Erwin, Tennessee was the scene of one of the most bizarre public executions in American history. The condemned was a female elephant named Mary who was reported to have killed as many as eighteen people. Actual accounts and historical documents proved that she had killed only one person. This was the only crime she was known to have committed with certainty. It was the public hysteria that had concocted the rumors of the other seventeen killings. The man Mary killed was Walter “Red” Eldridge, her handler.
This stranger than fiction story began in Kingsport, Tennessee. The Sparks Brothers Circus, where Mary was employed arrived in the little town in September, 1916 to begin a three-day engagement.
Charlie Sparks, owner of the circus, billed Mary as the most talented elephant ever to perform. Five tons of pure talent, she could play 25 tunes on the musical horns without missing a note. She was the pitcher on the circus baseball game and boasted an impressive batting average of .400. She was Sparks’ favorite, his cash cow and a favorite with the public.
The killing of Eldridge and the events leading up to it have long been debated by historians and retold by storytellers. The truth has been distorted and the actual facts are somewhat mired in inaccuracy.
By some accounts, Mary was moody because of an abscessed tooth. Some accounts state that Eldridge, during his brief tenure with the circus, was known to be abusive with the elephants. He was little man with a large stick with a hook at the end of it and he felt like a giant when he made the mighty behemoths cower. Apparently, Mary had had enough of the abuse.
An account published in the Johnson City Staff on September 13, 1916 reported, Mary “collided its trunk vice-like about Eldridge’s body, lifted him ten feet into the air, then dashed him with fury to the ground… and with the full force of her beastly fury is said to have sunk her 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, she hurled the body into the audience.”
When word got out that a rampaging elephant had killed someone, panic broke out in the streets. Soon rumors were circulating that an enraged elephant had killed 18 people and was still on the loose. Dozens of concerned citizens armed with shotguns began searching for the behemoth. Women and children were urged to stay indoors until the creature could be caught or killed.
Fortunately, the law intervened and quickly quelled the public hysteria. They informed the crowd that Mary had been captured and disputed the rumors of a raging elephant by announcing she had killed only one person. Police assured the crowd everything was under control and asked that everyone return to their homes. The nervous citizens dispersed and police were able to begin their investigation.
Once Mary calmed down, she stood in her cage eating a healthy portion of hay. The owners of the circus were then summoned to meet with local public officials to discuss Mary’s fate. They wanted to discuss the best way to handle the affair and appease a nervous public. Many in town were concerned Mary could escape and go on another rampage and kill again. They wanted her destroyed. There were some who disagreed and believed she should be spared. They firmly believed Mary had been provoked and was merely defending herself.
Mary sat quietly in her cage. No one knows if her animal instinct sensed danger or if she sensed that her life was in peril. Her fate now rested in the hands of the city officials and the circus owners.
The local authorities deemed that Mary should be destroyed. They knew little about these mammoths and felt they had legitimate safety concerns. It would have been economically in the best interests of the circus owners to simply leave town and spare Mary’s life. After all, she was worth $20,000 and could perform for thirty more years. However, the local authorities were adamant. Charlie Sparks realized that if he refused to destroy the elephant then other cities might not grant him a permit to put on a show with the possibility of a rogue elephant going on a rampage.
The next question was how to destroy Mary. No one in town had an elephant gun. Attempting to kill her with smaller guns could take numerous shots and could potentially erupt into a bloody and violent affair. It simply wouldn’t be humane. Another suggestion was to hook her to two opposing trains and dismember her or crush her between two trains. But both suggestions were dismissed because they were deemed too cruel. The only other option was hanging.
Where could the execution be carried out? It would take a large crane to hang her. There were no cranes in Kingsport that would support her immense weight. After careful consideration it was decided that Mary should be taken to Erwin, Tennessee where a large crane was available at the CC&O Railroad depot.
On the day of the execution, September 13, 1916, Sparks held a matinee to a disappointed audience who wanted to see the famed performing elephant. He didn’t miss an opportunity to use Mary’s horrible misfortune to his advantage. The circus owner sought to assuage their disappointment by promising them they would be allowed to witness Mary’s execution at no additional cost thus satisfying his paying customers’ morbid curiosity or thirst for blood.
Following the show, the five elephants walked trunk to tail down Love Street where a crowd of more than 2,500 curious onlookers and reporters had gathered. Mary’s foot was chained to a rail while the other four elephants were escorted off. Moments later, a chain suspended from a crane and fashioned into a noose was slipped over Mary’s head and around her neck. She suspected nothing. Suddenly, the order was given and she was hoisted into the air. Wade Ambrose, who was 20 at the time, later recalled he heard bones and ligaments cracking in her foot. They realized they had not released her foot from the rail. She was lowered just enough to release her foot then hoisted into the air again. She gasped and thrashed desperately. Then the chain suspending her immense body snapped and she fell to the ground and was stunned into a dazed silence. Slowly, she sat upright, immobilized by the pain of a broken hip. Seeing Mary loose and not realizing she had a broken hip, the crowd shrieked in horror and scattered. Then a man ran up Mary’s back like he was climbing a hill and attached another chain. She offered no resistance when they lowered the crane and hanged her a second time, successfully, before the expectant crowd.
Her lifeless body hung in the rail yard for 30 minutes before it was finally lowered as a grave was being dug by a steam shovel. As the grave was being prepared, a veterinarian briefly examined Mary and discovered she did indeed have two abscessed teeth. Her body was dropped into the shallow grave. The exact location is now unknown as it was largely forgotten by the passing of time and the erosion brought on by the gentle rains that washed away the mound of dirt covering the unfortunate elephant.