As Featured On S4 Ep. 1: Runaway Train
The Hagenbeck-Wallace circus actually began as the Carl Hagenbeck Circus (1844-1913.) Hagebneck was an animal trainer who pioneered the use of reward-based animal training vs. fear-based training. Benjamin Wallace was a livery stable owner from Peru, Indiana and created The Great Wallace Show with his business partner James Anderson. Anderson was bought out in 1890 and Wallace changed the name to the B.E. Wallace Circus. Wallace purchased the Carl Hagenbeck Circus in 1907 and merged the two creating the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus. Hagenbeck protested the use of his name but lost in the ensuing court battle.
In March of 1913, during the Great Flood, the circus lost a large number of its animals including 8 elephants, 21 lions and tigers, and 8 performing horses. But this wouldn’t be the only tragedy to strike the Hagenbeck Wallace circus.
June 22, 1918
Alonzo Sargent had been an engineer for over 16 years and had been charged with transporting troops for the war effort. Sargent worked for the Michigan Central Railroad and his cargo consisted of 20 empty Pullman cars. He had slept very little prior to undertaking this particular trip and a mix of rich food and medication caused him to become drowsy. At approximately 4:00 am, he missed at least two automatic signals and warnings posted by a brakeman of the 26-car circus train, which had made an emergency stop to check a hot box on one of the flatcars. By this time, the gentle rolling of his locomotive had rocked him into a dead sleep. His train plowed into the caboose and four rear sleeper cars of the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus at a rail crossing known as Ivanhoe Interlocking at roughly 35 mph. 127 people were injured and 86 lost their lives almost immediately.
“The flagman waved a lit flare at the speeding train, now bearing down. It was approaching too fast. His own train, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train, had stopped on the Michigan Central line. Engineers were cooling an overheated axle box. It was 4 a.m., June 22, 1918, just outside of Hammond. The circus train had left Michigan City hours before and was headed to Hammond for a show. The train behind it, a 21-car military troop transport, had left Michigan City about an hour later. It barreled forward now.
According to testimony, he passed two yellow signals of caution, then two red signals. In addition, the flagman had left a flare of warning on the tracks about a mile behind the stopped circus train. Sargent passed this too.
Before the trains collided, the circus flagman testified, that in a last desperate attempt at getting the attention of the sleeping engineer, he flung his flare at the front window of the hurtling locomotive.” (Wikipedia)
The human cargo of the circus train Sargent was following (by all reports a little too closely) consisted of roustabouts, those who were charged with setting up the large circus tents, games, and other attractions, clowns, and trapeze artists. Among the passengers were Arthur Dierckx and Max Nietzborn of the Great Dierckx Brothers, a strongman act, and Jennie Ward Todd of The Flying Wards. Kerosene lanterns that hung inside the sleeper cars were knocked from their resting places and the wooden cars burst into flames. Those who managed to escape the fire tried desperately to save the lives of the people who were still trapped inside the wreckage.
The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) investigated the crash and concluded: “This accident was caused by Engineman Sargent being asleep, and from this cause, failing to observe the stop indication of automatic signal 2581, and the warnings of the flagman of the circus train, and to be governed by them.”
In court, Sargent could only say, “I must have been dozing,” though there was talk of steam from the engine obscuring track signals.
Those lost in this horrific accident, one of the worst train accidents in history, are buried in a section of Woodlawn Cemetery, at the intersection of Cermak Road and Des Plaines Avenue in Forest Park, Illinois. The land had been purchased by the Showmen’s League of America only a few months prior and a mass grave, in a seven hundred and fifty plot section, was dug at the site which became known as Showmen’s Rest. Five days after the accident, the bodies of those lost, most burned beyond recognition, were buried here. Many gravestones read “Unknown Male #19,” “Unknown Female #43,” and “4 Horse Driver.” Other graves have only the names the performers went by during their acts as their circus family only knew them by those names. “Smiley” and “Baldy,” two roustabouts, are buried under their nicknames. Roustabouts came and went (these were the people who ran off to join the circus) and it was likely that these individuals were not with the circus very long, having only jumped onto the circus train a month or even a few weeks prior. Joe Coyle, a clown, was seen weeping beside the bodies of his wife and child who had only just come to visit him. Coyle had been thrown free of the wreckage, but his family had been trapped beneath it. The Indy Star wrote in June of 2018, “A history website called Region Rambler reports that in 1922 he managed a vaudeville show called George White’s Scandals. (The Three Stooges got their start there). Coyle later returned to clowning under the name Koko the Clown, working mostly the Chicago area. He worked as a clown into the mid-1950s at children’s parties and retail stores.”
This tragedy caused only two cancellations. Circuses around the country lent performers to the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus and within one day of the disaster, the circus was performing its scheduled show in Wisconsin. Sargent was arrested and charged with manslaughter, but despite being found responsible for the deaths of 86 people because he’d fallen asleep on the job, he was acquitted.
If you’re keen, original circus wagons from the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus can be viewed at Circus World in Baraboo, WI.
Now, I can’t leave you without mentioning a little haunted tidbit about Showmen’s Rest. This is, after all, a podcast that deals with haunted places on occasion. There’s even a little urban legend in this story for good measure.
In Chicago, many a child on the schoolyard has heard the tale of the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus and the terrible loss of life. That’s what really happened. The story goes on to tell of the five elephants that perished in the crash. Apparently (according to some kids on the playground, not the most reliable source,) the elephants were too big to move very far and so the five statues that guard Showmen’s Rest are actually grave markers for these five elephants. It is said (again, according to kids on the playground) that if you visit the cemetery around the time of the accident, at about 4 a.m., you can hear the phantom cries of the elephants who lost their lives. I know what you’re thinking. The Brookfield Zoo is close by. It’s just the trumpeting of the living elephants at the zoo! That might be true if the zoo hadn’t lost its last elephant in 2010. So, are there elephants buried under the statues? Nope. They’re just statues. Other rumors include mercy killings of those trapped in the wreckage, preferring to be killed than experience being burned alive. This is also untrue.
The cemetery itself is super creepy, though. I wandered onto the hauntedplaces.org website and found several accounts of hearing strange sounds and voices in the cemetery late at night. Some mentioned a feeling of unease or being watched. Others just said it was spooky. I mean, it IS a cemetery where dead clowns are buried. Live clowns are scary enough. On frightfind.com, there were a few stories about paranormal happenings. An Oak Park police officer reported that the ground beneath him began to vibrate as if elephants were running by. Laughter and circus music can also be heard at odd hours. Many paranormal seekers have investigated the spot over the years and all have experienced drains on their equipment or the equipment being inexplicably jammed, nonfunctioning, and unusable when it was fully operational prior to entering the cemetery. The activity at Showmen’s Rest is interesting especially when you take into account that the site of the accident is well over forty miles away. You would think the actual site would have more paranormal happenings, but apparently, that’s not the case.
According to paranormal historian and investigator Bob Trzeciak, visitors to the cemetery may experience full-bodied apparitions. He says the faces of the spirits cannot be seen and are blurred, but the fact that those individuals involved in the crash were so badly burned likely makes this fact a small mercy. Trzeciak also claims that there is sometimes a strong odor of burning fuel at the location. Again, very interesting that these experiences would be at the cemetery and not at the actual crash site.
What are your thoughts on the hauntings at Showmen’s Rest? Let me know in the comments. 😊
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