The Day They Hanged an Elephant in East Tennessee
The above photograph is the astounding and tragic moment that the five ton Asian elephant "Mary" was hanged on a miserable and rainy September 13th
1916 in Erwin, Tennessee.
Mary was purchased in 1896 by Charles H. Sparks and his Sparks World Famous Shows Circus.
Rumours and sensationalism surrounded Mary and still do. She was the circus's first elephant and Sparks claim to fame, a huge crowd pleaser.
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."
However things were to change forever when on Monday September 11th 1916, Walter "Red" Eldridge was hired in St Paul,Virginia, to be an assistant
elephant trainer. The only thing really known for certain about this individual is that he had been working at a hotel and is said to have been
between 23 and 38 years old. Eldridge was hired due to the original elephant trainer having to drop out of the show.
The circus travelled on to Kingsport, Tennessee, where in between shows, the elephants were driven to a watering hole. There are multiple versions of
what happened next but one common account has it that it was on the way back from the watering hole that Mary decided to investiage a piece of
watermelon which had been discarded by the side of the road. Eldridge prodded Mary behind the ear with a hook to discourage her, which caused her to
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.
Neaby spectators became horrified and began chants of "kill the elephant!" A local blacksmith Hench Cox attempted to do so by firing several rounds
of his 32-20 at Mary, but to little effect. Mary was eventually calmed by her owner Charles Sparks who rapidly arrived at the scene. The huge animal
was secured near the county jail where it was assured she would not come into contact with people.
Charles Sparks and his wife Addie now had a big decision to make. Having worked with Mary for many years it would be impossible to take a chance in
continuing to do so, especially now she had killed someone. It was concluded the only way for them to attempt to rectify the disastrous situation was
to have the elephant destroyed.
But how exactly was one to destroy a 7500 pound elephant?
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
Other morbid and grusome suggestions were made such as chaining her to two engines and dismembering her.
It was eventually decided that Mary would be hanged in the neighbouring town of Erwin using a railcar-mounted industrial crane.
Visitors to the circus were somewhat disappointed that the main attraction wasn't taking part (Mary apparently spent the entire time chained outside
the tent, swaying nervously), however their spirits soon revived upon hearing of the hanging and a crowd of around 2500 people turned up at the
Clinchfield Railroad Yard that day.
The first attempt is said to have failed, with the chain around her neck snapping, causing Mary to fall and break her hip. Injured, stunned and unable
to move, another chain was quickly attached and this time the second attempt was successful.
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.")
There is speculation as to whether the photograph is genuine or not.
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
Almost 100 years later the town in question is not very comfortable about it's role in the execution of Mary and prefers to have the grave unmarked,
with nobody having had permission to dig up the bones.
I think this is a truly tragic and somewhat disturbing story. The full facts of the event may never be known, but the links below are still worth
checking out as they go into a bit more detail. The barbarity of the elephant's death and that alleged photograph sticks in my mind. For such a
majestic and intelligent creature to suffer for people's entertainment and to then be killed in such a way is horrible. It rightly stands as a
cautionary tale of circus animal abuse and furthers my conviction that animals should not be used in the circus.
Sources: The Day They Hanged an Elephant in East Tennessee
The Hanging of Mary the Elephant