1916– the year an elephant was arrested for murdering people. Not only was she “arrested” but she was hung from an enormous crane until she was pronounced dead.
Mary, an Asian Elephant, was born in 1894. Her story begins with Charlie Sparks, who was owner of Sparks World Famous Shows. Sparks’ father had purchased Mary in 1898, when she was only four years old. She’d then go on to become a part of his famous traveling circus in her coming years.
Charlie married Addie Mitchell, who was the circus’s head cook and animal doctor. The couple raised Mary as if she were the child they didn’t have. They instructed employees to be kind and gentle with all of the circus animals, especially their beloved Mary.
Mary would become one of the company’s biggest attractions. She could play musical instruments, catch baseballs and even stand on her head. Many spectators were drawn to her performances for years. She was advertised on show posters as “The Largest Living Animal on Earth” weighing “over 5 tons” and standing “3 inches taller than Jumbo”, who was the start elephant at the Barnum and Bailey circus. She was a big animal indeed.
Mary had a good run, until the circus made its way to Virginia. On the morning of September 11, 1916, Sparks World Famous Shows had arrived in the small town of St. Paul, Virginia. A hotel worker named Walter “Red” Eldridge had approached head elephant trainer Paul Jacoby for a job within the circus. Even though Eldridge had little experience, he hired him as an underkeeper of the elephants where he fed and watered them. Eldridge was instructed to keep a “gentling care” philosophy when taking care of the elephants and Mary.
After the show in St. Paul, Eldridge had traveled with the show to Kingsport, Tennessee. On September 12th, Kingsport would have its first county fair and Sparks World Famous Shows was a part of it. Many people from the town and surrounding areas came to visit the circus, as many people have not seen an elephant or an anima this big before.
This is where Mary’s life would take a turn. The elephants from the show were being taken down to a watering ditch between shows. Eldridge used a bull hook– a stick with a hook on the end– to guide the elephants down to the water. Even though he was trained to be gentle and treat the elephants with care, he continued to use this practice to lead the elephants to the water.
According to the story, during the trip down to the watering ditch, Mary suddenly stopped. She was then seen taking a piece of watermelon off the ground that she had spotted. Eldridge prodded her with the hook. This made Mary become enraged, when she then lifted Eldridge with her trunk, flung him against a building, then crushed his head, ending his life just like that. Witnesses screamed and ran for their lives. Charlie Sparks heard the screaming from far away, rushed over to see what was going on. He put his arm around Mary’s trunk, trying to calm her. He then saw Eldridge’s dead body on the ground, where he finally realized what had happened.
The witnesses and nearby crowd of people had started chanting, “Kill the elephant!”, leaving Sparks alarmed.
Kingsport officials quickly “arrested” Mary and held her outside the county jail. Meanwhile, Charlie Sparks and his circus staff had an upsetting decision to make about Mary’s future.
In the 1900’s, it was common to just rename the elephant and sell them to another circus if they had injured or killed a human. Mary’s story was different. The news about Red Eldridge’s death had spread throughout Northeastern Tennessee like crazy, where newspaper outlets were calling Mary, “Murderous Mary”, creating a bigger outcry on the incident.
The circus’s next stop would be in Johnson City. The mayor of Johnson City decided to ban Sparks World Famous Shows from the city because of Mary. Many cities would ban Mary and the rest of the circus from their cities too. There was also a rumor going around that a mob of people were going to kill Mary themselves.
Sparks’ had to make a decision about his company’s future. If he wanted to stay in business, he’d have to get rid of the one thing killing his business– Mary. Sparks World Famous Shows was getting banned from every city because of her, making the business plummet financially. Eventually, Sparks’ decided he had to put Mary to death, publicly.
Sparks’ had decided that the only humane way to put Mary to her death would be to hang her. He and his circus would have to travel south of the Clinchfield Railroad. The railroad had a huge, 100-ton derrick that they used to unload lumber. This seemed to be the only way to carry a 5-ton elephant.
The circus headed to the railroad’s headquarters and repair facilities in Erwin, Tennessee. On September 13, the circus had arrived. They first put on an unscheduled show, without Mary. She stayed chained up out back while the circus performed. After the show, thousands of people from Erwin and the surrounding areas had filled the railroad yard. Many of the performers of the circus decided to sit Mary’s hanging out, as they couldn’t bare to see her being killed.
Sparks’ then attempted to lead Mary calmly to the derrick. In an attempt to fool her, he had he and the other elephants walk with her to the derrick, as if they were going to the watering hole instead. This attempt did not fool Mary though, as she kept hesitating and trumpeting loudly.
When Mary reached the derrick, her legs were quickly chained to the rail to keep her still. The other elephants were lead away from what was about to happen.
A crew member threw a large chain around her neck, fitted the end through a steel ring and then had the derrick operator lift her. The chain began tightening around her neck and her feet began to lift off the ground, but someone had forgotten to release all of her legs from the chains on the rail. Her tendons were torn. Then, Mary suddenly fell to the ground. Her neck chain broke. This created more panic in the crowd, as people started screaming, in fear that Mary would begin to attack. Mary laid limp on the rail because the hard fall had injured her.
The crew then tried again, putting a heavier chain around her neck. The chain held and within a few minutes, a vet pronounced Mary dead. The vet also examined her, concluding that she had a severely infected tooth where Eldridge had prodded her with the bull hook.
Before Mary was buried in her grave, an infamous photo of her was taken. Many claim this photo is fake, but researchers agree that it is real. Almost a century after her death, Mary didn’t suffer in vain. “She’s an example of why we should never put these animals in such unnatural situations in the first place,” said Ed Stewart, president of the Performing Animals Welfare Society in an interview. “This elephant was simply acting like an elephant.”