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Circus tragedy recalled in Illinois Cemetery

Updated on June 27, 2011

Eight stone elephants stand guard, trunks downward in a final trumpet in Woodlawn Cemetery, in Forest Park, Illinois. From a business nearby street, the 3-foot tall lifelike replicas mark a mass grave.

Most casual passersby might think the elephants are the grave markers for those associated by the nearby world class Brookfield Zoo.

However, they actually mark the spot in which somewhere between 50 and 86 circus workers were killed in a June 1918 train accident.

On June 22 of that year, the Hagenbeck-Wallace the circus train was stopped on the tracks in Hammond, Ind., so circus performers could sleep. A man with a flare guarding the back of the train so that other trains in the area could be warned as to its position. However, a United States troop train, moving because of World War I, was also on the tracks. The empty troop train contained only a conductor and brake man. At the controls, the conduct fell asleep,

The troop train never slowed down, hitting the rear of the circus train and continuing through the three rear cars before it stopped. While many died instantly, a spark from the crash ignited wooden cars and straw for the animals.

Those acrobats were able to escape and assist others, many more burned to death. Because of the transient nature of circus life, the actual death toll was never reported. Estimates of between 50 and 86 people died, making it the most horrific tragedy in circus history.

"In 1914, the Showman's League, which was located in downtown Chicago, had purchased a piece of land in the cemetery, assuming it could be used by performers once they died without preparations.

The league, which left its mark on Chicago in the form of a building with not only it’s name carved into the stone, but also rang the facade of the building with stone elephants, was run be Buffalo Bill Cody.

A mass burial took place on June 27, 1918, five days after the accident. At least fifteen hundred people attended. Some of those buried were never identified.

While 56 are buried at Woodlawn, only 13 were identifiable because of burns and the transitional life of circus performers. Circuses added and lost and replaced worker at each stop.

The site remains popular with tourists. Each August, the cemetery hosts a festival to recall those lost in the accident. The event is scheduled to coincide with National Clown Week.

And while the cemetery has frequently been rumored to be haunted, for years residents nearby stated they heard the plaintive cry of animals those closest to the cemetery attribute the sounds to the nearby zoo.

And also despite rumors that the elephants represent buried circus animals, no animals are interred in the park. Only circus workers, who were lucky enough to be cared for by their colleagues.


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