The Hanging of Mary the Elephant
By Hilda Padgett - Erwin,
More than eighty years
ago, on September 13, 1916, something happened in Erwin, Tennessee that
even today causes disagreement among the natives. Mary the
elephant was hanged by a railroad derrick car at the Clinchfield
Railroad yard. The hanging of Mary has been referred to in many
writings. It was a question on a TV quiz show and even the
focus of an article in Playboy magazine.
A number of Erwinites
would like to have the story buried and forgotten and never heard of
again. There are also a number of people who are interested in the
story and would like to know all of the facts. After all, this
actually happened and is part of the history of our town. My
friend, Ruth Pieper, who moved to Erwin nine years ago, has been
fascinated with the story. She has spent much of her time, effort,
and money on tracing the history of the Spark's World Famous Show.
Charles H. Sparks owned
the show and it had a reputation in the entertainment world as being a
100% "Sunday School" Circus. That is, no short change artist-a
clean family entertainment. Charles Sparks had been in the circus
business since the late 1800's. The circus purchased its first
elephant in 1896. That was Mary. She was four years old and
four feet high. At that time the show was a horse and wagon show.
By 1905, they had grown to railroad transportation with one railroad
car. By 1906, they had three rail cars; by 1916, the show had
expanded to fifteen rail cars and five elephants.
In some writings about
Mary it is speculated that she was a 'killer elephant' that had been
sold from one circus to another. That is not true. Mary had been
with the Spark's circus for twenty years, as their first wild animal.
Charles Sparks and his wife, Addie, were very caring people. They
saw that the animals connected with their show were well cared for.
The trainers were instructed to use 'gentling care.'
The Spark's show played
in Jenkins, Kentucky, then on to St. Paul, Virginia where they connected
with the Clinchfield Railroad on September 9, 1916. Late in the
summer, Louis Reed, the regular elephant trainer, had to leave the show.
Paul Jacoby, who had previously been the elephant trainer, took over the
job. By the time they got to St. Paul they needed an 'under keeper' for
On Sunday, October 10th
or Monday September 11th, Walter "Red" Eldridge was hired as 'under
keeper.' Ruth has spent many hours trying to get the background of Red
Eldridge. His age was estimated as between 23 and 38 years. He was hired
in St. Paul but apparently had no family there. It was learned that he
had been working in a hotel in St. Paul before he was hired for the
circus. Also, one lead was that he was from Mt. Vernon, Indiana. That
was checked out with no results. His death certificate did not give
names of parents or birthplace. Ruth would be very interested to learn
if anyone knows anything about Red Eldridge.
The circus went from
St. Paul to Kingsport where they played on September 12th. Between shows
the elephants were driven to a watering hole. On the way back to the
tent, Mary went for a piece of watermelon beside the road. Red
prodded her sensitive ear with a bull hook and she became enraged.
She grabbed Red with her trunk and threw against a drink stand.
Then she stepped on his head until it was flat.
The people were
terrified. They began screaming, "Kill the elephant!" A blacksmith
tried, but the guns that day were not powerful enough. Charlie
Sparks soon arrived on the scene and calmed Mary. Mayor Miller and
Sheriff Hickman 'arrested' Mary and staked her by the county jail where
many onlookers came by to see her. They gave a statement to the
Johnson City Staff newspaper that steps would be taken to see that the
elephant did not come into contact with the people of Johnson City.
That night, Charlie and
Addie Sparks had to make the most difficult decision of their circus
careers. After all those years with Mary they had become so attached to
her, but they couldn't take a chance that she might harm a circus
patron. They decided to have her destroyed. But how were they to
destroy a 7500 pound elephant? Shooting her in four soft spots on
her head might have worked but was too risky with the crowd of curiosity
seekers that the story attracted. She was too smart to eat
food laced with cyanide.
In 1903, an elephant [named
Topsy*] had been electrocuted at Coney Island, with the help
of Thomas Edison. Kingsport or Erwin did not have enough
electrical power for an electrocution. Clinchfield could use two
engines to crush Mary, or the derrick could be used for hanging her.
Technically, Mary killed Red in Kingsport, so Sullivan County should be
where she met her fate.
The summer of 1916 had
torrential rains that caused floods and washouts on the railroad tracks.
Clinchfield would not risk sending its derrick car 80 miles, round trip,
north to Kingsport when it might be needed south, over the Blue Ridge
Mountains into North Carolina. Before midnight on September 12th
Charlie Sparks made the decision to take Mary to Erwin to be hanged.
That decision would also hang on Erwin the fame of elephant killer for
the next 80 years.
13th was overcast from several days of rain. The five elephants were
moved from the circus lot to the railroad siding where the hanging was
to take place. It was about 5 PM. Mary's foot was chained to
the track and the derrick chain put on her neck. A witness described the
derrick chain breaking as she was lifted. The reason, the ankle chain
had not been released. The witness said he could hear the ankle tendons
being torn. When the chain broke, Mary fell back on the track and was
stunned and not able to get up. They quickly got another chain around
her neck and hoisted her into the air once more. Within a few
minutes she was dead. Mary was buried on railroad property near
where she was hanged. A few people today say they can point to the
spot. No one has ever been allowed to dig up her bones.
Today if an elephant is
judged to be dangerous it would be an entirely different story.
Because at the present time there are sanctuaries for old, sick, and
needy animals. One such place is the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.
It is located at Hohenwald, in Lewis County. They now have two elephants
and room to expand to care for as many as ten more. If such
a place had existed in 1916 perhaps Mary could have been sent there and
today Erwin would not be known as the town that hanged the elephant.