On the outskirts of metropolitan Chicago lies Forest Park, a quiet community with so many cemeteries that for much of its history the dead outnumbered the living. There, not far from a Walmart Supercenter, is Woodlawn Cemetery, and in it the 750-plot section—surrounded by five distinctive elephant statues, their trunks lowered to symbolize mourning—known as Showmen’s Rest.
The burial plot was purchased by the Showmen’s League of America, an international association of carnival performers founded in 1913 with Buffalo Bill Cody as its first president. When they purchased the section of plots as a resting place for their fallen members, no one expected how soon they’d need it.
In the early morning hours of June 22, 1918, the members of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus were fast asleep in the wooden cars at the back of their train.
They were traveling to their next performance in Hammond, Indiana. But five miles east of Hammond, the train made an emergency stop to fix an overheated axle box. The conductor pulled onto a siding rail to address the issue, but the last few cars didn’t quite clear the main track. A flagman went back and set numerous flares to warn approaching trains of the danger. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to stop what was coming.
Barreling toward them was an empty twenty-one car troop train helmed by engineer Alonzo K. Sargent. Sargent had fallen asleep at the controls and blew past the warning flares. At approximately 4 AM, he plowed into the caboose and wooden sleeping cars of the stalled Hagenbeck-Wallace train.
Many of the performers on board died instantly upon impact, and those who perished first may have been the lucky ones. When the runaway train finally came to a halt amid the wreckage of the fourth car from the end of the Hagenbeck-Wallace train, the circus train’s gas lighting system caught fire.
Ultimately, 56 people perished in the crash, though other reports suggest 61. Most are thought to have died within the first few seconds, crushed to death in the collision. Others suffocated or burned to death, or died in the hospital later. Five days after the wreck, services were held at Showmen’s Rest in Woodlawn Cemetery.
Many of the bodies were unidentifiable, while others belonged to roustabouts who had just been hired days before, or were known only by their stage names. The headstones related to the train tragedy in Showmen’s Rest bear monikers like Smiley and Baldy, while others simply read “Unidentified Male” or “Unidentified Female.” Among the identified dead are two strongmen, Arthur Dierckx and Max Nietzborn of the “Great Dierckx Brothers” act, as well as Jennie Ward Todd of “The Flying Wards” and all of the McDhu Sisters, known for aerial stunts and riding elephants.
In the ensuing days and months, colorful legends related to tragedy emerged. Rumors swirled that several circus animals had escaped the wreckage and escaped into the nearby wood. The five mourning elephant statues, added years later, also gave rise to their own urban legends. Local children, presumably conflating the cemetery with the location of wreck, told tales of five elephants that perished in the collision and were buried where they fell, as they were too heavy to move. Residents still claim to hear the trumpeting of ghostly elephants within the graveyard at night, though no elephants or any other animals are buried at Showmen’s Rest.
In fact, no circus animals were involved in the Hagenbeck-Wallace train wreck at all. The animals—along with several other performers—were housed in another train that arrived in Hammond safe and sound. The handlers and their animals learned of their fellow performers’ grim fate only when they gathered for roll call that morning.
While Alonzo K. Sargent was acquitted of multiple counts of manslaughter with which he was charged, federal transportation officials found him responsible of the collision. The accident contributed to changes in regulations mandating sleep for train crews.
Showmen’s Rest is still used today to inter deceased circus members. Buried within are clowns, trapeze artists, strongmen, bareback riders, acrobats, roustabouts, and, of course, the victims of one of the most tragic circus disasters in history.