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Mary the Elephant. The town considered guns, electrocution and dismemberment before settling on hanging. Mary hanging from a 100-ton derrick in Erwin, Tennessee.

Mary the Elephant. The town considered guns, electrocution and dismemberment before settling on hanging. Mary hanging from a 100-ton derrick in Erwin, Tennessee.

Murderous Mary, The Elephant that was Hung for Murder, 1916

One hundred years ago, on September 13, 1916, Mary the elephant was hung by a railroad derrick car at the Clinchfield Railroad yard. Mary was a five-ton Asian elephant who performed in the Sparks World Famous Shows circus.

Charles H. Sparks owned the show and it had a reputation in the entertainment world as being a 100% “Sunday School” Circus. That is, no short change artist-a clean family entertainment. Charles Sparks had been in the circus business since the late 1800’s. The circus purchased its first elephant in 1896. That was Mary. She was four years old and four feet high. At that time the show was a horse and wagon show. By 1905, they had grown to railroad transportation with one railroad car. By 1906, they had three rail cars; by 1916, the show had expanded to fifteen rail cars and five elephants.

In the early 1900s, it wasn’t uncommon for humans to use their waxing technological prowess for the express purpose of?torturing?the hell out of animals. In one particularly mind-boggling incident, a five-ton circus elephant named Mary was condemned to death by hanging after her owners nixed executions by firearms, dismemberment, and electrocution.

It was 1916, and things were changing fast. World War I raged in Europe. Dadaism, ripe with comic derision and irrationality, took hold in artistic circles. Freeform jazz took hold of the American music scene. Margaret Sanger opened the first birth-control clinic. It was a good year for scapegoats. It was a good year to hang an elephant.

Erwin, Tennessee seems to be a polite and patriotic town, where campaign signs ask voters to “Please Elect…,” then thank them in advance. It’s a place where many of the Main Street businesses mark the Fourth of July by closing down for four days, and nobody seems to mind the inconvenience.

In 1916, Erwin was a railroad boom town, home to the Cincinnati, Clinchfield, and Ohio Railroad’s repair facilities, sprouting like a boy growing too fast for his own britches. The population of Erwin (which was supposed to be called Ervin, in honour of the man who donated 15 acres of land for the town, but was misspelled by a postal worker) nearly tripled in the first 16 years of the century. Makeshift boardwalks stretched above the ankle-deep yellow mud in the streets.

For stringing up ?Murderous Mary?, you need no ordinary gallows. No, for this job, you?re using the hoist on a train derrick and an industrial-strength chain for a noose. The actual train derrick that hanged Mary the elephant. The leftmost man, seated on the machine, is the ?executioner? who worked the controls.

For stringing up ?Murderous Mary?, you need no ordinary gallows. No, for this job, you’?re using the hoist on a train derrick and an industrial-strength chain for a noose. The actual train derrick that hanged Mary the elephant. The leftmost man, seated on the machine, is the ?executioner? who worked the controls.

Mary The Elephant: The Clinchfield railyards. The elephant's leg was chained to the rail before she was lifted by a chain around her neck.

Mary The Elephant: The Clinchfield railyards. The elephant’s leg was chained to the rail before she was lifted by a chain around her neck.

The Clinchfield line used to carry coal out of the Tennessee mountains; Clinchfield and Blue Ridge Pottery were the major employers in Erwin. For decades, the railroad yards were the busiest place in town.

Now, the yards are quiet: pigeons roost in the old passenger station, and most of the tracks are dull from disuse.

This is where Murderous Mary, a five-ton cow elephant with the Sparks Brothers Circus, was hung by the neck from Derrick Car 1400 on September 13, 1916. The story of why and how Mary died is, of course, obscured by time and countless retelling: an example of the best and worst of oral history. It is tragic, absurd, and excessive: quintessential turn-of-the-century America.

So when the Sparks Bros. Circus rolled into town after town, people were glad for the relief. With the circus came laughter and joy. And Charlie Sparks, he led his fledgling little circus and served as ringleader extraordinaire. The pride of Charlie’s show was a 5-ton elephant named Big Mary who Charlie insisted was a full 3 inches taller than PT Barnum’s Jumbo.

Come see Big Mary, the largest living mammal on Earth?

People flocked from miles around and under the big top. In dusty towns across the country, Big Mary thrilled audiences by playing songs on 25 musical horns without missing a note. The audience’s favourite was Mary’s baseball act. Wielding a bat in her trunk, the bandstands roared with laughter when Mary faked anger at the umpire and trumpeted in his ear. Anger played very well with this audience, but Mary’s fury was no laughing matter. The massive elephant was said to be gentle one moment and fly into a rage the next. Charlie’s secret was that Mary had actually killed two of her previous owners. Known for her temper, she’d been passed from circus to circus to circus to Charlie.


Charlie Sparks, the owner of Sparks World Famous Shows, was a frustrated man. His circus was two-bit, compared to his southern rival, John Robinson’s Four Ring Circus and Menagerie. A circus’s net worth was measured in rolling stock and elephants: Sparks’ dog-and-pony show traveled in a mere 10 railroad cars, compared to Robinson’s 42; Sparks could boast of only five elephants compared to Robinson’s dozen. Never mind Barnum and Bailey — 84 railroad cars was beyond Charlie Sparks’ reach.

So Charlie did the best he could, travelling around the South, putting up advance posters and enticing folks with a noon circus parade prior to the day’s two performances. Sparks posters claimed a certain degree of moral superiority:

“Twenty-five years of honest dealing with the public!”

“Moral, entertaining, and instructive!”

“The show that never broke a promise!”

What else did Sparks offer? Educated sea lions. Greasepainted and powdered dogs and humans, posing like Greek statues. Clowns. The Man Who Walks Upon His Head. And elephants.

Mary was billed as “the largest living land animal on earth”; her owner claimed she was three inches bigger than Jumbo, P.T. Barnum’s famous pachyderm. At 30 years old, Mary was five tons of pure talent: she could “play 25 tunes on the musical horns without missing a note”; the pitcher on the circus baseball-game routine, her .400 batting average “astonished millions in New York.”

Rumor and exaggeration swarmed about Mary like flies. She was worth a small fortune: $20,000, Charlie Sparks claimed. She was dangerous, having killed two men, or was it eight, or 18?

She was Charlie Sparks’ favourite, his cash cow, his claim to circus fame. She was the leader of his small band of elephants, an exotic crowd-pleaser, and an unpredictable giant.

On Monday, September 11, 1916, Sparks World Famous Shows played St. Paul, Va., a tiny mining town in the Clinch River Valley.

Which is where drifter Red Eldridge made a fatal decision. Slight and flame-haired, Red had nothing to lose by signing up with Sparks World Famous Shows: he’d dropped into St. Paul from a Norfolk and Western boxcar and decided to stay for a while. Taking a job as janitor at the Riverside Hotel, Eldridge found himself pushing a broom and, then, dreaming of moving on.

Eldridge was hired as an elephant handler and marched in the circus parade that afternoon. It’s easy to imagine that what he lacked in skill and knowledge, he made up for with go-for-broke bravado. A small man carrying a big stick can be a dangerous thing.


No one denies that Mary killed Eldridge in Kingsport, Tenn. on September 12, 1916. The details of why and how it happened, gathered from oral-history tapes from the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University, vary so wildly that they should be read with skepticism, and no small dose of chagrin.

Version I. After the Kingsport performance, Red Eldridge was assigned to ride Mary to a pond, where she could drink and splash with the other elephants. According to W.H. Coleman, who at the tender age of 19 witnessed the “murder:

?There was a big ditch at that time, run up through Center Street, …And they’d sent these boys to ride the elephants… There was, oh, I don’t know now, seven or eight elephants… and they went down to water them and on the way back each boy had a little stick-like, that was a spear or a hook in the end of it… And this big old elephant reach over to get her a watermelon rind, about half a watermelon somebody eat and just laid it down there; ‘n he did, the boy give him a jerk. He pulled him away from ’em, and he just blowed real big, and when he did, he took him right around the waist… and throwed him against the side of the drink stand and he just knocked the whole side out of it. I guess it killed him, but when he hit the ground the elephant just walked over and set his foot on his head… and blood and brains and stuff just squirted all over the street.

Poor Red Eldridge was no more. Once again, Big Mary had become Murderous Mary. The crowd shrieked with fear and scattered down the road. A local blacksmith named Hench Cox charged out of his shop, waving a pistol, and shot five rounds into Mary. But the elephant barely flinched.

So the crowd began to chant, let’s kill the elephant, let’s kill the elephant, let’s kill the elephant. Louder and louder, the crowd grew even more furious and more terrified. They had faced polio and war and poverty, but this was too much.

Charlie Sparks, terrified with the prospect of losing his main attraction and his $8,000 investment, tried to calm the crowd. I’d be happy to kill her, folks, I’d be happy to, but there ain’t a gun in the land big enough to do the trick. Eventually, people from the circus managed to calm Mary down and lead her back to her home under the big top. Meanwhile, panic spread across eastern Tennessee about the killer elephant. Rumors began that she killed four people, then eight. And the Johnson City Comet falsely reported that she killed 18 men.

Later that same night, performing in the circus, Big Mary made her final mistake – in the middle of the show, the elephant snuck up on Charlie Sparks, removed his hat from his head and slapped him in the face with it.

While the crowd roared with laughter, Charlie Sparks, red-faced, fuming with anger, hatched a plan to get his revenge on Big Mary. The next day, the circus pulled into a rainy Erwin, Tenn. And after Mary helped pull the train cars through the muddy fields, she performed her last circus. The mood under the big top was said to be tinged with sadness. All of the performers, all of the audience, everyone knew this would be Mary’s final act. Charlie had invited them all to view the elephant’s hanging following the circus.


Version II. As reported in the September 13, 1916 issue of the Johnson City Staff, Mary “collided its trunk vice-like about Eldridge’s body, lifted him 10 feet in the air, then dashed him with fury to the ground… and with the full force of her beastly ?fury is said to have sunk her giant tusks entirely through his body. The animal then trampled the dying form of Eldridge as if seeking a murderous triumph, then with a sudden… swing of her massive foot hurled his body into the crowd.”

Version III. Maybe Mary was simply bored, as a staff writer for the Johnson City Press-Chronicle suggested in 1936. “The elephant’s keeper, while in the act of feeding her, walked unsuspectingly between her and the tent wall. For no reason that could be ascertained, Mary became angry and, with a vicious swish of her trunk, landed a fatal blow on his head.”

Version IV. Or did Mary kill Red Eldridge because she was in pain? Erwin legend has it that Mary had two abscessed teeth, which caused her such agony that she went berserk when Eldridge tapped her with his elephant stick. The infections were, of course, discovered only after Mary was killed.

Regardless of the details, the end was the same — a man dead. Justice to be served. And besides, Charlie Sparks was no fool: no town in Tennessee would invite his circus to perform with a certifiably rogue elephant. Johnson City, where performances were scheduled for September 26, had already passed a privilege-tax ordinance restricting carnivals’ operations within city limits, in order to protect its citizens from wholesale fleecing; it was common knowledge that Johnson City officials were looking for an excuse to ban all traveling shows. As valuable as Mary was, she had to go.

The problem was, how?

Guns, of course, were the first course of action. Just after Eldridge’s death, blacksmith Hench Cox fired his 32-20 five times at Mary; the story goes that the bullets hardly phased her. “Kill the elephant. Let’s kill him,” the crowd began chanting. Later, Sheriff Gallahan “knocked chips out of her hide a little” with his .45, according to witness Bud Jones. But the circus manager stated, “There ain’t gun enough in this country that he could be killed”; another approach would have to be attempted.

Someone suggested electrocution: “They tried to electrocute her in Kingsport — they put 44,000 volts to her and she just danced a little bit,” railroader Mont Lilly claimed. Others report that electrocution was never an option, because there wasn’t enough power running in the railroad yards to affect Mary. (Since most American railroads continued to use steam locomotives until the 1930s, it’s curious that railroad electrocution was even a possibility.)

Other reports suggest a third execution method: hooking Mary to two opposing engines and dismembering her, or crushing her between two facing engines. Both were dismissed as too cruel.

And so it was decided, instead, that Murderous Mary would be hung by the neck from a derrick car the next day.


Mary didn’t perform for the matinee performance the day she died. She was chained outside the circus tent, and folks say she spent the entire performance time swaying nervously. The crowd’s dissatisfaction with her absence was mollified by the announcement that Mary would be hung in the Clinchfield Railyards later in the afternoon — with no additional charge for admission.

More than 2,500 people gathered to watch Mary swing near the turn-table and powerhouse on that drizzly afternoon; perhaps the number of eyewitnesses, as well as the unforgettable, sad spectacle of the event, explains the consensus on this part of the story.

In the early evening, a crowd of hundreds followed Big Mary to the railroad derrick. People were everywhere. Grown men clamored to the tops of trains in the rail yard to get a better view. Newspapers report that one man who thought he was coming to see a black person lynched became incensed when he found the condemned was actually an elephant.

He got up and started yelling at the crowd, you should be ashamed of yourselves. You are a dishonorable people. The railroad crane operator refused to hang the elephant. He worked the night shift and feared the image would haunt him in the rail yards. So a rail worker, named One Eyed Steve Harvey, volunteered for the job.


One of the witnesses, Myrtle Taylor, remembered that every child in Erwin was at the Clinchfield Yards. “And they took the other elephants and Mary down Love Street from the performance to the railyards, trunk to tail. We kids hung back because we were scared to death, but still we wanted to see it.”

Wade Ambrose, who was 20 at the time Mary was hung, recalls that the roustabouts chained Mary’s leg to the rail, then drove her companions back around the roundhouse.

“They had a time getting the chain around her neck. Then they hooked the boom to the neck chain, and when they began to lift her up, I heard the bones and ligaments cracking in her foot. They finally discovered that she’d not been released from the rail, so they did that.”

It doesn’t seem surprising that the chain from which Mary hung snapped shortly after she was raised off the ground. It was, after all, just a 7/8″ chain, and Mary weighed 10,000 pounds. She hit the ground and sat upright, immobilized from the pain of a broken hip.

“It made a right smart little racket when the elephant hit the ground,” says eyewitness George Ingram, with admirable understatement.

Seeing Mary loose, not knowing that she had broken her hip and couldn’t move, the crowd panicked and ran for cover. Then one of the roustabouts “ran up her back like he was climbing a small hill and attached a heavier chain”; the winch was put in motion a second time, and Mary died.

They left her hanging for a half-hour, witnesses say, and then they dumped her in the grave they’d dug with a steam shovel 400 feet up the tracks. (The reports of the grave size vary from a too-small 10 by 12 feet to “big as a barn.”)

The infamous photo above might be a real snapshot of this incident ? there’s also a chance she was hung again postmortem for a photo opportunity.

The elephant was lowered into a grave by the river, where a local veterinarian performed an autopsy on her giant corpse. He discovered that Mary had a badly infected tooth in precisely the area where Red Eldridge had smacked her with a stick. In the end, she was just an animal acting out in pain. She was not spiteful, not vengeful, not cruel, just hurting.

Hanging Over Erwin: The Execution of Big Mary??

The Day They Hanged an Elephant In East Tennessee,

Mighty Mary,??

Big Mary,?

The Hanging of Big Mary:? Someone Worth Remembering,?

Mary the Elephant,?

It’s Hard to Kill an Elephant,?

Murderous Mary,?

*View the Video clip of the Electrocution of Topsy the Elephant,?

Memorable Death of a Five Ton Mary?

The Day They Hanged Mary The Elephant in Tennessee …

‘Fed up’ circus elephant lynched for ‘murder’ in 1916 – NY Daily News

The town that hanged an elephant: A chilling photo and a macabre …

Murderous Mary : Weird True Stories – The Moonlit ? 1916: Mary the Elephant