Friday, June 21, 2013

Remembering a Circus Tragedy

One more week before the hand brace comes off - so here is a post from 2011 about the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus Tragedy, which happened 95 years ago this week.

Showmen’s Rest is the nations’ most well known cemetery for circus artists and performers.  It was created in 1916 when the Showmen’s League of America purchased a plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois for the burial of circus performers, circus hands and circus artists.  Five white elephant statues circle the plot, trunks lowered as a sign of mourning.  Burials were far between for the first two years, until that fateful morning in June when circus history was changed forever.

Wreck of the Hagenbeck-Wallace
Circus Train
It was around 4 A.M. on June 22, 1918, near Ivanhoe, Indiana when the 26-car Hagenbeck-Wallace circus train stopped to cool an overheated wheel-bearing box.  Although warning lights had been set out to signal that the train had stopped on the tracks, it was struck at full speed from behind by an empty troop train.  Three of the train cars, with sleeping circus workers in them, were destroyed by fire. Eighty-six performers, circus hands and roustabouts were killed as a result of the crash and fire. Many others injured. Fifty-six of the victims were buried at Woodlawn Cemetery at Showmen’s Rest.  The Showmen’s League of America donated the plots for the showmen’s burials.
Grave Stone for Jennie Ward Todd

Jennie Ward Todd
Among those buried were Jennie Ward Todd of the “Flying Wards.”  And the “Great Dieckx Brothers,” Arthur Dieckx and Max Nietzborn.

Row of Graves
Forty of the markers are engraved as “Unknown”  - “Unknown Female, number 48” or “Unknown Male, number 29”, and the date June 22, 1918.

4 Horses Driver & Baldy
Two performers were buried under their show names, ‘Baldy’ and ‘Smiley,’ as their real names were never known.  A few stones are marked only with the person’s job descriptions such as 4 Horse Driver, June 22, 1918.  Contrary to popular myth, NO animals were hurt or killed in the train crash.

The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was the second largest circus in the U.S. at the time.  Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey held the number one position.  Many Hagenbeck-Wallace show posters included the line “Presenting The Most Novel Elephant Acts Ever Seen.” 

Circus performers from around the country arrived to help Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus keep to their performing schedule for that season. All told, the circus only missed one performance, the night of June 22, 1918 when they were to appear in Hammond, Indiana. 

Mt Olivet Cemetery
in Hugo, Oklahoma
There are a few other ‘Showmen’s Rest Cemeteries’ in the U.S. – one is in Miami, Florida, at Southern Memorial Park.  This is the largest of the Showmen’s Rest Cemeteries, founded in 1952.  Another is located at the ‘winter home of the circus’, Hugo, Oklahoma at Mt Olivet Cemetery.  And another is located in Tampa, Florida near downtown.

International Clown Week
It is true that performers and actors never want to “leave the boards” of the stage, and at Showmen’s Rest, in Woodlawn Cemetery, that desire is understood.  Each year, International Clown Week is held in early August.  A private memorial is held during the week for the circus performers buried there.  Then, on a Sunday afternoon, circus artists from across the world perform for the public at Showmen’s Rest. The events include circus acts, death-defying feats, family entertainment and general “clowning around,” as hundreds of clowns take part each year.  The event is billed as “a loving and festive remembrance of circus artists past.”

Showmen's Rest, Woodlawn Cemetery
As a theatre performer I can tell you, this is one of the most fitting and touching tributes any performer could ask for.  The old adage, “The show must go on…” is something every true performer believes. It is wonderful to see that it still does……at Showmen’s Rest.



  1. What a great blog you wrote there, makes me woner is there is any thing like that in the UK.
    PS nearly followed you with the inabillity to type this week as I cut the fingers on my left hand, lucky it was not too bad.

    1. Oh Bill, be careful!! I haven't heard of an incident in the UK, but would love to know....

  2. I did a post about Showmen's Rest a bit ago --- I knew about it, and finally got around to visiting the cemetery. I've had a lifelong fascination with circuses, and it was very touching to see Showmen's Rest.

    Very nice post!!

    1. Thanks, Jo! I know what you mean - There's a different feel when you stand there among those graves and think about it......

  3. Very enlightening post. I had never heard of Showmans Rest before. The circus is such a multi layered fasinating part of our American history I wish more of these storys would be read. Thank you for an excellent post.

  4. The Showman's Rest at Woodlawn is fascinating. Many of the markers are labeled for the person's job rather than their name, if it was unknown. Many circus workers were transients and no one knew their name. A funny legend is that at night you supposedly can hear lions roaring or elephants trumpeting. It's funny as there are no animals buried there. The elephant statues are impressive.

    1. So many performers didn't give their real names... It's difficult to really know who some of the circus workers were. I've also heard about the elephants trumpeting in the night and, as you said David, none were buried there...

  5. I never heard of this cemetery or of the tragedy. Great post. I'd like to visit it someday.

    Laura Hedgecock


    Thank you for remembering this event. On this link you can browse and see an inside photo of one of the sleeping cars and the men killed in this tragic accident.

    Thank you for keeping their memory alive.

    Richard Barnes, Ph.D.

    1. Thank you, Richard!! I had not seen these photos. I found the side note about Red Skelton's father being a clown for Hagenbeck-Wallace amazing. I didn't know that, and I grew up in Vincennes. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Another Wallace circus employee lost his life due to a tiger bite in Washington, DC. I wrote a bit about it here, as the President of Congressional Cemetery in DC.

  8. Thanks for sharing your link, Paul. I did not know about the tiger and Charles Siegert. What a shame! And another loss for the black mark for the Wallace Circus. Was enough money raised this Spring for a marker for Charles?