Monday, September 5, 2011
The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was one of the top-notch circuses around in the early 1900's; it consisted of 22 tents, employed over 1,000 people, and cost approximately $7,500 a day to run.
In the early morning of June 22, 1918, the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus train was making its way to its performance in Hammond, Indiana when a wheel bearing box became overheated. The train, with all 26 cars filled with 400 performers and roustabouts, animals, and tents, had to come to an immediate stop for it to cool down. Red lights were turned on to alert any oncoming trains that a train was stopped on the tracks.
Alonzo Sargent, a conductor for the Michigan Central Railroad (who was previously fired from a different job for falling asleep on the job), was piloting a troop train with 20 empty Pullman cars. He was following a few miles behind the circus train. Falling asleep at the controls, Alonzo ignored the signals and warnings posted by the circus train, and plowed into the caboose and four sleeping cars at 35 mph. Of the 86 people who perished, most died within the first 35 seconds after the collision. (Wikipedia) Then the wreckage caught on fire from the kerosine lamps in the sleeper cars. There were also 127 people injured. No animals died in the collision.
Amazingly, Alonzo Sargent survived the crash and was arrested. He said, among other things, "The accident was due solely to the fact that I accidentally fell asleep, and I had no intent to injure any person, nor was same done with malice, but solely through an accident, as aforesaid." (Wikipedia)
The Showmen's League of America was founded in 1913, by a group of outdoor showmen meeting at the Saratoga Hotel in Chicago. Buffalo Bill Cody, the Wild West performer, was elected the Club's first President. The Showmen's League of America is the oldest organization of its type in North America.(from their website)
Oddly enough, just months earlier, the Showmen's League of America, discussed, voted and purchased a whole area in Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois for $1500, for a proper place of rest for showpeople. It was called "Showmen's Rest".
The bodies were moved by freezer trucks to the cemetery where they conducted a mass burial for all the victims.
Each year, on the Saturday before Memorial Day weekend, people come to Showmen's Rest to pay respect not only to the victims of the Hagenbeck-Wallace train wreck, but also all the other showpeople who have died, including animal trainers, aerialists, and clowns.
When I was younger, my mother had told me about a circus that had caught fire and how everyone was buried in a nearby cemetery. She even thought the elephants were buried there. This is a common misconception due to the elephant statues found in the cemetery.
I didn't think about this circus story until recently, after I read the book, "Water for Elephants", by Sara Gruen.
It's a great book about a circus train. In fact, the Hagenbeck-Wallace fire is mentioned both in the book and movie made from the book. This all triggered the memory that my mom told me and I promised myself that when I got back to Illinois, I would check it out.
I convinced my sister, Pam, and her friend, Tommy, to come out with me to the cemetery.
Showmen's Rest is located in Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, IL, a suburb just about 10 miles straight West of Chicago.
It's easy to spot Showmen's Rest by the five elephants that border the area. Note the elephants trunks are down as a sign of mourning and sadness. Each elephant has one foot on a ball.
Many of the victims were unknown, as they had joined up the previous day to work at the circus. So the graves are marked as such:
This victim was named for his job.
And this one for his nickname.
I found a couple of gravesites of women who had died in the crash:
The beautiful weather the day we visited the cemetery seemed to belie the tragedy of that fateful day of June 18, 1922.
It is said that the cemetery is haunted and one could hear the elephants bellow in the evenings. How could this be true if no elephants were buried there? Some people say that the sound comes from Brookfield Zoo, which is less than three miles away. I'd like to believe that the spirit of elephants who have died roam Showmen's Rest and mourn the loss of their fallen comrades.