The Tragic Story of Mary the Elephant, Who Was Hanged for ‘Murder’ in 1916

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This photo was taken on September 13, 1916, shortly after a circus elephant named Mary was hanged in Erwin, Tennessee. The animal had killed a circus worker the day before in nearby Kingsport. This picture is believed to be the only one in existence documenting the elephant’s execution. Experts say the picture, which may have been touched up years ago, appears fuzzy because it was taken in late afternoon in the rain.

(Image: AP Photo/Courtesy of East Tennessee State University Archives of Appalachia)

Mary was billed as “the largest living land animal on earth.” At least that was how Charlie Sparks, the owner of Sparks World Famous Shows circus, promoted her, claiming she was three inches taller than Jumbo, P. T. Barnum’s famous pachyderm. At 30 years of age, Mary was five tons of pure talent. It was claimed she could “play 25 tunes on the musical horns without missing a note.” Perhaps more intriguing, she was the pitcher for the circus baseball team and her batting average of .400 “astonished millions in New York.”

On September 11, 1916, a homeless man named Red Eldridge, who landed a job as a transient hotel clerk, was hired as an assistant elephant trainer by the Sparks World Famous Shows circus. He was killed by Mary in Sullivan County, Tennessee, on the following evening. Although unqualified, Eldridge led the elephant parade, riding atop Mary’s back; Mary was the star of the show, walking at the front.

Sparks World Famous Shows circus poster featuring Mary the Elephant.

There have been several accounts of his death. One, recounted by W.H. Coleman, who claimed to be a witness, is that he prodded her behind the ear with a hook after she reached down to nibble on a watermelon rind. She went into a rage, snatched Eldridge with her trunk, threw him against a drink stand and stepped on his head, crushing it.

A contemporary newspaper account, from the Johnson City Staff, said that Mary “collided its trunk vice-like about [Eldridge’s] body, lifted him 10 feet (3.0 m) 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.”

Regardless of the exact circumstances, the ultimate end was the same – a man dead. Old Testament frontier justice had to be served. Man’s insatiable hunger for grotesquery had to be satisfied.

But how?

Guns, of course, were the first course of action. Blacksmith Hench Cox fired his 32-20 five times at Mary; the bullets hardly phased her. Sheriff Gallahan “knocked chips out of her hide a little” with his .45, according to witness Bud Jones. But as the circus manager stated, “There ain’t gun enough in this country that could do the trick.”

The circus owner, Charlie Sparks, reluctantly decided that the only way to quickly resolve the potentially ruinous situation was to kill the wounded elephant in public. Some suggested hooking Mary to two opposing railroad 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.

On the following day, a foggy and rainy September 13, 1916, Mary was transported by rail to Unicoi County, Tennessee. More than 2,500 witnesses gathered to watch Mary swing near the powerhouse at the nearby Clinchfield Railyards in Erwin, Tennessee. The roustabouts chained Mary’s leg to the rail while they struggled to get another chain around her neck. When they began to lift her up the crowd was horrified to hear the bones and ligaments cracking in her tethered foot. She was lowered and released from the rail and a second attempt ensued.

Mary the elephant dangled briefly, then fell when the chain broke.

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.

A stronger chain was attached, the winch was put into motion yet again, and this time Mary died. They left her hanging for a half-hour and then dumped her in the grave they had dug with a steam shovel.

A veterinarian examined Mary after the hanging and determined that she had a severely infected tooth in the precise spot where Red Eldridge had prodded her. The authenticity of a widely distributed (and heavily retouched) photo of her death was disputed years later by Argosy magazine.

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