There is an interesting monument dedicated to the deceased in one corner of Woodlawn Memorial Park, at 7750 Cermak Rd.
Instead of the typical angel or cross grave-marker, the stones here are elephants – a group of them, with the trunks pointed down.
The elephants mark the spot of Showman’s Rest, the final resting place for more than 50 circus performers from the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus train, who died in a crash and subsequent fire in Hammond, Ind. on June 22, 1918.
Marie Pomazal, an administrator at the cemetery, said the unique memorial draws tourists every year.
“The elephant statues have their trunks down to signify mourning,” Pomazal said. “A lot of people think there are elephants buried here. People used to think they heard elephants in the cemetery. They didn’t realize the noises were coming from the nearby Brookfield Zoo. It’s kind of cute. There are only people buried here.”
According to John Rice, Forest Park’s unofficial historian, and a columnist for the Forest Park Review, the crash was one of the biggest tragedies in circus history.
“This is a horrible story, but it is one of the best stories ever. It is amazing,” Rice said.
According to Rice, the circus train was stopped on the tracks in Hammond, Ind., so the circus performers could sleep. A man with a flare was stationed behind the train, to warn other trains that were coming that the circus train was on the track. A troop train came by, empty except for two people – the train conductor and the brakeman. The train conductor fell asleep, and by the time the brakeman realized his companion was asleep and tried to stop the train, it was too late.
“The troop train plowed into the back of the circus train, and it telescoped the cars,” Rice said. “It went right through three rear cars, and many people were killed instantly. Then, a fire started in the wreckage (possibly from the flare the man had thrown into the conductor’s car). The train was made of wood. Acrobats from the circus were able to move in and out of the train cars and get people out. Other people were trapped in there and burned to death.”
“In 1914, the Showman’s League, a circus group, bought a plot of land at the cemetery for performers who had died,” Pomazal said.
Willian Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the famous soldier, bison hunter and performer who had a traveling show, ran the league.
A mass burial took place on June 27, 1918 – just five days after the accident. More than 1,500 people attended the service.
According to the Woodlawn Memorial Park website, 86 circus employees and performers died in the accident; 56 of them are buried at Woodlawn, but some are unidentified.
“The mass grave contained 56 people. Of these, only 13 were identified,” Rice said. “Some of the people buried could not be identified because of the burns or because people didn’t know who they were. Circuses picked up stray workers as they traveled, and people quit all the time. It was fairly normal.”
Some graves are marked with stones like Unknown Male #44 or Unknown Female #4.
Rice said the burial site was a significant part of Forest Park’s history.
In August each year, the cemetery remembers those who perished in the 1918 accident with a festival, complete with hot dogs, face painting, popcorn, and clowns.
“The first Sunday of August every year, we have a clown ceremony,” Pomaza said. “All the people from the Showman’s League come, and the clowns have a service at Showman’s Rest. It is during National Clown Week. It is our way to honor the people who died in the accident.”
Anyone can visit Showman’s Rest. The cemetery is open every day until dusk.