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The Town That Hanged an Elephant

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Slade Sohmer


By Slade Sohmer on May 16, 2014


Nothing says justice quite like the public execution of an elephant.

The town of Erwin, Tennessee, boasts a population of 6,097, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Almost 100 years earlier, a relatively massive crowd of about 2,500 showed up to a local railway yard to watch the hanging of a five-ton Asian elephant named Mary, the pride of the traveling Sparks Brothers Circus.

It’s undisputed that the elephant, which would later be dubbed Murderous Mary, killed a drifter who would become her handler in Kingsport, Tennessee, on September 12, 1916. How and why Mary killed Red Eldridge has long been the stuff of oral legend, tall tale and second-hand folklore. But justice had to be served, the story goes, and besides, no town would invite Charlie Sparks’ circus to pass through if this killer elephant came with it. Justice in this case came from a chain attached to a 100-ton locomotive crane. What remains, nearly a century later, is one of the most bizarre photographs ever taken.

This photo was taken Sept. 13, 1916, shortly after a circus elephant named Mary was hanged in Erwin, Tenn. The animal had killed a circus worker the day before in nearby Kingsport. This picture is believed to be the only one in existence documenting the elephant's execution. Experts say the picture, which may have been touched up years ago, appears fuzzy because it was taken in late afternoon in the rain.(AP Photo/Courtesy of East Tennessee State University Archives of Appalachia)

This photo was taken Sept. 13, 1916, shortly after a circus elephant named Mary was hanged in Erwin, Tenn. The animal had killed a circus worker the day before in nearby Kingsport. This picture is believed to be the only one in existence documenting the elephant’s execution. Experts say the picture, which may have been touched up years ago, appears fuzzy because it was taken in late afternoon in the rain.(AP Photo/Courtesy of East Tennessee State University Archives of Appalachia)



Mary eventually was buried right there by the tracks. Before her absurd hanging, the townspeople had to come together on a plan for this dispensed justice. The first thought was instinctive; blacksmith Hench Cox fired his handgun at her five times, to no avail. Sheriff Gallahan tried his luck too, but the bullets did nothing. “There ain’t gun enough in this country that he could be killed,” the circus manager reportedly said.

But let’s back up. How did Mary kill Eldridge? In 1997, Blue Ridge Country dug deep in its own backyard, sorting through oral histories and newspapers at the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University.

Version I. After the Kingsport performance, Red Eldridge was assigned to ride Mary to a pond, where she could drink and splash with the other elephants. According to W.H. Coleman, who at the tender age of 19 witnessed the “murder”:

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.

Version II. As reported in the September 13, 1916 issue of the Johnson City Staff, Mary “collided its trunk vice-like [sic] about [Eldridge's] body, lifted him 10 feet in the air, then dashed him with fury to the ground… and with the full force of her biestly [sic] fury is said to have sunk her giant 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 hurled his body into the crowd.”

Version III. Maybe Mary was simply bored, as a staff writer for the Johnson City Press-Chronicle suggested in 1936. “The elephant’s keeper, while in the act of feeding her, walked unsuspectingly between her and the tent wall. For no reason that could be ascertained, Mary became angry and, with a vicious swish of her trunk, landed a fatal blow on his head.”

Version IV. Or did Mary kill Red Eldridge because she was in pain? Erwin legend has it that Mary had two abscessed teeth, which caused her such agony that she went berserk when Eldridge tapped her with his elephant stick. The infections were, of course, discovered only after Mary was killed.

Whether poor Elephantidae dentistry, boredom, or murderous triumph, the deed had been done, and now Mary had to pay for her perceived crimes. After the world’s worst firing squad proved ineffective, and the party shook off the idea of electrocution, they mob decided to hang Mary in the nearby railway yard. Punishment? Deterrent? Vengeance!

Erwin, which interestingly enough was supposed to be called “Ervin” after D.J.N. Ervin had donated 15 acres of land for the country seat but was misspelled at the post office, was a railroad boom town in 1916. They had the facilities and the tools to make this happen. So 2,500 folks, including all the children in and around the town, marched down to the Clinchfield Railyards.

The hanging took two tries and one broken hip. This not seem pretty:

It doesn’t seem surprising that the chain from which Mary hung snapped shortly after she was raised off the ground. It was, after all, just a 7/8″ chain, and Mary weighed 10,000 pounds. She hit the ground and sat upright, immobilized from the pain of a broken hip.

“It made a right smart little racket when the elephant hit the ground,” says eyewitness George Ingram, with admirable understatement.

Seeing Mary loose, not knowing that she had broken her hip and couldn’t move, the crowd panicked and ran for cover. Then one of the roustabouts “ran up her back like he was climbing a small hill and attached a heavier chain”; the winch was put in motion a second time, and Mary died.

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.

If only Twitter were around in 1916 … you can almost taste the social venom.

UPDATE: Brian Braiker, aka @slarkpope, points us to The Town That Electrocuted an Elephant. Crazy story here, too.

Slade Sohmer is the editor-in-chief of HyperVocal.

SEE ALSO:
Baby Elephant Walks: Tel Aviv’s Newest Adorable Creature
Three Elephants Briefly Escape Circus
• Baby Elephants Get Red Dust Baths, Hobnob With US Ambassador

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