On September 13, 1916 a five-ton circus elephant was executed, hung from a 100-ton Clinchfield railroad crane car, in the little town of Erwin, Tennessee. ‘Murderous Mary’ had killed a man, and for that she had to die. Shooting her in the four soft spots on her head would be both difficult and dangerous. She wouldn’t eat poison. And the town didn’t have enough power to electrocute her.
The bizarre story of the hanging of Mary the elephant begins in St. Paul, Virginia, where Sparks World Famous Shows stopped for a one-day stand. By 1916, Sparks World Famous Shows had blossomed into a successful, 15-car circus with clowns, acrobats, horses, lions and elephants.
The star of their show was Mary, a giant Asian elephant. She was advertised on Sparks posters as “The Largest Living Land Animal on Earth,” weighing “over 5 tons” and standing “3 inches taller than Jumbo,” the star elephant of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. At 30 years old, she could “play 25 tunes on the musical horns without missing a note.” As the pitcher on the circus baseball-game routine, her .400 batting average “astonished millions in New York.”
But it was her size that awed many people from rural communities who had never seen an animal this large or exotic. Mary was valued anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000, and was the primary reason many people came to the show.
On Monday, September 11, 1916, Sparks World Famous Shows played St. Paul, Va., a tiny mining town in the Clinch River Valley. Walter “Red” Eldridge, a local hotel janitor, approached head elephant trainer Paul Jacoby for a job as an under keeper of the elephants and was hired, despite his lack of experience. Eldridge’s job responsibilities included watering the elephants and preparing them for the parades and shows.
The following day, in Kingsport, TN, the elephants (according to the most popular version of the story) were being led to a watering ditch between shows. Eldridge used a bull hook – a stick with a hook on its end – to guide Mary, but had been warned in his training to nudge her gently and not to provoke her.
Suddenly, Mary “collided its trunk vice-like [sic] 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 biestly [sic] 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.” —The Johnson City Staff, September 13, 1916
Circus owner Charlie Sparks knew the animal had to be put down, and decided that the only “humane” way to execute Mary would be to hang her. Clinchfield Railroad had huge, 100-ton derricks that they used to unload lumber off their freight cars. If these derricks could handle those heavy items, they could surely handle a five-ton elephant.
More than 2,500 people gathered to watch Mary swing near the turn-table and powerhouse on the drizzly afternoon of September 13. Her handlers 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.
related post: “They’d get up and swing around on the trapeze”