Showmen’s Rest is a mass burial of clowns, trapeze artists, and other circus performers. The wandering families of entertainers were members of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. They worked together, lived together, and sadly in 1918, they perished together in one of the worst train wrecks in history.




The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus Train Wreck

Cult Of Weird

At 4 a.m. on June 22, 1918, the train carrying performers and support crew for the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus stopped just outside the town of Hammond, Indiana to cool an overheated axle box. The passengers were sound asleep as the flagman set out down the tracks on foot to lay out flares at an appropriate distance to warn oncoming trains.

They Slept Soundly As Another Train Headed Their Way

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Michigan Central Railroad engineer Alonzo Sargent had fallen asleep in the 21-car military train traveling at 35 miles per hour. He didn’t see the two yellow and two red signals or the flares as his train came blazing down the tracks towards the wooden circus cars. The flagman tried desperately to get his attention, but couldn't.

The Flagman Watched Helplessly As The Train Quickly Approached

A View From The Edge

Sargent slept through the flagman throwing a flare directly at his train’s windshield in a last-ditch attempt to get his attention. It was too late to stop at that point, and the metal locomotive plowed through the wooden cars on the track, killing most of the passengers towards the back of the train within the first 30 seconds of impact.

The Disaster Was Far From Over

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As dazed survivors tried to escape, the kerosene lanterns set the wreckage ablaze. Many who had survived the initial impact still didn’t make it out alive. The wood went up fast, and the fire consumed those who hadn’t made it fully out of the heap.

Bystanders Watched In Horror

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Those who did make it out in time could do nothing to help their friends and family members get out. As the fire raged and then smoldered, they could only extract and try to identify the dead.

A Heartbreaking Sight

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The survivors of the wreck were beyond devastated. Professional clown Joe Coyle was seen huddled over the lifeless bodies of his son and wife, weeping, completely inconsolable. Out of the survivors, 127 serious injuries. Of the estimated 86 people who died, many were so badly burned and dismembered they couldn’t be identified or accurately counted.

Alonzo Was Charged With Manslaughter

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The driver of the military train, Alonzo Sargent, was arrested and brought up on manslaughter charges. He was considered responsible by the federal transportation officials for sleeping on the job, but was acquitted. This tragedy led to changes in regulations mandating sleep schedules for train crews.

A Mass Burial Was Established And Became Known As ‘Showmen’s Rest’

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The Showmen’s League of America purchased a 750-plot, corner section of the Woodland Cemetery. A mass grave was dug right there in Forest Park, Illinois for the victims of the tragedy. There are five elephant statues marking the boundary, their lowered trunks symbolize mourning. They serve as monuments to their lives in the circus and their dedication to ‘the show.’

Headstones Of Stage Names

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Because many performers only went by their stage names and some of the remains were unidentifiable, etched in the headstones are names like “Smiley,” “Four Horse Driver,” or “Unknown Female #43.”

Performers Are Still Buried There Today

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Today Showmen’s Rest continues to honor the fallen performers of the past and those recently deceased. Newer headstones featuring dancers, clown shoes, and even etchings of soaring trapeze artists have been filling in right alongside the victims of the 1918 crash.

Clowns Pay Tribute Each Year At Showmen’s Rest

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There is an annual “Clown Week” celebration that takes place in Showmen’s Rest in August. It’s an event open to all ages, full of games, performance acts, speakers paying tribute, and a laying of flowers ceremony to honor the entertainers. Even in death, they are surrounded with laughter, performances, and bold wardrobe choices.