The day the clown died: The Hammond Circus Train Wreck:

Back in the early 19th century the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was the second largest circus in American. The circus was based in Peru, Indiana and was started by Carl Hageneck (June 1844-April 1913). He was a seller of wild animals from Germany.

He sold many exotic animals to zoos in Europe and also sold animals to P.T. Barnum. He was known for creating the blueprint of how zoos are laid out in terms of creating a more natural setting for that particular animal. A lot of his ideas around the way animals are trained or kept in zoos are in used in present day. His career revolved around animals and money so having a circus of his own was a natural step for him.

Around 1907 a business man named Benjamin Wallace bought the circus from Carl Hagenbeck. He already had a circus that he had formed with a previous business partner name James Anderson in 1885 called “The Great Wallace Shows.”

Source: Library of Congress

Wallace first instinct was to bring together the two circuses and called it the “Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus.”

However Carl Hagenbeck did not want his name used once he sold his circus and eventually sued Benjamin Wallace for use of his name. However Hagenbeck ended up losing the suit and the circus continued to used the name.

Carl Hagenbeck died on April 14, 1913 in Hamburg, Germany due to a deadly snake bite.

By 1918 the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus was rivaling another well known circus P.T. Barnum. The circus had over two hundred performers and had grossed over one million dollars in both cost but made over well that amount in revenue. The traveling circus main mode of transportation was the trail and railroad. The circus was so huge that it took two full trains that had over 25 wooden cars each just to accommodate everyone connected to it.


On the early morning hours of June 22, 1918 while the circus was traveling from their last show in Michigan City, Indiana to Hammond. Which was only a short travel distance one of the train engineers fell asleep missing any signals to slow down, to change tracks or completely stop, and smashed his train into theirs.

There were reports that the impact of the trains colliding were so huge the it wake up people who lived near the tracks. The accident was so loud that it brought people nearby jolt up and run towards the accident to see what happen. Because all of the cars in those trains were wooden and the only kind of light that was used by that time was kerosene lamps a huge fire was predictable. So not only did people who were on the train felt the impact of the horrible accident they also had to deal with fire.

About 90 people did not survive the accident and their were over a hundred injuries reported. It took those who were helping find anyone on that train hours to pull out the dead bodies. Although those numbers are not exact because of the badly the accident was.

Source: Wall Street Journal

Less than a week later more than half of the people who died in the accident was buried in a cemetery called Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois. More than a thousand people showed up for the funerals and more than 3 clergymen of faith presided the funerals.


The Showmen’s League of America brought a section of the cemetery earlier in the year and named it “Showmen Rest’. That section has a very distinctive feature. It has five elephants surrounding that area. The elephant’s trunk is down and is in a position of some kind of performance act.

Unfortunately the wreckage from the accident was so tremendous that not all of the victims from the wreck were identified. There bodies were so badly burnt from the fire that they hardly had any identifiable markings on them. Most of the victims tombstones have “Unknown Male”, “Unknown Females on them. Most of the other tombstones were marked by the way the deceased was found like “Baldy” or “Smiley.


The lucky ones that survive the accident wasn’t sure who was at fault and decided that the show still should go on. Other circus lent their equipment to the circus and they only missed two performance that year. The Hagenbeck-Wallace circus continued until 1938 after trying to stay afloat with mergers but when the Great Depression hit between 1929 the late 1930’s the circus could not financially stand on it’s own.

Until next time!

Source: Wikipedia,

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