Tennessee in 1916- the execution of Mary, the elephant

Today we commemorate the grizzly death of Mary the elephant.
Mary was a member of Sparks Bro. Circus, paying a visit to East Tennessee in 1916, when she attacked and killed her handler.

It was September 13, 1916, when the world that existed in tiny little Erwin, Tenn., changed forever.
It was a peaceful time on Main Street in Erwin.
The world was at war, but America wasn’t.

People were watching silent films, and King Lear was one of the most popular films of the year. Talking pictures were almost a decade away, and most people were seeking entertainment where they could find it.
It was a good time for the circus to come to town.

The Sparks Brothers Circus came to the area and brought with it all the wonders of any circus. This included entertaining sea lions, clowns, a man who walked on his head and of course, elephants.

These five-ton creatures were the stars of the circus, and Sparks Brothers was proud to have five of them.
Mary was the star among stars as she was billed to be the largest land animal in the world.
Sparks Brothers even said that she was larger by two inches than Jumbo, a giant elephant owned by P.T. Barnum and his circus.

To drum up business, Sparks Brothers billed Mary as one of the most dangerous animals in the world, having killed from two to 20 men.

No doubt this part of the story is pure myth, and it is highly doubtful that Mary had ever killed anyone before.
On September 11, 1916, Sparks Brothers made it to Kingsport, Tenn., and set up camp.
Drifter Red Eldridge was traveling with them and worked as a janitor and an elephant handler.

He had no formal training as an elephant handler and had just gotten this job to pass the time and make a few dollars before he hopped on a train and moved on to the next town on the line.

The story goes that Eldridge was told to take all five of the elephants to a large ditch that ran down the town to let them splash in the water.

On the way back, Eldridge drove her by using a stick.

Here is where the story takes on some controversy.

One version has Mary reaching over for a watermelon rind, and Eldridge jerked her chain to make her keep moving. It is said Mary picked Eldridge up with her trunk and threw him against a drink stand.
She then walked over to the already lifeless body and stepped on his head, mashing the poor man’s head flat.
Another version has Mary throwing Eldridge 10 feet in the air, slamming him to the ground, running her tusks through him and then stepping on his head.
Still another version says she swiped her tail at Eldridge. Her tail struck him in his head killing him instantly.

The final version says she had two abscessed teeth and was in extreme pain. When Eldridge pulled on her chain or struck her with the stick, she got mad and went for Eldridge, eventually killing him.

Regardless of the reason, Mary had killed a man, and she was going to have to pay a price.
As valuable as Mary was, she had to go.

The problem was how do they execute her?
No one had a gun large enough to execute her quickly and humanely. A local blacksmith shot her with his 32-20 rifle, and it had little effect. A local sheriff shot her with his .45 handgun and only “knocked chips out of her.”

They thought about electrocuting her, but that seemed too cruel.
Then someone had an idea that they would hang her. The result was one of most famous events in east Tennessee history and an event that put one quiet little community on the map.

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.

Despite the close emotional bond, the two had shared for years, Sparks severed the relationship in a way that would at least save his business’ life: he staged a public execution.

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.

The next day, Sparks World Famous Shows entered the town of Erwin, ready to hang their star pupil from a 100-ton crane located on the railroad tracks.

Followed by four other elephants, walking trunk-to-tail as they did in countless shows, Mary entered the “gallows,” where circus employees fitted a chain around her neck.

The chain, which was attached to a crane, would hoist her into the air.

As with the bullets, the first chain failed to work on Mary. After lifting her five feet, the chain snapped, sending the elephant falling to the ground and breaking her hip in the process.

Circus employees had the time getting the chain around her neck. Then they hooked the boom to the neck chain, and when they began to lift her up, one could hear the bones and ligaments cracking in her foot.

They lifted her once more, where she shrieked and thrashed about until going limp.. this way they did that.

A remaining elephant who had worked with Mary for years escaped his pen later that night, running toward the railway yard where Mary took her last, pained breaths.

Perhaps it is mimicking the behavior of wild elephants back bone of fallen members of the family for many years. Or maybe it was just looking for Mary.

This elephant, too, was captured and returned to the circus which killed his companion.


We’re not blaming Mary for what happened.
We blame those who have put her against their will in the circus for years and made her docile through torture.
It’s their fault.

My best regards to all, Venus

One thought on “Tennessee in 1916- the execution of Mary, the elephant”

  1. People are disgusting, imagine enslaving a being, torturing her, and the reacting more violently when the she tries to protect herself from torture and harm? I hate this picture, every time I see it and her hanging, I’m sickened. People continually get worse towards and more forgiving of, animal suffering. No different from way back long ago ….


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