The Hammond circus train wreck.

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In a quiet cemetery outside Chicago lies a mass grave of clowns, strongmen, and acrobats who died in one of the worst circus tragedies in history.

In the early morning hours of June 22, 1918, the members of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus were fast asleep in the wooden cars at the back of their train.

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The Hammond Circus Train Wreck occurred on June 22, 1918 during World War 1 and was one of the worst train wrecks in US history. Eighty-six people were reported to have died and another 127 were injured when a locomotive engineer fell asleep and ran his train into the rear of another near Hammond, Indiana.

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In the early morning hours of June 22, 1918, Alonzo Sargent was operating a Michigan Central Railroad troop train pulling 20 empty Pullman cars. He was aware that his train was closely following a slower circus train. Sargent, an experienced man at the throttle, had slept little if at all in the preceding twenty-four hours. The effects of a lack of sleep, several heavy meals, some kidney pills, and the gentle rolling of his locomotive are thought to have caused him to fall asleep at the controls.

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At approximately 4:00 am, he missed at least two automatic signals and warnings posted by a brakeman of the 26-car circus train, which had made an emergency stop to check a hot box on one of the flatcars. The second train plowed into the caboose and four rear wooden sleeping cars of the circus train at a rail crossing known as Ivanhoe Interlocking (5½ miles east of Hammond, Indiana) at an estimated speed of 35 miles per hour.

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The circus train held 400 performers and roustabouts of the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus. Most of the 86 who were killed in the train wreck perished in the first 35 seconds after the collision. Then, the wreckage caught on fire. Among the dead were Arthur Dierckx and Max Nietzborn of the Great Dierckx Brothers, a strongman act, and Jennie Ward Todd of The Flying Wards. There were also 127 injuries.

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Five days later, most of those killed, burned beyond recognition, were buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, at the intersection of Cermak Road and Des Plaines Avenue in Forest Park, Illinois, in a section set aside as Showmen’s Rest, which had been purchased by the Showmen’s League of America only a few months earlier. Few of those buried were formally identified, and so the graves of most of the casualties are marked “Unknown Male” or “Unknown Female.” One grave is marked “Smiley”, one “Baldy”, and another “4 Horse Driver”. The section is surrounded by statues of elephants in a symbolic mourning posture.

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