Showmen’s Rest: Chicago’s Clown Graveyard

By on April 24, 2015

Showmen’s Rest is the site of a mass burial of clowns and other circus performers in Chicago after a train wreck killed 86 members of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus in 1918.
An elephant statue marks Showmen's Rest, a mass grave of clowns and other circus performers in Chicago.
An elephant statue marks Showmen’s Rest, a mass grave of clowns and other circus performers. The lowered trunk symbolizes mourning.

In Forest Park, Illinois, the Woodlawn Cemetery contains a large plot marked by elephant statues. Engraved at the base of one large elephant are the words Showmen’s League of America. On the gravestones, the dates of death are all marked June 22, 1918. Beneath is a mass grave containing the remains of clowns, trapeze artists, strongmen and other circus performers.

Hammond Circus Train Wreck

The Hammond circus train wreck killed 86 members of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus in 1918

On the night of June 22, 1918, members of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus were asleep in the rear cars of their train. It was 4am, and the train had stopped just outside Hammond, Indiana to cool an overheated axle box. They were en route to their next performance in Hammond, and then on to Monroe, Wisconsin. They would never make it.

A second train carrying the animals and some people was about 90 minutes ahead of them. They would not hear of the disaster until they pulled into Hammond that morning and solemnly gathered for roll call to determine who was missing.

Alonzo Sargent, an engineer for 16 years with the Michigan Central Railroad, had fallen asleep at the helm of an empty 21-car military troop train. He missed all the automatic signals and flares warning him of the stalled train, smashing into the wooden circus cars at about 35 miles per hour. Most of the dead were believed to have been killed within the first 30 seconds. As survivors scrambled to pull themselves from the splintered mess, the train’s old-fashioned kerosene-fueled lanterns ignited the wreckage.

Those who survived watched helplessly as their friends and family succumbed to the inferno.

In the hours following the crash, bodies were still being extracted from the smoldering wreck. Joe Coyle, a clown, was seen weeping beside the crushed bodies of his wife and children.

Showmen’s Rest: Heroes of the Sawdust Ring

Mass burial of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus at Showmen's Rest after the train wreck

There were 127 injured and an estimated 86 dead. A mass grave was dug in a 750-plot section of Woodlawn Cemetery recently purchased by the Showmen’s League of America. Many of the remains were unidentifiable, or known only by their stage names, so headstones at Showmen’s Rest are marked with names like “Baldy,” “Smiley,” and “Unknown Female #43.”

A photo of the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus in 1931
Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus sideshow, 1931

Today, original circus wagons from the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus can be seen at Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Their winter headquarters in Peru, Indiana is now the International Circus Hall of Fame.

For further reading, take a look at these great articles I referenced while researching the details of the Hammond circus train wreck:

Weird Book Club: The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918 by Richard M. Lytle

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  1. Steve Snell

    September 29, 2016 at 9:37 am

    Harold Snell (my Grandfather) is the side show “barker” on the right in that photo.

    • Steve Snell

      September 30, 2016 at 9:08 am

      BTW…The photo was taken in 1931

      • Charlie Hintz

        Charlie Hintz

        September 30, 2016 at 9:16 am

        How long was your grandfather with the circus?

  2. Brian Robson

    August 21, 2016 at 11:39 pm

    I guess the pall bearers at the cemetery had to queue up until someone said, “Send in the clowns!” 3;)

  3. smokestack crawsnaarkovich

    August 19, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    Send in the clowns

  4. Cheryl Bliss

    November 29, 2015 at 12:10 pm

    My daughter is part of a group of performers that gather at this place during the month of August every year to commemorate this tragedy & remember those who parished in this fire. If you’re interested in visiting here, why not come out to this annual event next year? Here’s a link to a video that I took at last years event when one of the organizers of this annual event read about this tragedy to those who were there that day.

  5. Susan

    November 27, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    I suggest reading the full story on the Showmen’s League of America website. This is not a mass grave of clowns however there are people buried from the 1918 train accident but only 56 and most consist of roustabouts. The rest of the cemetery plot consist of those that are members of the Showmen’s League.

  6. Mary Ann

    November 26, 2015 at 6:27 pm

    Some folks said that the site was haunted. They could hear elephants. It turns out they were hearing the animals at Brookfield Zoo.

    • Carla Blakley

      August 20, 2016 at 10:31 am

      They used to lock up the elephants at night. I lived in Riverside as a kid just a few blocks away from the zoo. We never heard animals at night ever. Creepy things go on there and at Waldheim on Des Plaines Ave.

  7. Rudy

    November 25, 2015 at 10:33 pm

    I have family buried at this cemetery. Growing up as a kid my family would always show us and tell us how horrible/tragedy it was. The section is very visible with elephant monuments and such. All this off Cermak Rd. (west of Harlem Ave). Just west of Berwyn & Cicero.

  8. tamtam

    November 24, 2015 at 7:50 pm

    Next time I visit Chicago, I want to check this place out. Shame I never knew about it till now

  9. Dom M

    May 24, 2015 at 7:55 pm

    At least they only needed one casket for all of the clowns

    • H Mac

      November 24, 2015 at 2:22 pm


    • Paul Z

      August 20, 2016 at 6:41 pm

      Really, Dom, I wonder how many clowns they can fit in one casket!

  10. Donna Gilly

    April 26, 2015 at 3:21 pm

    I have seen shows about this. WHAT A TRAGEDY !! R.I.P. to ALL, Human & Animals.

What do you think?