Ghosts of the Circus Train Wreck

When ghost hunters talk about the circus and ghosts in the same sentence, they are almost surely talking about--not the Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey circus, but of another, now vanished circus, and the horrific circus train wreck that gave rise to some famous American ghost stories.


I  have long been fascinated by the mystery of the circus. When I was a little girl, I would love the circus exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, with its hundreds of miniature circus train cars, performers and animals.

A few years ago, I spent the day in Baraboo, Wisconsin, home of the Ringling Brothers and their famous American circus. This was a town where elephants were regularly walked like dogs through the streets for exercise, and where the Ringling Brothers themselves were eventually buried in the town cemetery after death.  During my visit, when I was still recording spirit voices or EVP (I don't do that anymore due to some very deep spiritual trouble it caused me), I recorded at the tombs of the Ringlings and incorporated the recordings into a piece of experimental music I later made, called "The Winter Quarters" (if you're into experimental music, you can still hear a rough version of this piece named "Ringling Mixdown" on my Soundcloud profile here).

Without a doubt, the most infamous wreck in Northwest Indiana history—and the most famous train crash ghosts in the Region--was the 1918 crash of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus Train, and the spirits it left behind.

The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus traveled across the United States in the early part of the 20th century and in its heyday was the second-largest circus in America next to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey.  Based in Peru, Indiana, the Circus employed Joe Skelton, the father of Red Skelton, who joined Hagenbeck-Wallace as a clown for a time.  His father had also performed with the Circus before going onto the Vaudeville circuit.   World famous American clown Emmett Kelly, too, started his career performing with Hagenbeck-Wallace as "Weary Willie" during the Great Depression.

The circus had started out as the Carl Hagenbeck Circus at its founding by animal trainer Hagenbeck, who introduced the use of rewards-based (rather than fear-based) animal training. In 1907, Benjamin Wallace, a livery stable owner from Peru, Indiana, bought the circus from Hagenbeck and merged it with his own, the B.E. Wallace Circus.   

Wallace’s Circus was legendary already.   The show included a big top, menagerie tent, sideshow, two horse tents and a cook house. By the turn of the 19th century the circus required 26 rain cars and several railroad lines to move around the country.   Advertising "high-class" shows, the B.E. Wallace Circus was known for its stunning horses, top notch talent and intricately carved wagons.  Wallace maintained his circus winter quarters in Peru, Indiana, on land once occupied by the Miami Indians, which has led some paranormal investigators to wonder if there was a “curse” on the Circus which led to the tragedies which befell it.

That tragedy visited the circus grounds in 1913 when the circus lost 8 elephants, 21 lions and tigers and 8 performing horses in the devastating Wabash River Flood.   Unable to recover, Wallace sold his interest in the circus to Ed French Lick, Indiana.

Five years after the devastation of the Flood, just before 4:00 a.m. on June 22, 1918, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train was traveling over the South Shore tracks in Northwest Indiana on its way from Michigan to the circus’ next setup in Hammond, Indiana.  The train had just cleared the city of Gary when the engineer of a rear-following troop train, Alonzo Sargent, fell asleep and ran his empty train—a locomotive carrying no less than twenty empty Pullman cars-- into the back of the Hagenbeck Wallace Circus train.  A fire broke out from the oil lamps used to light the Circus train’s sleeping cars, and the flames surged through the old wooden structures, destroying everything in their path.  A staggering 86 people died and another 127 were injured, either from the impact or the resulting fire.  Many victims were burned beyond recognition.   

Sargent later stated that he had slept little in the day before the crash, and that he had indeed fallen asleep while conducting the locomotive at a speed of about 25 miles per hour after leaving Gary:

 Leaving Michigan City, had clear track to East Gary, and there caught block of train ahead, reduced speed, but did not have to stop, as block cleared before I reached it. Reduced speed going through Gary to comply with rules, and saw no more signals at caution or danger until approaching curve east of Ivanhoe, where I found second signal east of wreck at caution. Was going about 25 miles per hour at this point, but did not reduce speed, as I expected that the next signal would probably clear before I got to it, or that I would see it, if at danger, in time to stop. The wind was blowing very hard into cab on my side and I closed the window, which made the inside of cab more comfortable. Before reaching the next signal I dozed on account of heat in cab and missed it. Not realizing what had happened to me until within 75 to 90 feet, I awoke suddenly and saw the tail or marker lights showing red on a train directly ahead of me. Not realizing that the rear end of this train was so close. I started to make a service application, but before completing it placed brake-valve handle into emergency position. We struck almost instantly after making the brake application. Don't know whether I closed the throttle or not, but think I did. Looked to see where the fireman was and saw he was running toward the gangway. Did not see a fuse, hear a torpedo, or see any other warning signal up to the time I saw the red tail lights. Wreck happened at about 4.05 a.m., June 22, and I stayed there for an hour or more assisting in getting people out of the wreckage. I have been in the service of the Michigan Central Railroad Co. for approximately 28 or 29 years, the last 16 of which I have been continuously employed as an engineer. I am in perfect physical condition, as well as mental condition, and have had no illness within 25 or 30 years requiring the service of a doctor. There was nothing defective about the air brakes or other mechanism of the engine or train that I was operating, nor was there any defective condition of any of the signals or track upon which I was operating to the best of my knowledge. The accident was due solely to the fact that I accidentally fell asleep, and I had no intent to injure any person, nor was same done with malice, but solely through an accident, as aforesaid.


With the massive losses both in staff and equipment, other competing circuses, including Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, offered both equipment and talent to Hagenbeck-Wallace so that only two performances had to be cancelled.  But the losses were fatal not only to the performers who had died, but to the circus itself.  After the tragedy, circus operators Jeremiah Mugivan and Bert Bowers bought the struggling Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, which became part of their growing empire of circuses.  A year later, they invited Ballard to become a partner, and the three formed the American Circus Company.  The former winter quarters of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus at Peru, Indiana now hosts the American Circus Hall of Fame.  Although Sargent and his fireman, Gustave Klauss, were criminally charged in Lake County, Indiana, following a trial the jury found itself deadlocked, and a mistrial was declared. Prosecutors declined to re-try the case, and charges were dismissed in the summer of 1920.

Five days after the crash in Indiana, most of those killed in the wreck or fire were buried in a mass grave at Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Chicago suburb of Forest Park.  Just a few months before the disaster, the Showmen’s League of America had purchased a substantial plot of land in the cemetery, set aside as “Showmen’s Rest” and earmarked for the burial of circus performers.   Most of the dead were not able to be properly identified, due to massive destruction by the fire, and so most graves are marked ‘Unknown Male” or “Unknown Female.” A few of the remaining graves bear only the circus names of the dead, including “Smiley” and “Baldy.”  Four stone elephants mark the corners of the site, their trunks lowered in a gesture of mourning.  Each summer, the International Clown Week Festival is held at held at the site, with scores of circus performers and trainers in attendance, entertaining the large crowd and placing flowers on the graves of their deceased comrades.   

Ever since the burials, visitors to the graves at Showmen’s Rest have reported hearing the sounds of wild animals—lions roaring, elephants trumpeting—and so legends began that circus animals buried at the site were haunting the mass grave.  Curiously, however, no animals were killed in the disaster, leading some researchers to wonder if the sounds were audio hallucinations or some sort of energy residue from the crash itself, still attached to the site where so many who experienced it were laid to rest.  Later in the century, though, a local police officer realized the much less dramatic source of the “haunting”:  Woodlawn Cemetery is located only about a mile away from sprawling Brookfield Zoo, and when the wind is just right, the sounds of its very much alive inhabitants can carry in the breeze over the graves of Showmen’s Rest.  

But what of the crash site itself?  Do the spirits of the Great Circus Train Wreck linger on the rails between Gary and Hammond, even nearly a century later? For years, paranormal investigators have traveled to the site of the wreck, hoping to capture evidence of the event in the form of photographs, video or audio recordings of frequencies out of human hearing.  Numerous investigators have recorded “spikes” in the EMF field during investigations, as well as light anomalies captured on film—particular balls of light or “orbs,” believed by some to be spirit energy. 

One gentleman who used to spend a lot of time trainspotting in the area claims to have seen a figure of a man pacing back and forth at the site of the crash and disappearing.  Perhaps the long-gone spirit of Alonzo Sargent, wishing he could return and undo the damage:

I would come in the evenings to watch the commuter trains go by, and sometimes stay and watch for other freight trains passing, and it was always just at twilight, when it had just gone dark, that I would see this man appear.  I never felt afraid or even though anything of it, even after I had seen him once or twice.  While it was happening I would think, ‘Hamm… I wonder if he lost something or what he’s doing there,’ and it wouldn’t be until he disappeared again that I remembered I was seeing this entity or vision or what have you.  I haven’t been out there in many years, but I still think about that sometimes. 

Others have recorded what seem to be voices from the accident scene, including one recording I collected of a woman crying, “Help them!” and another of a male voice whispering, “Burning up.”   J.C. Rositas, part of Heartland Hauntings, remembers recording a voice which he wasn’t expecting.  As he played back a recording he had made at the accident site, he remembers:

I had to rewind it two or three times. It was very clear, but I Couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It just said, “Boo!” 

Leave it to a circus performer!

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