Coffins belonging to the victims of a tragic circus train wreck fill the mass grave at Woodlawn Cemetery
The show must go on:
Memorial Day site home to mass circus burial ground
By Jennifer Zimmerman/TribLocal.com from The Chicago Tribune
Every year on the Saturday before Memorial Day, a team of volunteers from the Showmen’s League of America gather on the verdant grounds of Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park to walk their usual route along the historic graveyard.
They come outfitted with the standard stack of American flags to place alongside the final resting places of more than 400 people in preparation for the traditional remembrance service. Only it isn’t war heroes and decorated servicemen marked by the stream of red, white and blue.
These tombstones belong to a different type of veteran: a circus veteran.
“I’d like to think that many of them have been of service by entertaining the children of the world and the people of the world,” said Joe Burum, executive director of the Showmen’s League of America.
People gather around one of the elephant statues at Showmen's Rest. (Photos submitted by the Showmen's League of America)
Known as Showmen’s Rest, the area is composed of 455 graves that belong to some of the most famous acts under the big top such as clowns, aerialists and animal trainers.
Despite having no direct tie to the military, Showmen’s Rest has been used as the site for the Memorial Day service for years because of its appealing beauty and easy to spot location, said Diane Burmeister, a member of the Showmen’s League and in-house historian.
The site is owned by the league, a Chicago-based organization that caters to the needs and wishes of carnival people.
“We have always taken care of our own and that is what the Showmen’s League was set up for,” she said.
Located near Cermak Road and Des Plaines Avenue, the site hardly blends in with the quiet backdrop of Woodlawn’s massive trees and aging headstones. Five majestic elephant statues made of granite stand abreast with their trunks pointed downward, a symbol of mourning and sadness, Burmeister said.
Showmen’s Rest was created in 1918 just months before a fatal train accident that left more than 85 members of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus dead and another 170 injured. Burmeister said the group was four miles outside Hammond, Ind. when their train was struck by an oncoming locomotive, splitting the first five cars in half.
A fire broke out from kerosene lamps inside the train cars causing a blazing inferno that took four hours to put out.
“No one really had a chance to get out,” Burmeister said.
After hearing of the tragic accident, members of the Showmen’s League donated their cemetery plot and financial resources to ensure the dead were properly buried and the injured were taken care of. Freezer trucks were used to transport the dead from Indiana to the Forest Park cemetery.
Contrary to popular belief no elephants or animals reside at Showmen’s Rest, but the area continues to serve as a final resting place for some of the country’s most famous big top performers. All 50 states are represented and another 310 cemetery plots remain under the ownership of the league for future use.
Each December the dead are honored during the league’s annual meeting, as well as in August by the National Clown Association as part of National Clown Week.
Burum said despite the often-humorous nature of the circus, the Showmen’s League is nothing to laugh at. Formed by the legendary William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the league has continued to support traveling circus and carnival performers for nearly 100 years.
Scholarship funds have been set up, medical and burial services paid for and numerous care packages have been sent overseas in support of those who traded the bright lights of the big top for the trenches of war during World War I and World War I
“We are not all what the public thinks we are,” Burum said. “There are exceptionally sharp businessmen and businesswomen (in the league).”
For more information about the Showmen’s League of America, go to showmensleague.org. The Memorial Day service will take place at 1 p.m. Monday, May 31st at Woodlawn Cemetery, 7750 W. Cermak Road.