Historic 1918 Circus Train Wreck Had Ties to West Baden

By Joy Neighbors

Dateline: June 22, 1918
Owner Ed Ballard

Hagenbeck-Wallace Performers
The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus touched many lives in the small town of West Baden, Indiana. It was the circus’s winter home and the performers lived there for several months each year. No one was surprised to hear an elephant trumpet into the night or see a lion tamer working on his act with two “ferocious” lions. In fact, Ed Ballard, owner of the circus and eventual owner of the West Baden Springs Hotel, put on three-ring shows in the hotel’s domed atrium, inviting the town to come and enjoy an evening’s entertainment.

At the time, Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was the second largest circus in the U.S. Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey held the number-one position. But one fateful summer morning in 1918 changed circus history forever.

After the Accident
It was around 4 A.M. on June 22, 1918, near Ivanhoe, Indiana when the 26-car Hagenbeck-Wallace circus train, carrying over 400 performers, stopped to cool an overheated wheel-bearing box. Warning lights were set out to signal that the train had stopped on the tracks, but little good it did. The circus train was struck at full speed from behind by an empty troop train. Engineer Alonzo Sargent had fallen asleep at the controls. Sargent was arrested after the accident and charged with manslaughter by federal transportation officials. The jury deadlocked and a mistrial was declared. Charges against Sargent were dismissed in June 1920 –2 years after the accident.

Three of the train cars housed sleeping circus performers who had no chance to escape as the rail cars were consumed by flames. Eighty-six performers, circus hands and roustabouts were killed as a result of the crash and ensuing blaze. More than 127 others were injured.

Five days after the collision, 56 of the victims were buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Chicago, in a specially designated area known as “Showman’s Rest.” The Showmen’s League of America had donated the plots for the use of circus performers from around the nation. Among those buried there from the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus tragedy were Jennie Ward Todd of “The Flying Wards” and two of the three “Great Dierckx Brothers,” Arthur Dierckx and Max Nietzborn. Others who died were roustabouts and itinerant workers; their real names were unknown so grave markers simply bore the first name of a performer, or a description of what he or she did. 

Forty of the grave markers in the plot for Hagenbeck-Wallace are engraved as “Unknown,” “Unknown female, number 48” or “Unknown Male, number 19. All bear the date of June 22, 1918. 

Circus performers from around the country arrived to help Hagenbeck-Wallace keep to their performing schedule. Thanks to the outpouring of assistance from the circus community, only one performance was missed – that on the night of June 22, 1918 when they were to perform in nearby Hammond, Indiana.

Today, at Woodlawn Cemetery, five elephant statues surround Showmen’s Rest.
Each statue has a foot raised with a ball underneath symbolizing that the show goes on. But each elephant also has its trunk lowered as a sign of mourning and grief – a fitting tribute to those who died bringing laughter and joy to millions around the country, and in West Baden.