Woodlawn Cemetery Circus Train Tragedy
On June 22, 1918, at approximately 4 am in the morning, veteran train driver Alonzo Sargent fell asleep at the helm of his 21-car locomotive and crashed into the temporarily-stopped Hagenbeck-Wallace circus train carrying 400 circus performers. The haunting accident happened just outside Hammond, Indiana.
The colliding train was moving at nearly 40-miles per hour and the collision decimated the three rear cars carrying many performers. The train held over four hundred passengers who worked for the circus. Many perished on impact, and many more after a roaring fire broke out from the train’s kerosene lamps. 86 men, women, children are said to have died from this tragedy with 127 reported injured. The disaster did not discriminate, taking the lives of “showmen” including clowns, trapeze artists, lion tamers, the strongman, “roustabouts” and more from all walks of life. The total body count is close, but not exact because of poor employee records and many bodies burned to ash from the inferno. No animals were harmed.
Haunted Showmen’s Rest. The Circus Graveyard at the Chicago Woodlawn Cemetery.
Days later, fifty-three of the recovered bodies were buried in a mass grave plot on the outskirts of Chicago in a patch of cemetery land purchased by the Showmen’s League of America. Only five bodies were ever officially identified and given a proper burial.
The mass grave markers have no specific headstones instead using markers such as “Unknown Male No. 39,” or circus names such as “Baldy” or “Smiley,” or even circus job such as “4 Horse Driver.” Five stone elephants were erected to honor the fallen circus workers.
Since then, more circus performers have been buried at Showmen’s Rest and the section of Woodlawn Cemetery has grown to 750 plots. Still, no animals have been buried at the cemetery. Forest Park’s cemetery is only one of four Showmen’s Rest Cemeteries in the United States. The others are Southern Memorial Park in Miami, Florida, another Woodlawn Cemetery in Tampa, Florida and Mount Olivet Cemetery in Hugo, Oklahoma.
Is Showmen’s Rest haunted?
The Showmen’s Rest Cemetery is one of the more uniquely haunted graveyards in the United States, even more considering the tragedy that befell the victims of its mass grave. Chief among the disturbances is the sound of elephants crying in the distance even though there are no elephants buried on site. An Oak Park Police Officer once reported the actual ground beneath him vibrating as if an elephant were physically trampling past him. There is no official documentation by cemetery employees as to when the paranormal activity first began at Showmen’s Rest.
Laughter and circus music are also heard at odd hours. Due to the otherworldly sounds, various EVP and investigation sessions have been conducted by paranormal groups over the years. While nothing sinister has turned up on the EVPs, an unusual circumstance of the electronic equipment being jammed or drained of battery life is said to happen quite frequently.
The Clown Cemetery
Showmen’s Rest in Chicago is also known as the Clown Cemetery for the clowns who have been buried there. Clowns from the 1918 train disaster and more have been buried at Showmen’s over the years. During the 1918 Hammond Train Wreck, “Big Joe” Coyle, a circus clown, lost both his wife and children who were trapped in the inferno. He could not get to them, although he tried to reach them, he was pulled back from the flames by his comrades. He wept as they perished.
Coyle would go on to manage a vaudeville show titled “George White’s Scandals” where the famous Three Stooges would begin their career. “Big Joe” Coyle worked as a clown into the 1950s, albeit he was sad and had a very hard life. He died 42 years after the tragedy in 1960. His final resting place is not known.
Each year, Showmen – men, women, and children who work in circuses and carnivals – come to Showmen’s Rest to pay homage to their brethren from the train disaster and many other fallen comrades over the years. This is typically run around Clown Week which has given Showmen’s Rest at Woodlawn the nickname of “The Clown Cemetery.” Not to be confused with the “Clown Motel” in Nevada which rests next to a cemetery itself.
Myths of the Showmen Cemetery
A few myths have come about over the years. People have said that elephants were buried at Showmen’s Rest and that several perished attempting to save lives at the disaster. Woodlawn Cemetery representatives confirmed that there are no animals at the cemetery and they are “not allowed to bury animals on their premises.” The representative did mention that many get confused because of the “cemetery’s proximity to a nearby zoo.”
In all regards, if ghosts do exist, there are many reasons why they would be at Showmen’s rest. The show must go on.