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Mystery of Girl Solved 47 Years After Fatal Fire

March 24, 1991|LYNNE TUOHY | THE HARTFORD COURANT

HARTFORD, Conn. — Her name was Eleanor Cook.

She lost her life in the catastrophic Hartford circus fire of 1944. She also lost her identity.

For 47 years, the 8-year-old girl, who was partial to hair ribbons, cats and dresses, was known worldwide as Little Miss 1565.

Her battered but recognizable face and presumed abandonment came to epitomize the tragedy and devastation of the fire, which also killed 167 others and injured more than 500.

Her story symbolizes how easily the line between truth and myth can become blurred, and the danger in making assumptions.

Her name was Eleanor Cook.

The same investigation that resulted in a beloved little girl's being buried as an unidentified victim also concluded that the fire started from a carelessly discarded cigarette.

Hartford Fire Lt. Rick Davey, who has spent much of the past nine years reconstructing a tragedy that happened before he was born, recently concluded that the circus fire was arson. The worst disaster in Connecticut's history may also have been its worst crime.

The fire at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was reported worldwide. Most of the fatally injured were women or children, as were most of the audience, estimated at 7,000 that day.

The world was reminded of the little girl on each anniversary of the circus fire, when two Hartford detectives placed flowers at her grave. The fire might have faded from memory sooner, had it not been for the specter of a little child whose body was never claimed although her facial features were barely marred. Her plight engendered sympathy and sadness.

Davey, a tenacious investigator and history buff, first had to cope with an overwhelming distraction in his study of the fire. It was the sweet face of that child, beautiful even in death, whose only name was the morgue number her remains were assigned: 1565.

"That face is haunting to most people who come in contact with her," Davey said in a recent interview. "She demands attention. And she got it."

Davey dispelled every rumor that surfaced about the girl's identity--that she was a waif traveling with the circus, that her whole family had died in the fire and there was no one to claim her, that her family had claimed and buried the wrong body and left hers behind.

The investigation meant bringing back the horror of the circus fire for several families who had to be interviewed, including the family of Eleanor Cook. They supplied photographs, background information and answers to questions that had fed the mystery for years.

Davey took his evidence and photographs to Dr. H. Wayne Carver II, the state's chief medical examiner, and his deputy chief, Dr. Edward T. McDonough. On March 8, they issued an amended death certificate. The little girl known for 46 years as 1565 became, officially, Eleanor Cook.

In her living room in Easthampton, Mass., 85-year-old Mildred Cook opened a scrapbook of letters and photographs, report cards and test papers from her daughter's second-grade class.

The little girl's handwriting is exceptionally good; her grades are flawless. Teachers had put little stickers over the columns of perfectly spelled words--flags and bunnies and stars. They wrote on Eleanor's report card that she showed great promise.

When Mildred Cook, a claims adjuster and training supervisor at Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., left for the circus that warm July 6, she had in tow 9-year-old Donald, 8-year-old Eleanor and 6-year-old Edward. They sat near the top of the bleacher seats in the southwest corner.

Mildred Cook remembers lying in what was then Municipal Hospital in Hartford, her burned body entirely bandaged except for a slit exposing her eyes. She recalls holding Edward's hand until staff at the hospital separated them.

She heard, rather than saw, the doctor making his way through the ward. He was telling other burn and trauma victims in a low and somber voice that their loved ones had not survived. Finally, he reached Mildred Cook. "I could tell by the way he spoke what he was going to tell me," she recalled.

Edward had died. Eleanor was missing and presumed dead. Donald, who became separated from the rest of the family, had crawled under the tent wall and escaped. Unable to find the others, he went home with another family who had a boy about his age. From there he called relatives. For a while, it was hoped that Eleanor, too, had been taken home by another family.

Eleanor's burns had been minor , but she had been trampled nearly to death in the mad rush of the crowd to escape the burning big top. Records indicate that she lived nearly three hours. An arm was bandaged and she was given transfusions at Municipal Hospital. Lifesaving efforts were in vain; so were subsequent efforts to find out who she was.

Mildred Cook remained hospitalized nearly six months. She was unable to attend Edward's funeral and burial in Center Cemetery in Southampton, Mass. His grave has a white granite marker with the simple inscription "Edward Parsons Cook Feb. 26, 1938--July 7, 1944."

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