Escaped Elephants and a Circus Train Wreck

I’ve had these two postcards for years now.  They belong to a collection of 200+ postcards that were sent to one of my great-grandmothers, Marie Jelinek, who lived in Chicago.

When I first saw the postcards, I was sure I knew what they were; pictures from a famous Hammond, Indiana circus train wreck that happened on June 22, 1918.  The rear-end collision killed 86 and wounded 127 passengers.  The deceased are buried in Forest Park’s Woodlawn Cemetery in an area known as “Showman’s Rest,” which is well known to many amateur cemetery buffs living in the Chicago area.

Before I began writing this post, I finally bothered to take a look at a photograph from the 1918 crash and read more about it, and I think I’ve proven my theory wrong.  First, the train that crashed into the rear of the circus train in 1918 did so at 60mph, and a fire started immediately.  I don’t see any signs of fire in my postcard, though it does appear that one train has crashed into the back of another.  Also, there is a sign that says “yard limits” in my postcard, which probably means that the trains were pulling out of or into a train yard.  The 1918 incident happened at a crossing of rail lines, but not near a train yard.  Regrettably, my cards were never mailed, so there is no post mark to help me clarify the date.

As I continued to research, I found out that there were quite a few circus train disasters around the turn of the last century:

8/14/1885 – Eddyville, Iowa:  Two sections of Adam Forepaugh’s circus collided.  No casualties.

10/4/1885 – Fergus Falls, Minnesota: A John Robinson’s circus train breaks in two on a steep incline, killing five and injuring 30-40.

9/9/1888 – Cincinnati, Ohio: A John Robinson’s circus train is hit from the rear by a freight train.  Four are killed, eighteen wounded.

5/30/1893 – Tyrone, Pennsylvania: An axle breaks on one of Walter L. Main’s circus cars while the train descends a steep hill.  Seven are killed and nineteen are injured.  A news report in the New York Times yields some delicious details about the escaped animals:

The “man-slaying” ape, the most dangerous animal of the whole lot, was luckily soon taken alive, and was safely caged. …

Strange to say, the elephants and camels, the heaviest animals of the lot, were not injured in the least, and were apparently enjoying themselves as if nothing had happened. …

Three lions escaped.  One was quickly caught and caged.  Another was lassoed and tied to a tree by a colored attendant of the show, but a third is still at large, although there is no fear of his escape, as he is the quietest of the three. …

Two tigers belonged to the show, and both got away.  One was caged safely, but the other met his fate at the hands of Alfred Thomas, a native of McCann’s Crossing.  Mr. Thomas is a farmer, and his wife was attending to the milking of the cows at about 6 o’clock this morning when the tiger leaped into the yard, and, seeing one of the cows, killed it.  Mrs. Thomas went into the house and alarmed Mr. Thomas, who got his rifle and killed the tiger.

8/7/1903 – Durand, Michigan: A rear collision of two Wallace Brothers circus trains kills 23 and injures 28.  The report from this accident also mentions the strange calm of the elephants, “led out of the wreck without trouble” even though one elephant was killed in the crash.

My postcards all range from about 1907-1913, which doesn’t narrow down my choices to any of the wrecks I’ve listed above.  My next step?  Contact the research archives at Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin.  Hopefully I can have some additional information about the postcards in a future post.

For any careful readers, the words to the right on the elephant postcard are in Czech, but the only word I recognize is the second one, which is “elephant.”

Update: Only three hours after I published this post, a reader tipped me off to postcards on Ebay that solve my mystery (Thanks Brian!).  The postcards depict an 8/16/1910 train crash in Babcock, Wisconsin.  A passenger train crashed into the back of a Campbell Brothers circus train, killing one man and several animals, including two elephants.  The moral of the story? Don’t ride in rear train cars, especially if they belong to a circus.  And, if the world is coming to an end, at least the elephants will remain calm.

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2 thoughts on “Escaped Elephants and a Circus Train Wreck

  1. ayearofletters

    Isn’t it always interesting to have assumptions about something; only to find out quite later the assumption was not quite on target – even regarding the history of a postcard?

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