Showmen’s Rest: Chicago’s Clown Graveyard
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. 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
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
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.”
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