Look closely at the circus fire photograph that is the header of Belmont Foghorn. Just to the right of the line of tapestries you will notice a small boy in dark pants and a flat cap, running from the crowd and back toward the water tower. That boy is William H. Hamm, a devoted arsonist his entire life who was never caught; in fact, he ultimately became the mayor of a small town in Pennsylvania called Purityville.
On the day of the circus fire, William Hamm was with a group of his friends in Schenectady, watching the show and eating popcorn they’d bought with money Hamm’s father, who was an engineer with General Electric, had given him earlier that morning. One of Hamm’s friends dared him to set a hay bale on fire with a cigarette tip, and Hamm, never one to back down from a challenge, did so.
Three people were killed in the inferno, including a baby and his mother. An elephant had to be put down due to complications of smoke inhalation, and the Barnum and Bailey Circus didn’t return to the Capital Region of New York for forty-seven years, despite the pleadings of several governors, all of whom were avid monkey lovers. Hamm himself escaped that day, and many other days on top of it (if his diary, discovered in a cardboard box following his death in 1982, is to be believed; this writer thinks that it surely must be, as Hamm provided details-times, ignition points, amounts and types of accelerants used-that were never reported in the papers). He went on to major in accounting at Union College, not half a mile’s walk from the scene of the circus fire, and later married and moved to Amish Country, where it’s said he put on one hell of a bonfire.*
*Absolutely untrue. Almost all of it.