09 January 2012

Midwesternist Macabre Monday: Showmen's Rest

In the early morning hours of June 22, 1918, an empty 20 car train helmed by a sleeping engineer from the Michigan Central Railroad plowed into the back of another train carrying nearly 400 sleeping performers of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. The crash took place just east of Hammond, Indiana. This area was once called Ivanhoe, Indiana. But, since it's now apparently part of Gary and Gary has enough problems, it has become known as the Hammond Circus Train Wreck. Since the sleeping cars were wooden and kerosene lamps were used to light their sleeping quarters, the results were anything but funny.

86 circus performers were killed; some instantly and some in the ensuing fire. According to legend, five or six elephants and a couple of lions from the circus were also killed in the crash, some meeting their fiery end while trying to save their human companions. That's probably not true, but it jazzes up the story a bit.
Because this just isn't interesting enough.

As I'm sure you're aware, one of the problems with trying to identify a morgue full of charred circus performers is that, even if they could be identified by the crash survivors, many of the deceased could only be identified by their role in the circus. The other problem is, what the hell do you do with the body of a dead circus performer when you don't know their real identity or where they're from?

Shooting them into the next county is not a tasteful option.
As luck would have it, a few months prior to the terrible train wreck, The Showmen's League of America purchased a sizeable plot in Woodlawn Cemetery in nearby Forest Park, Illinois. The Showmen's League offered up the burial grounds for the crash victims, and the bodies were laid to rest five days later. Stone elephant statues mark this section of the cemetery, presumably in honor of the heroic circus elephants that died trying to put out the fire.

Unfortunately, five days wasn't much time to identify all the nomadic circus performers, so many of the grave markers only list a brief description or the deceased's occupation in the circus.

What my tombstone would read if I was buried by high school classmates.

Don't worry! Everyone is bald down here...after a while.

Some people claim that you can sometimes hear the distant trumpeting of the brave ghost elephants or the roars of the courageous phantom lions who died in the crash. But those people are obviously terrible with geography. Brookfield Zoo is only a little over a mile south of the cemetery. Also, if that were true, why wouldn't you hear clowns screaming constantly?

Who says I can't?
The Showmen's Rest section of Woodlawn Cemetery is still used by the Showmen's League of America to bury deceased performers. If you're feeling up to visiting this macabre attraction, the cemetery is about 12 miles west of downtown Chicago at 750 W Cermak Road, Forest Park, IL 60130. Visiting hours are 8am to 5pm.


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