A Grave Laughing Matter: Showman’s Rest Provides Final Resting Place for Performers
Located in Forest Park, Illinois is a cemetery where if people are seen clowning around, they will not expect to get a second glance from anyone. Hundreds of circus performers, who spent their lives entertaining the masses and making people laugh, are laid to rest there. This section of Woodlawn Cemetery is known as Showman’s Rest.
100 years ago on June 22, 1918, one of the worst train wrecks in history occurred. It was reported that 86 people had died and 127 were injured. However, those facts alone are not what makes this story spectacular. The train which was struck by another, belonged to the Hagenbeck – Wallace Circus and the majority of people who perished belonged to the circus.
The circus traveled across the country in the early 20th century and was second in size only to the Ringling Brothers. A 750-plot section of Woodlawn Cemetery was purchased by The Showmen’s League of America only a few months before the train was rear-ended by a sleeping engineer at the helm of an empty troop train. It subsequently caught fire from kerosene lamps and many of the remains were unidentified.
It is believed Arthur Diercks and Max Nietzborn belonging to the strongman act “Great Dierckx Brothers”, and Jennie Ward Todd of “The Flying Wards” was among the dead. However, most of the grave markers, are identified as unknown male or female, with a smattering of nicknames like ‘Baldy,’ ‘Smiley,’ or ‘4-horse-driver.’
Though the plots were bought over 100 years ago, the destination remains the final resting place for many showmen who have gone to the “Biggest of Big Tops.” Five elephants with lowered trunks bowing to the deceased performers are an awe-inspiring sight and ring true of Showmen’s Leagues devotion to their members. Another Showman’s Rest is located in Evergreen Memorial Park and Crematory in Los Angeles, California.