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Horrific Circus Train Crash In 1918 Killed Popular Circus Entertainers

1900s | July 30, 2018

Circus graveyard: Showmen's Rest and the Hagenbeck-Wallace tragedy of 1918 - Chicago Tribune

One of the worst train wrecks in the United States occurred with a circus train carrying 400 circus performers was rear-ended by another train and burst into flames. The accident happened in the wee morning hours of June 22, 1918, near Hammond, Indiana, and left the strong man for the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, along with a couple of trapeze artists, the bearded lady, and a slew of unknown roustabouts among the 89 people killed and more than 150 injured. The horrific accident shed light on many of the hazards of railroad travel in the early 20th century.

A mass funeral for clowns

The Train Conductor Had Been Awake for 24 Hours

Alonzo Sargent was the conductor of the Michigan Central Railroad that was following the circus train. In the 1910s, there was no oversight of the train conductors’ well-being. Sargent had been awake for well over 24 hours, driving trains all across the Midwest. A few hours before the accident, he had taken some kidney medication and ate a heavy meal. All that, plus the gentle movement of the train as it sped down the tracks, lulled Sargent into a fast, deep sleep. He was aware of the circus car in front of him, but he didn’t know that the circus train had stopped momentarily so a brakeman could check a mechanical issue. Sargent slept through two warning signals the circus train had initiated to let other trains on their tracks aware of their stopped position.

The Wooden Train Cars Had Lit Oil Lamps

When Sargent’s train, travelling at about 35 miles per hour, rammed into the caboose of the circus train, it splintered the caboose into pieces and continued on to the four wooden sleeping cars, carrying the sleeping circus performers. Hanging on the walls of the wooden train cars were oil lamps, lit but dimmed for the sleeping passengers. When the wooden cars jolted from the hit and began to break apart, the oil lamps crashed to the floors. Wherever the oil splattered, the fire went. All four sleeping cars were engulfed in flames in a matter of minutes.

No Circus Animals Were on the Train

The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus used two different trains to move the circus from one town to the next. One train engine would not have been able to pull the weight of the 400 circus workers, along with all of the animals and equipment. It was standard practice to send the animals in a separate train ahead of the performers. By doing it this way, the animals could be unloaded, settled, and fed in plenty of time before the next circus performance. This practice saved all of the circus animals from the same fate as the performers.

Arthur, Joe and Max Dierickx during their heyday with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus before the train wreck.

The Conductor was Charged With Manslaughter, but Acquitted

Following the train accident, Sargent was arrested and charged with manslaughter, along with Gustave Klauss, another railroad worker. The trial ended in a deadlocked jury and a mistrial. The Lake County, Indiana, prosecutor decided to not re-try the case and all of the charges were dismissed. In the years after the accident, railroads became more aware of the effects of sleep deprivation on its conductors.

The Wreck Killed Popular Circus Entertainers, as well as Unknowns

Most of the circus performers who were killed were burned beyond recognition. Others survived the initial crash but succumbed to their injuries at a nearby hospital. Two-thirds of the strongman act, The Great Dierckx Brothers, died when fire raced through their sleeping car. Also among the dead was Jennie Ward Todd, an aerialist with The Flying Wards. Many of the casualties, however, were circus roustabout, a sort of circus groupie. These were people who joined the circus for a short period of time, doing odd jobs and such, until they felt like quitting. The circus didn’t really keep records of the roustabouts working for them at any given time. Many of the performers were buried in a mass cemetery plot under markers that simply say “unknown man,” “Smiley,” or “Horse Driver.”

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.