1916: Mary the Elephant

On this date in 1916 — true story — this happened.

The circus elephant Mary hanged Sep. 13, 1913 in Erwin, Tennessee

Five-ton circus elephant Mary (yes, she has her own Wikipedia page) was in Kingsport, Tennessee on the chintzy fairgrounds touring circuit with Sparks World Famous Circus.

Billed as as “The Largest Living Land Animal on Earth,”* this exotic creature was a prime draw for the circus — and also a beloved pet of the Sparks family.

Unfortunately, this valuable asset was placed in the temporary stewardship of an inexperienced “under keeper” whom the circus had had to scoop up at a recent stop to cover staff turnover. Between shows on September 12, that fellow somehow (accounts conflict) enraged Mary, and (again according to one version among several) she

“collided its trunk vice-like [sic] about [the under keeper’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.”

It’s apparent in this report that the facts of an already-sensational event almost instantly began disappearing into its spectacle. See the largest land animal on earth! See it maul its handler to death! But what happened next lifted Mary all the way to legend.

The owners knew they had to euthanize the “mankiller,” or if they didn’t know they were soon persuaded by mushrooming press attention and towns threatening to ban the Sparks circus.

But how? They couldn’t shoot Mary to death — she apparently survived gunshots from the vengeful crowd in the immediate aftermath of the trampling; firearms just didn’t pack the wallop to put down a pachyderm in 1916. The area didn’t have the sort of electrical juice available that Thomas Edison had once used to drop a circus elephant during his weird campaign for the electric chair.

The choice for the baleful logistical task of killing a 10,000-pound evildoer was hanging, selected over “crushing it between railroad cars.”

And for stringing up “Murderous Mary”, you need no ordinary gallows. No, for this job, you’re using the hoist on a train derrick and an industrial-strength chain for a noose.

The actual train derrick that hanged Mary the elephant. The leftmost man, seated on the machine, is the “executioner” who worked the controls, according toThe Day They Hung the Elephant.

The railroad was game for the operation, provided the circus would come to it. So on this date, the circus train cars loaded up for the nearest usable train derrickscaffold at Erwin, Tennessee.

There, a procession of all five Sparks elephants — the routine was supposed to keep Mary compliant, and it did the trick even though some observers later remembered the condemned creature behaving unusually skittishly — marched to the railyard.

There Mary was noosed with a 7/8″ chain and hoisted up. The chain broke, and the animal shattered its hip crashing to the ground; another, still larger, chain, did the trick on the second try.

Talk about a spectacle. Talk about scary clowns.

There’s something about this event abidingly piteous, even shameful. It may be for that reason that it’s also abidingly mysterious. The particulars about what happened on the day they hanged the elephant and what became of the body (a steamshovel dug a grave, but the exact location was never marked and there’s a wild story that it was dug up later for ivory) are the topics of conflicting, nth-hand rumors. Some in Erwin don’t to this day want to discuss the matter. Others, just the opposite.

Image (c) John Pugh of SourceToSea.net and used with permission.

* Sparks evidently kept the “largest living land animal” marquee in use for Mary’s successor, as indicated by this 1919 poster (pdf) for the show.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

On this day..