The mass plot containing 56 victims of a circus train accident is a moving sight for visitors to Showmen’s Rest in Woodlawn Cemetery. The identities of only 13 victims are known, so headstones bearing inscriptions such as “Unknown Female,” “4 Horse Driver” and “Baldy” lend an air of mystery to the site. Statues of elephants, their trunks lowered in mourning, give the plot its quiet majesty.
After friends encouraged Jay Torrence to visit the memorial, he was so intrigued by Showmen’s Rest he spent two years researching the tragedy and another six months writing a play about it. The run of his play “Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck” has been extended through Oct. 14 at the Neo-Futurarium theater on Ashland Avenue in Chicago.
Online searches yielded very little for Torrence regarding the ill-fated Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train. But Torrence received an unexpected Christmas present in 2005 in the form of Warren A. Reeder Jr.’s “No Performances Today.”
Reeder was a member of the Hammond Historical Society, where the accident occurred, and his book is considered the definitive work on the subject.
The story is one of almost unrelieved shock and sorrow, Torrence said.
“The story could tell itself in a strong and sad way,” Torrence said, “The challenge was to get away from this ‘easy’ way of telling the story.”
“Roustabout” has its strong and sad moments but it also revels in zany humor.
“My main goal was to make the audience feel like they’ve been to a circus, emotionally speaking,” Torrence said. “The play is a roller coaster of emotions with songs, freak shows and scenes that are as jolting as a train wreck.”
The title character is an anonymous worker who ran away to the circus to avoid being drafted into World War I. The irony of the story is that his life is ended in a collision with a military troop train, on June 22, 1918.
Prior to that day, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was one of the premier circuses of its time. It rivaled Barnum & Bailey and The Ringling Brothers in its size and spectacle. Like its competitors, it traveled by train from town to town, parading down main streets to its huge cavalcade of tents.
According to Reeder’s book, the night before the tragedy, the circus pulled out of Michigan City after a series of performances. The circus was scheduled to play Hammond the next day. As the train reached the outskirts of Hammond in the pre-dawn darkness, a fire started in one of hotboxes of a railcar. The engineer stopped the train on the main line to extinguish the fire.
He saw a train’s headlight behind him and wondered if it was on the same track, or an adjacent one.
Unknown to the engineer, an empty troop train had pulled out of Michigan City at 3 a.m. and was bearing down on him at full throttle.
Meanwhile, brakeman Oscar Timm was dispatched to the rear of the circus train to light warning fuses, according to Reeder’s book. Timm could see the troop train coming. He could hear its stack “barking,” an indication that the throttle was wide open. He waved his fuse back and forth but the train showed no sign of stopping. When Timm saw the troop train pass the last red stop signal, he knew it wasn’t going to stop.
The story continues that Timm frantically ran toward the troop train and as it passed, he threw his lighted fuse directly at the engine cab. The shower of sparks illuminated the engineer. He was slumped over the controls, sound asleep.
The troop train telescoped into the caboose and ploughed through the sleeper cars. Some of the circus folk were killed instantly, while others made miraculous escapes. The horror increased when the circus train’s lanterns ignited the mass of wood and twisted metal. Acrobats and contortionists sprang into small openings in the wreckage to free victims. Many brave attempts were made with rescuers suffering severe burns in the process, according to Reeder’s history of the event.
In a matter of minutes, the fire was too hot for anyone to approach and the circus workers had to listen to the screams while people were burned alive. The exact death toll has never been calculated, because not all of the workers were entered in the company’s books.
On June 25, 1918, three large trucks transported the coffins from Hammond to Forest Park. The mass plot was 35-feet by 24-feet and 5-feet deep. Portions of the eulogy were inscribed in stone at Showmen’s Rest
“These friends who have gone on before us had as distinct a mission in life as the doctors, the lawyers and the ministers,” the inscription reads. “It was the mission of those now departed, together with those of their fellowmen who survive, to bring happiness and cheer into the lives of all people.”
The entire circus community grieved for the Hagenbeck-Wallace victims. Competitors like Barnum & Bailey donated acts so that the circus could keep its engagement in Beloit, Wis. Despite the devastation to their ranks and their overwhelming grief, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was back in the big top on June 25, only three days after the wreck.
Following the tragedy, the engineer and fireman were charged with manslaughter. The jury could not reach a verdict, however, and the charges were never reinstated. Numerous lawsuits were filed but very few of the injured or bereaved families received any money.
The largest award went to a disabled equestrienne, Hettie McCree, who received $100,000.
In light of these tragic events, Torrence said it was a challenge to incorporate humor and crowd-pleasing entertainment into his first play “Roustabout.” Torrence said he would like to someday bring the stage production to Forest Park where mourning elephants stand watch over members of a circus family.