Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was not the biggest show in the United States, but it came very close. In 1918, the company had around 250 performers. They ranged from acrobats, equestriennes, and clowns to lion tamers. 1907 when Benjamin Wallace bought the Carl Hagenbeck Circus from the Carl Hagenbeck family, the company had grown into a $1,000,000 extravaganza. It required two separate trains, each with 28 cars, to transport the performers, animals, and costumes across the country.
It was training that made this enterprise possible. , writes Douglas Wissing, “The incredible growth of railroads after the Civil War spurred the golden age for circuses.” The circuses could travel hundreds of miles by rail instead of walking ten miles daily through the mud. The chaos was a unique spectacle that brought together people from all over the world. Cultural historian Rodney Huey wrote, “the day the circus came into town was a public holiday, disrupting daily life for its citizens to the extent that shops, factories, and schools were closed.”
He considers the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus the Midwestern equivalent of the East Coast P.T. Barnum show. Hagenbeck Wallace show.
Traveling by train was not without its risks. Rail accidents in the era were deadly. A railroad accident in 1892 resulted in the death of 26 trained horses. At the time, the circus was called the Great Wallace Show. In 1903, a second accident occurred when the second train did not slow down as it approached the yard and crashed into the train in front of it. This resulted in the deaths of 26 men and animals.
The scale of the accident that the Hagenbeck Wallace team experienced on June 22, 1917, was far greater than any of these earlier accidents.
The circus had just finished two shows in Michigan City and traveled 45 miles to Hammond overnight. The first train carried workers and some circus animals. It arrived at its destination without incident. The second train’s engineers stopped their progress to repair a hotbox. If not addressed immediately, the overheated bearing on the axle could lead to a train fire.
Around 4 am, the second train shifted onto a sidetrack. The last five cars – including the four wooden sleeper cars – remained on the main track. While the engineers were working and the performers slept, an empty train, used to transport soldiers from the East Coast to Europe for deployment, sped down the main track. The train driver blew through several stop signs, then the lamps of many circus engineers desperately trying to stop the oncoming car.
Newspaper reports indicate that the steel-frame Pullman car of the train smashed into wooden circus coaches with speeds between 25-60 miles per hour. The collision was so loud nearby farmers were woken and ran to find out what had happened.
Henry Miller, assistant light manager, was one of the survivors thrown out of the wreckage. He suffered minor injuries. He told the Chicago Daily Tribune he was sleeping in the last car, right next to the caboose, when the train was hit. I woke up to the sound of wood splintering… Then, there were more crashes, and then another… and finally, the train buckled. It was slicked cleanly in the middle as if cut with a large knife.
How many people died or were injured in this collision is impossible. The kerosene lamp hanging in the wooden vehicles’ halls quickly ignited everything. The survivors clawed out of the rubble or called for assistance before the fire consumed them. Mary Enos and Lon Moore helped Eugene Enos, who was trapped under wooden beams. Mary told the Chicago Daily Tribune they pulled Eugene Enos out just as flames were licking at him.
Most weren’t as lucky. Crash survivors had to risk their lives to save friends and family from the wreckage. The only water available was shallow marshes, despite the rapid response of the Hammond and Gary fire departments. The wrecking crane brought to the accident site to help dig out people was not initially used due to the intense heat. The Daily Gate City and Constitution-Democrat, an Iowa newspaper, wrote later that day, “The task of identifying the dead and seriously injured was almost hopeless. The bodies were so severely burned that it was nearly impossible to locate them.
The accident injured more than 100 people and killed 86. Among them were some of the most famous performers of the circus: Millie Jewel (animal trainer), Jennie Ward Todd (aerialist and Flying Wards member), Louise Cottrell, Wild West rider Verna Conner, brothers Arthur and Joseph Dericks, as well as the wife and sons of Joseph Coyle, the chief clown.
The families of the performers who died fought over who was to blame. The railway company? The man arrested for manslaughter, Alonzo Sargent, the engineer who drove the empty train? The circus itself? They all seemed to avoid any responsibility. A spokesperson from the Interstate Commerce Commission released a Chicago Daily Tribune statement saying, “We are doing everything we can to discourage wooden cars being used on passenger trains, and encourage the replacement of steel ones.” This is all we can do.
The survivors decided that the show had to go on. The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus missed only two performances despite the accident’s physical and mental toll on them. This was thanks to the other circuses who provided equipment and crew.
In the weeks that followed, 53 performers who had died were offered burial at Woodlawn Cemetery in Chicago. The Showmen’s League newly purchased the plot – a fraternal organization created in 1913 to support men and women working in show business. The graves of the other victims were too badly burned to identify. Only five had been marked. More than 1,500 mourners gathered when the coffins arrived to pay respects. The sisters’ graves were marked with a stone elephant whose trunk was drooping.
Stewart O’Nan writes in A True Story of a Tragic American Tragedy, “[tragedies such as this] fit the popular image of the circus, which is a dangerous workplace populated with shady transients, and naturally prone for disaster.” “But [most] risk is calculated painstakingly by experts, just as the rigid logistics of the circus are.”
It was a problem when the risk could not be calculated and when it came unanticipated at night.