my visual memory, I remember what it looked like to me from where we were sitting,” Gilbert said. “I still see [the fire] from where [it] was coming.”

Gilbert was only eight years old on the day of the fire. Her parents were under the impression that she was going to the circus with her grandfather, but in reality she had gone with three of her friends who lived on the same street as her. The four of them were sitting at the back of the tent. When the fire first started, most of the spectators thought that it was simply part of the show, but Simon, one of the friends that Gilbert had gone with, had the instinct to leave the tent before it escalated. “I saw it coming from a corner in the tent,” she said. Gilbert also recalled “looking into the space after we jumped down and seeing the animals frightened and running, including elephants. But the four of us weren’t hurt at all; we jumped down, and we just ran all the way home, which was probably a ten-minute run.”

There is more to Gilbert’s life story than just this event, though. Later on in her life, she married Myron Gilbert, a man 10 years older than her, and they had three children together: Martin, Billy, and Daniel. Martin, the oldest of these sons, recently held a leave position as a history teacher here at Masters. 

After graduating high school, Gilbert went to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) on a full scholarship and went on to become an artist. She used to work in a studio called YoHo, in Yonkers. “I had a nice big studio with windows overlooking Nepperhan Avenue,” she said, “and I made a lot of artwork that I’m still using today.” Even now, she posts pictures of her art on Instagram with the help of her roommate, Dan, who is younger and more tech-savvy than she is. “I really am completely lost on the internet,” she said. “I’m barely learning to use my iPhone, but the images are all mine.”

If she were to give any advice to the younger generation, it would be this: don’t marry a man 10 years older than you are.