The Train Wreck That Killed Over 100 Circus Performers
I’ll admit it, I don’t fall into the category of people creeped out by clowns. I mean sure, I don’t want one to murder me or anything, but I just don’t have that visceral reaction to clowns that a lot of others seem to. However, the idea of a catastrophic train wreck where massive numbers of circus performers were mutilated beyond recognition? Yeah, that’s a visual to keep me up at night.
Early in the morning of June 22, 1918, Alonzo Sargent was operating a Michigan Central Railroad train with 20 empty cars. He’d been following close behind a circus train going considerably slower, and whoopsy-doodle, fell asleep at the wheel. (Do trains have wheels? Or is it like a control panel? Whatever, he fell asleep at a bad time.)
The 26-car circus train had stopped to check a hot box but Sargent was taking a little nap so his train plowed into the caboose and four rear sleeping cars at an estimated 35 miles per hour.
Most of the 104 dead were killed in less than a minute after collision, then the wreck burst into flames. Many of the bodies couldn’t be identified due to the severity of the injuries, so most casualties are marked “Unknown Male” or “Unknown Female”. In case that’s not creepy enough, you’ve also got graves marked “Smiley” and “Baldy”, plus the confirmed deaths of the Great Dierckx Brothers (a strongman duo) and Jennie Ward Todd of The Flying Wards. (If you’re interested, you can visit Showmen’s Rest in Forest Park, Illinois.)
A historic tragedy, sure — but there’s just something undeniably haunting about the idea of an early 20th century circus wandering the train tracks at night, searching for the final performance that will never come.