Monday, September 5, 2011

Showmen's Rest

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:

In Memory

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.


David Allen Waters said...

what an amazing story. I do believe sometimes when a person dies in trauma like that their spirits get trapped, and stay...maybe that is the sounds that are heard?

great post

Beth said...

Awesome post!! The pictures and story are fascinating.

Ami said...

I learned something here today.
What a sad story.

Eva Gallant said...

What a tale. It was all news to me. thanks for filling us in.

Levonne said...

Hi Pat. That is quite the story. And while I drove to North Carolina from California, we listened to Water for Elephants on dvd. It was excellent. Glad you enjoyed the book too. Thanks for dropping by A Camp Host's Meanderings and leaving comments the past month while we were on our North Carolina Odyssey. Fondly, Levonne

Teresa - in the Middle Side of Life said...

how fascinating. great pictures. i'd never heard of this before. what a tragic accident.

Brian Miller said...

that was such a great movie...and you share quite the tale as well...that cemetary must be something to walk around....

Carletta said...

When I started reading the post I wondered where you were going with it. It ended as a fitting tribute to those souls.
So sad that so many were unknown.

Glad you liked my barn. There will be another one next week.

Valerie said...

Your post is so educational. This is such a sad story. Whatever happened to Alonzo? I look out for the book or DVD.

Ruth said...

I'd never heard about this, it makes me sad. It's not only the terrible accident, but the fact of all the "unknown" unnamed people who died, and wondering about their families, and why they left for the circus, and how some had just started working and must have been excited. No wonder there is a book and a movie, because it's a fascinating story.

Dyche Designs said...

It was interesting reading this post, especially as I just recently read Water For Elephants too.

Megan said...

That's so interesting - I'd never even heard of showmen trains, much less a haunted graveyard!

Betty Manousos@ Cut and Dry said...

sad story but very fascinating one.

such interesting post, pat. that is a great movie, indeed. i like that kind of movies.

betty xx

Furry Bottoms said...

I am so glad you went out to investigate! I never knew there was a mass grave, and I never knew that none of the animals perished in that crash. I was under the impression everything and everyone was killed. I am so glad there's a cemetery for those showmen, and I love the elephants. Wow. Thank you for sharing!

Rita said...

I never had heard of this, either. Thanks so much for sharing with us. I plan to see the movie and now I will know this part was true. The saddest thing is that guy was already fired for sleeping on his previous job. I do wonder what happened to him. Did he go to prison? Did they let him off? Can you imagine being responsible for the deaths of all those people! He didn't sound like he was accepting responsibility very well. What a sad event. But what a wonderful remembrance of them all at the cemetery. Love the elephants!

labbie1 said...

I have goosebumps. That is a story that I have never heard. I do, however have a relative buried there--not in the showmen's area though.

Gail said...

What a sad tale...

Lynda said...

Pat - - I have truly been educated about America by following your blog! That is such a sad and tragic story about that circus. But on the flip side, what a great thing the Showmen's Cemetery is.