I’ll pick this up again on Tuesday. Even the self-employed have to have a Labor Day.
I’m not sure why Woodlawn is such a popular name for cemeteries, but even the most casual Google run of the name reveals, besides the noteworthy burial plot of the stars in Santa Monica, other Woodlawn cemeteries in the Bronx, Toledo and Dayton (Ohio), Chester County (Tennessee), Monroe County (Iowa), Everett (Massachusetts), Tampa, Saskatoon and more.
And near Chicago, in a little western suburb called Forest Park. I already knew about it before I went there on Thursday for my annual visit to an historic Chicago-area burial ground. It isn’t nearly as picturesque as some of the others I’ve seen, such as Waldheim or Bohemian National, since it only has a thin cover of trees and not a lot of funerary art, but there are a lot of upright stones, so it isn’t completely without visual appeal.
I’d come to see the Showmen’s Rest. It’s a rectangle of ground with small white statues of elephants marking each corner, and a larger elephant at the center back. Rows of flat gravestones line up within the rectangle. A large stone says: “Showmen’s Rest/In Memory/The Showmen’s League of America maintains this plot and has erected this monument in memory of the departed showmen who lie here.” In other words, circus workers, for the Showmen’s League is theirs.
The Showmen’s League is still headquartered in Chicago, a few blocks from my former office, in the floors above Harry’s Hot Dogs (see February 25, 2005). It was founded in 1913 with Buffalo Bill Cody as its first president, and bought a plot in the cemetery for its members in early 1918. It was put to use to bury victims of a circus train wreck near Hammond, Indiana, on June 22, 1918. I looked for the victims of that accident among the stones, which date from every decade after 1918. The stones are simple, and mostly uniform: a set of lines at the top with “S L of A” carved between them; the name of the deceased under that; and then the year of death (without a birth year or any mention of days or months, except for those who died in the train accident).
It must have been a terrible crash. I found a lot of names with a June 22, 1918 date of death: Earl M. Berry, Frank Harris. J. Barnett, Virgil Barnett, Mrs. Mary Roderick, J. Lott, others. On one stone, a nickname: Baldy. On another, a job description: 4 Horse Driver. Saddest of all were the rows and rows of stones that simply said: “Unknown Male,” followed by a number. The highest number I saw was “No. 61.” It reminded me of the rows unknowns I saw buried at Gettysburg.
It’s an itinerant business, the circus, even more so 90 years ago. No Social Security numbers in those days, no W-2s on file. No DNA identification for those burned beyond recognition. Lots of men riding that train more-or-less anonymously, who died anonymously.