Film shines new spotlight on Showmen’s Rest

When we drive past the Woodlawn Cemetery each day Connie spotted some grave markers that made her curious. Then she read an article in the Daily Herald about the very same cemetery and its connection to a movie titled “Water For Elephants“. So it was time to go into the grounds and see for ourselves.

The weather today was raw, windy and cold so cycling was less attractive than usual. We entered from the south gate of the cemetery and took images to augment the article from the Daily Herald which appears below.

By Teresa Schmedding

Showmen's Rest

The newly released “Water for Elephants” movie may spark a resurgence of interest in a Forest Park cemetery where 56 circus workers, killed in a train wreck in 1918, are buried.

The best-selling book, and the subsequent movie that opened April 22, mention Showmen’s Rest at Woodlawn Cemetery. I visited the unassuming cemetery in search of the memorial and was surprised by how hard it was to find inside the cemetery despite being bordered by five elephant statues.

I expected to see a massive monument, one that would be as flamboyant as a circus performer’s life. I wasn’t quite expecting a big top, but I did think the elephants would be huge and the monument would scream at me as I entered the cemetery. But I was surprised, once I found it, by the quiet and simple, yet emotional, tribute to the Hagenback-Wallace Circus performers. It melds well with the rest of the peaceful cemetery, which looks like any other with its winding roads and circumspect headstones.

Rumor has it, the cemetery is haunted (of course) and you can hear elephant cries in the night. I didn’t have the nerve to go there in the dark (besides, it’s closed) so the only sound I heard were birds chirping and the distant drone of traffic. The five elephant statues are also thought to mark the spot where five elephants that perished in the crash are buried, yet there were no elephants on the train.

Here’s the history of the crash: On June 22, 1918, around 4 a.m., a 26-car circus train heading to Hammond, Ind., from Illinois stopped on the tracks as the result of a mechanical problem. Another train, whose engineer had fallen asleep, slammed into the train.

The four rear sleeping cars of the circus train caught on fire, killing 86. Most died in the first 35 seconds of the crash, which was on the Michigan Central tracks near Ivanhoe. Others were trapped under the wreckage and unable to escape the flames.

Shortly before the crash, the cemetery plot was purchased by the Showmen’s League of America, a league of circus performers, and it was deemed the victims would be buried at what is now known as Showman’s Rest.

Performers continue to be buried at Showman’s Rest today, filling the right half of the burial plot. The five elephant statues have a foot raised over a ball and their trunks lowered, a sign of mourning.

If you’re heading to the cemetery out of slightly ghoulish interest, you’ll soon find yourself solemnly staring at the small, concrete headstones wondering what the lives of these colorful people were like so long ago. And if anyone continues to mourn them today.

Most of the dead were never identified, because many were temporary workers or roustabouts hired shortly before the wreck. Some were known only by their nicknames. The circumspect, square markers bear the names of those identified. Those, sadly, not known are labeled as unknown male (followed by a number) or 4 Horse Driver.

It seems that performers who entertained so many should be remembered by more than a headstone marked with a number.

Still, you can feel the strong sense of pride. The Showmen’s League of America, formed in 1913 in Chicago with Buffalo Bill Cody as its first president, picked the elephant as its symbol.

That’s because, with its uplifted trunk, the elephant exemplifies the characteristics of the showman, not only alert and sagacious, but victorious as well.

The elephant statues with a flag flying overhead, and the understated grave markers, truly are a graceful tribute.