HARTFORD, Conn. — Robert Dale Segee grew up in New Hampshire and Maine, a nervous boy taunted by siblings and schoolmates and continually berated by a brutal father who Segee said punished him by holding his fingers over a flame.
His mother said he had bad dreams so often that he was afraid to go to bed. As young as 9 or 10 years old, Segee would sneak out of the house and roam the streets at night.
Ohio Deputy Fire Investigator R. Russell Smith went to Maine and New Hampshire in May and June of 1950 to run a background check on Segee. He determined from interviews with relatives and law enforcement officials that in the years 1940 through 1946, there had been 28 major fires and 40 minor ones within 10 blocks of the Segees' home in Portland, Me.
Under interrogation in Ohio in June, 1950, Segee admitted setting at least 25, perhaps 30 major fires in Portland between 1939 and 1946, the year he moved to Ohio.
Segee's sister, Dorothy Thompson, told Ohio investigators that her brother as a young boy had set two fires inside their home. Robert Segee had no juvenile criminal record.
The year before the Hartford circus fire, school records show, Segee flunked all his sixth-grade subjects. His IQ that year was judged to be 78.
Segee joined the circus on June 30, 1944, in Portland. On that day a minor fire on the circus tent ropes was extinguished without damage or injury. The circus went on to Providence, R.I., where a tent flap mysteriously caught fire. That fire, too, was extinguished without loss. What caused those fires was never determined. Segee confessed to setting both of them in 1950.
The next stop for the circus was Hartford.
Segee told police and psychiatrists who questioned him in Ohio in June, 1950, that he often set a fire after a frustrating sexual encounter, and that he "wanted to burn out a lot of bad memories."
Although he almost always could recall striking the match, Segee said, he often "blacked out" afterward. He would be awakened by a nightmare "red man" with fangs, claws, fiery-red chest hair and flames coming out of the top of his head. The vision is a classic one for a chronic fire-setter, experts say.
Segee told Ohio authorities he had met and had "unsatisfactory" relations with a girl near the Hartford circus grounds just before the fire. He recalled, in his confession of June 26, 1950, that he returned to the circus grounds just after the 2 p.m. performance began. Fire engulfed the tent about 2:20 p.m.
"I was still nervous and upset, and as far as I know, I thought I laid down and went to sleep and then there was the strike of the match again, and then the red man came," Segee recalled.