The Day They Hanged an Elephant in East Tennessee
Mary the Elephant. The town considered guns, electrocution and dismemberment before settling on hanging.
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," according to longtime resident Hank S. Johnson. The population of Erwin (which was supposed to be called Ervin, in honor 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.
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, excessive: quintessential turn-of-the-century America.
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, traveling 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' favorite, his cash cow, his claim to circus fame. She was the leader of his small band of elephants, an exotic crowd-pleaser, 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.
Version II. As reported in the September 13, 1916 issue of the Johnson City Staff, 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."
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' oper- ations 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.
One of those 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.
Clinchfield railyards. The elephant's leg was chained to the rail before she was lifted by a chain around her neck.
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.")
When Mary's massive and valuable tusks were sawed off is a matter of debate. Some, such as eyewitness M.D. Clark, claim that "they dug down that night and cut her tushes off." Mont Lilly, who helped hang Mary, claims someone made a pair of dice from the tusks.
A careful observer of the one photograph allegedly taken at Mary's hanging will notice that the elephant suspended there has no tusks. So either Mary's tusks were removed before she was hung -- or they were removed after the hanging and Mary was "rehung" for a photo-op. A third possibility -- that the photograph was a hoax -- ought not to be discounted; when it was submitted to Argosy magazine for publication, the photo was rejected as a phony.
Tusks or no tusks, Mary or a superimposed substitute: The photograph revealing the hung elephant is a mirror of the times, in which Old Testament, frontier justice was served (Mary had, after all, killed two or three or 18 men), and people's insatiable hunger for grotesquery was, at least temporarily, satisfied.
Eighty Years Later...
There is an antique shop in Erwin memorializing -- or capitalizing -- on Mary's death. The owners of the Hanging Elephant Antique Shop sell T-shirts emblazoned with Mary's likeness, which also graces the side of their building.
There is also in Erwin a woman named Ruth Piper, who has made it her mission to memorialize Mary, to wash the town clean of elephant blood. Piper believes that Erwin has for too long taken the rap for Mary's death.
"Kingsport, the railroad, and Mr. Sparks are to blame for what happened to Mary -- not Erwin. People feel so guilty about it -- we've got to release it. It is a sad, sad thing that happened, but we have to let it go."
Somewhat paradoxically, Piper wants an elephant statue and fountain built in town, a movie at the visitor center, a memorial wreath laid in the railroad yards. In October 1995, she presented her proposal to the Erwin Bicentennial Committee. Nothing came of it.
There is a final irony clinging to the story of Murderous Mary, one that firmly places Mary's murder in a time and place. In an article published in the March 1971 issue of the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, author Thomas Burton reports that some local residents recall "two Negro keepers" being hung alongside Mary, and that others remember Mary's corpse being burned on a pile of crossties. "This belief," Burton writes, "may stem from a fusion of the hanging with another incident that occurred in Erwin, the burning on a pile of crossties of a Negro who allegedly abducted a white girl."
The murder of an elephant: a spectacle. The murder of "a Negro": another spectacle.
It was 1916 -- a good year for scapegoats in America.