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Wednesday, March 29

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Editor's note: This article originaly ran on September 2, 2003.

For years I never knew the real story about Showmen's Rest in Woodlawn Cemetery. Whenever my parents drove along Cermak Road I could see the elephant statues from the car, but I never really wondered about them. If you grow up anywhere near Forest Park, you get used to cemeteries: you know that the town is home to more dead people than living ones; you have to shrug off that grade-school superstition about holding your breath when you pass a cemetery, because if you tried that shit in Forest Park, you'd be dead, and then way to join the status quo, dumbass.

Besides, the only cemeteries that ever seemed worth getting creeped out over were a little ways north, where both sides of Des Plaines Avenue are dense with the very old and ornate headstones of the Forest Home cemeteries. By comparison, Woodlawn Cemetery is more modern and spacious and tidy; I'd always imagined it the cemetery for the duller dead. Dull, except for those weird elephant monuments.


Fig1. One of Showman's Rest's famous elephant monuments.

In high school I started hearing them called the Elephant Graves. One night, a group of us were bored as hell and we decided to sneak into Woodlawn because it was easy enough to park nearby and hop the fence. Once inside, one of the guys whispered that we should check out the Elephant Graves.

"Wait, you mean those statues?" I asked. "There are elephants buried there?"

"That's what I heard," the guy said. "Like, from the circus or something."

"Wait," someone else said, "Why the hell would they bury elephants here?"

It certainly sounded like bullshit. And then a cop car pulled up on Cermak and busted us so we couldn't investigate further.

Later, what I heard was that there was some kind of circus train wreck along the railroad spur that runs east of the cemetery, and that some elephants were killed, and that their bodies couldn't be moved very far, because they're, you know, elephants, and so they had to bury them right there in the cemetery that just happened to be right there where the circus train wrecked.

Right. You don't even have to try and consider the logistics of dead elephant conveyance to be completely unconvinced by this account. Pretty much all credibility is shot by the time you get to the phrase "circus train wreck."

The thing is, it's the one part of the story that's true.

I had to wait until the Internet was invented to find this out. And so I learned about the 1918 train wreck in Indiana that killed 86 members of the Hagenback-Wallace Circus. The train had been stopped on the tracks en route to a performance in Hammond when an empty troop train (driven by an engineer known for sleeping on the job) plowed into the back of it at full speed, destroying three sleeping cars. Then the wreckage caught fire, killing even more people -- but no animals died, no elephants. Fifty-six of the victims came to be buried at Woodlawn Cemetery, on a plot the Showmen's League of America had bought just a few months before. A few years later the elephant monuments were added -- their trunks pointed downward to signify mourning �- and eventually the plot became known as Showmen's Rest, where other circus performers have also chosen to be buried.

It turns out that the apocryphal "dead elephant" story is pretty common in the west suburbs, and when I came across other versions in my research, I was a little sad that I hadn't grown up with one of the crazier variations of the legend that has brave, selfless superhero rescue elephants plucking victims from the wreckage with their trunks, or stomping out the flames, or extinguishing the fire with sprays of water. Not that I would have believed it, but still.

Now that I knew the truth, I had a deep need to visit the place, so I headed out to Showmen's Rest on a Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago. I stopped at the dollar store at Cermak Plaza to buy some paper and crayons to make grave rubbings. (I believe digital cameras vex the dead. Especially the very nice cameras that I can't afford.) I drove through the gates and parked my car and walked over to the memorial. The train wreck graves make up about half the Showmen's Rest plot, and over 40 of the markers are marked "unknown" -� because of the fire and the transient nature of circus performers, so many of the victims are unidentified. I took a rubbing of the marker belonging to the one female of the group. You went, girl, I thought.


"Unknown Female No. 43"

Some of the other graves had more information. I spent some time considering the grave of "Frank Martin, Died In Hospital." I decided hey, if I was in a horrifyingly spectacular and particularly nasty disaster and I didn't get to die right away I'd sure as hell want the world to know.


Fig3. The fate of Frank.

Finally, I went over to the markers in the very first row; most of those had names. I had read that some of the graves bore only the stage names of the performers: I'd heard, for instance, that a "Smiley" was buried somewhere in the group, but I couldn't locate him. I did, however, find "Baldy."


Fig4. Alas, poor Baldy, we hardly knew thee.

I suspect that Baldy is a favorite among visitors to Showmen's Rest. Was he a clown? A strongman? Just a bald guy who helped tend the animals? Was he even a guy? (Seriously: anything's possible with a circus.) The truth wouldn't make seeing this grave any less poignant. You look at the name and hope that this marker is what Baldy wanted. Maybe the name makes you want to laugh, even. That's your business. Just remember that in death, eventually, we're all baldy.

I was busy making my last rubbing when I glanced over to one of the newer grave markers, one from the 1940s. Someone had placed something on it�an object of some kind�and I crawled over to see what it was. I didn't want to pick it up. It was some kind of toy or figurine; it looked very old. It was cracked and discolored from the sun, but I could still tell it was an elephant.


About the Author(s)

Wendy McClure writes about her own circus trainwreck life at Pound. Her first book, I'm Not the New Me, is in bookstores now

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