The Tragic Execution Of Mary The Elephant

Elephants are incredibly intelligent creatures, but not so intelligent that it would be logical to find them guilty of a crime. However, in 1916, a Tennessee town came to its own conclusion and executed a circus elephant for murder. After the animal's mistreatment at the hands of an amateur handler, the elephant swiftly killed her attacker. Word spread fast, and locals wanted nothing but the harshest punishment for the supposed misdeed (via All That's Interesting).

It was a grisly scene, with executioners brainstorming over the logistics of killing the massive animal to satiate an angry mob. In hindsight, forcing an animal to work as an entertainer and also punishing it for lashing out seems quite inhumane. The incident has left a considerable stain on the town over the past century — especially as the absurdity of the story only grows with time — which is why locals have tried to turn the sad story of Mary the elephant into a tale of redemption. 

When a circus elephant met a janitor

"Big Mary" the elephant was owned by performer and entrepreneur Charlie Sparks, who set her to work for the traveling circus Sparks World Famous Shows, which was touring the Southeastern United States in 1916. According to All That's Interesting, Mary was purchased at a young age and grew up working alongside other circus animals and acrobats. In fact, she grew and grew until Sparks could sell her as "The Largest Living Land Animal On Earth," apparently weighing 10,000 pounds by the time of her death. Mary was a reliable crowd favorite — until she arrived in Erwin, Tennessee.

A railroad town then booming in business and population, Erwin was a perfect stop for Sparks' show. However, the circus had unknowingly thrown a wrench into their own proceedings. Sparks had recently hired an inexperienced hotel janitor named Walter "Red" Eldridge in Virginia. He was an eager worker who knew nothing about caring for elephants, but he was taken up by the circus anyway and even marched in their parade the same day. That was September 11, 1916 — by September 12, Red Eldridge was dead (via Blue Ridge Country).

The killing

How it all went down has been muddied over time. Sites big and small across the internet say Red Eldridge struck Mary on the side of her head when she reached for a watermelon rind, and soon Eldridge was sent flying through the air by the elephant's trunk. Blue Ridge Country, in their 1997 retrospective, lists four different versions of the killing. Some say Eldridge had unknowingly hit an infected tooth, or that he simply walked too close to Mary one day. He was thrown into the drink stand, or impaled by tusks. Several stories end with "Murderous Mary," as she came to be known, approaching the incapacitated Eldridge to stomp his head to bits.

The town was furious — it seems the incident happened in full view of spectators — and some gunslingers even tried to shoot Mary down. She quickly became a public spectacle, and Charlie Sparks and his circus were losing show bookings fast. To stop the bleeding, so to speak, he decided to put down his favorite elephant (via All That's Interesting).

How a town hanged an elephant, and redeemed itself

When the public got wind of Charlie Sparks' plans, everyone chimed in with their own favorite method of killing the animal. Blue Ridge Country says this story is conflicting, too, as a suggestion of electrocution was either ineffective or technically impossible for the time, depending on who's telling the story. Some people wanted to crush her between train cars, or pull her apart with them. In the end, the court of public opinion decided that the only fitting punishment was to have Mary hanged from a crane on September 13, 1916. But the poor animal suffered even before she died; in the first attempt to lift her, the chain broke and sent her tumbling down, breaking her hip.

In the 1990s, Blue Ridge Country reported that an antique shop used the supposed photograph of Mary's hanging — and the whole sordid story — to sell T-shirts and other memorabilia. But NPR reported in 2019 that generation after generation of Erwin residents have carried the stigma of the affair for more than a century. Now, an organization called RISE Erwin has spearheaded an effort to change the narrative around the town to one that celebrates, rather than kills, elephants. RISE partners with the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, and has previously hosted a town-wide art contest to honor the animal that the town once hanged.