Friday, June 24, 2011

A Circus Tragedy and Showmen’s Rest

Mourning Elephant
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. Thank you for such a great post. Husband and I are big circus (history) fans really enjoyed all the great information you collected.

    Thanks so much!


  2. Thank you for sharing this information. It was very interesting but also tragic.

  3. Tragic indeed, Yvonne - but I like the fact that International Clown Week is held at Showmen's Rest each year. That just seem's like the perfect place for it...

  4. Thank you for the info about Joe Coyle who was a relative of my Grandmother. When he came to Akron, he always visited with my Grandmother who was very little at the time. She used to tell stories of her famous cousin the clown but the family never spoke about the death of his family....she was always told it was too painful to ask.

  5. WOW! How touching! We don't really stop to think much about how each tragedy that happens affects someone's family out there. Thank you for sharing!!

  6. I'm looking for info regarding the tragedy that happened on June 3, 1898, in Racine, Wisconsin. The Great Wallace Circus arrived to set up, and Prince the elephant got loose, wreaked havoc in Uptown Racine, and gored to death his trainer, Joe (John Anderson) famous elephant trainer. Joe was buried in Mound Cemetery that same day, in an unmarked grave. For the next 30 years, when the circus came to town, they would make a pilgramage parade to the cemetery to lay flowers on Joe's grave. Myself and some others had a marker made for Joe and placed in Mound Cemetery. I'll respond to your response. Thank you for your time!


      I just found this information and stumbled into this website doing a little research on this event for my mother. (I'm a Racine Native.) Do you have any information about where the unmarked grave is in Mound Cemetery?

    2. I am interested to know as well where John Anderson's grave is at mound cemetery. Thank you.

    3. The rest of the story on John (Joe) Anderson's grave.....

      John was buried at Mound Cemetery in Racine, Wisconsin after being killed by Prince, the lead elephant. No stone was put up at the time, and after a while people seemed to forget. Then, the High Riders Motorcycle Club decided that Joe should have a stone. The group hosted a ride and Anderson now has a stone which reads: "John M. Anderson, elephant trainer with the Great Wallace Circus Show, died in Racine on June 3, 1898 at the age of 54 when he was killed by an elephant." At the top of the stone is the word "Joe" and four elephant prints.

    4. I believe a HUGE Thank You goes out to the HIgh Riders Motorcycle Club of Racine for their kindness and consideration!!

      For more info and to see Joe's stone -

  7. Thank you for the information! I had never heard the whole story. I had heard vaguely about it when I was a kid, since my great-grandparents formed elephant monuments, always wondered about what had happened. Such a sad story.