The Klonne-Haus circus train wreck

On the morning of October 31, 1923, the circus came to town unexpectedly in Torrance, California. A train from Louisiana, chock full of circus animals and carnie folk, stopped for the night in the newly incorporated town of Torrance. At approximately 3:21 am, a freight train heading to Los Angeles, missed at least two automatic signals and warnings posted by a brakeman of the 26-car circus train. This train, made of steel, hit the wooden circus cars at 60 mph. The runaway train finally came to a grinding halt atop the fourth car from the rear in a deafening cacophony of metal and splintered wood. Most of the dead perished within the nightmare that happened next.

Fire, fed by the gas-lighting system of the circus train, quickly engulfed the train. Clowns, bareback riders, trapeze performers and acrobats, many of them veterans of the circus world, who didn’t perish instantly in the crash, either suffocated or burned to death. Survivors struggled about the wreck screaming for relatives or friends and many had to be physically restrained from rushing back into the blazing wreckage.

Hours after the crash, bodies were still being recovered from the pile of debris. There were numerous pitiful scenes at the wreck and later in the hospitals. In one such scene, Joe Croyle, a clown, convulsed on a stretcher and wept bitterly beside the bodies of his wife and two babies who had been crushed to death just inches away from him inside one of the death cars.

Adding to the chaos, rumors sped through the area that several lions, tigers, elephants and other exotic animals had escaped from the train into the fields south of the wreck. Another report claimed that one demented circus man had run from the train, evaded the doctors and disappeared into the fields. It’s easy to imagine the wild rumors that must have swept that small town after a tragedy of this magnitude.

The wreckage from the accident was cleared in just three days. The identity of many victims of the wreck was unknown; some were roustabouts and temporary workers hired just hours or days before. Only a dozen or so of the headstones have names; one is marked “Smiley,” another “Baldy,” and another “4 Horse Driver.”

Four tribal drummers stationed themselves by the burial site. A tall, handsome black man, wearing a top hat, a black tuxedo and dark glasses, appeared out of thin air, began calling to the dead. When the spirits overtook his body, he staggered and lurched, spewing a strange language. The drummers maintained an upbeat, sometimes frenzied pace well into the early morning. When the drummers stopped, they vanished, along with the handsome black man. Spooked by the scene, the dead were quickly buried in trenches along with other wreckage too mangled to be reused. In their haste to leave, the townsfolk failed to document the mass grave’s exact location.

In the months and years after the accident, drumbeats were heard through the night, and distant firelight flickered through the tall grass. In the mornings following the drumbeats, the ground was found mysteriously dug up and unknown symbols made with colored sand were found nearby. A mysterious figure wearing formal black attire, a high silk hat, and dark glasses had been seen out in the fields. Rumors spread quickly that the demented circus man came back and was digging up the land, but no remains could be found. The newspapers named this mysterious figure “The Shadow Man”. As Torrance grew, there were no more holes, no more drums, and no more flickering lights. But the “Shadow Man” could be seen wandering the fields and neighborhoods near the crash site.

Today, the story has become ingrained in town lore. Bones, horseshoes, lion-cage locks and railroad spikes have turned up every time a new home is built on the wreckage site. But the exact location of the mass grave has been lost to history. Long after the circus’ departure, the almost century-old tragedy still haunts Torrance.

Legend has it, that each anniversary-on Halloween, a circus reappears for just a short while so that the spirits of the past may mourn. Of course, this is all quite simply a tale, A Halloween ghost story written to spook the faint of heart.

Isn’t it?