Circus Animal Abuse
Circus animal abuse: a five-ton circus elephant is publicly hanged for murder in Erwin, Tennessee.
Old timers in Erwin, Tennessee, claim that if a person walks through the old Clinchfield railroad yards at about four o’clock in the afternoon -- especially on a rainy day -- they can hear the far-away frantic trumpeting of an elephant. This is said to come from the ghost of “Murderous Mary”. On September 13, 1916, the five-ton circus elephant was lynched for murder from a railroad crane near the old roundhouse.
Mary, advertised as the largest elephant in the world, had killed her trainer the day before in nearby Kingsport. At the time, the Spark’s World Famous Shows’ herd of five elephants was being led to water. Mary, the star of the circus, stopped on the road to munch a bit of watermelon rind. Four elephants backed up behind her causing a traffic jam. In a fit of impatience novice trainer “Red” Eldridge, who was riding on Mary’s back, whacked her across the side of the jaw with his elephant stick. In front of dozens of horrified witnesses, the enraged elephant seized Eldridge in her trunk and flung him through a wooden soft drink stand.
That same day Mayor S. E. Miller of Johnson City, the next stop on Sparks' tour, loudly proclaimed that no killer elephant would ever set foot in his town. Then he telephoned other mayors along the tour route and convinced them to issue similar maxims.
As the circus set up in nearby Erwin, Charlie Sparks knew his show could go no farther with Mary. Worse still, he had heard that a mob of Kingsport vigilantes were on their way to Erwin, armed with a relic Civil War cannon and determined to execute the beast.
Mary was worth about $8,000 -- a small fortune in 1916. But Mary's monetary value was nothing compared to lost revenue if the rest of the circus' tour was canceled. Sparks, along with his publicist John Heron, decided Mary would have to be killed -- and in full public view as proof that justice had been done. The problem was, how? The solution came from an unexpected source.
Little Erwin was home to the main yards and repair facilities of the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railroad (called the Clinchfield for short). The Clinchfield owned a 100-ton, coal-fired crane car used for heavy loading. Someone suggested Mary be lynched from that crane.
The idea appealed to Sparks' sense of spectacle and his instinct for survival. With the Clinchfield's cooperation, the execution was scheduled for that very afternoon.
Word quickly spread and by 3:30 p.m. an estimated 2,000 people were assembled under a heavy overcast sky in the Clinchfield yard to witness the spectacle. A sea of faces occupied every available space. Spectators even climbed a gigantic coal tipple near the roundhouse.
When yard foreman Sam Bondurant told crane car operator Sam Harvey that he was about to hang an elephant, Harvey refused to believe him.
"It's true," Bondurant told Harvey. "They'll bring her around right after the matinee."
Since elephants are social beasts, her trainers thought Mary would handle better if accompanied to the railroad yards by the rest of the herd. Shortly after the matinee 16-year-old Guard Banner, standing on a locomotive cowcatcher located about 300 feet from the crane car, spotted five elephants, Mary in the lead, walking in single file, trunk-to-tail. When they reached the crane the procession stopped.
A circus roustabout quickly chained one of Mary's legs to the rail. When the trainers tried to return the remaining elephants to the circus grounds, Mary's frantic trumpeting made them pause.
"It was almost as if she knew what was going to happen," witness Wade Ambrose said later.
With some difficulty the trainers got the elephants moving again. In the meantime a circus roustabout slipped the crane car's 3/4-inch steel chain around Mary's neck.
When all was ready Bondurant gave Harvey the signal to start the winch. The chain tightened around Mary's neck and lifted her into the air. Unfortunately, though, someone had forgotten to unchain Mary's leg from the rail and the crane began straining against itself with the dangling elephant in the middle.
Suddenly there was a loud crack and the sound of a ricochet. Mary fell heavily to the ground. The chain had snapped!
Onlookers scattered in all directions trying to escape the mad elephant they felt certain would scramble to her feet and kill them all. But Mary wasn't going anywhere. The fall had broken her hip. She sat on her haunches like a huge jackrabbit.
A roustabout climbed Mary's back like a small hill and attached another, heavier chain. Once again the noose was drawn and Mary hung free. Five minutes later she strangled to death. At that moment, Banner said, a light drizzle began to fall.
A railroad photographer, in spite of the weather, took the only known photograph of the hanging. A few days later the Associated Press tried to talk the railroad into exhuming the body, rehang the elephant, and allow another picture. The railroad politely refused.
Strangely enough, when a print of the authentic photo was later presented to Argosy magazine for publication the editors declared it a fake! The mist had rendered an image of such a low contrast that the negative had to be heavily -- and noticeably -- retouched.
A few years ago there was talk of unearthing the body and assembling the skeleton as a tourist attraction. But Mary's remains now lie under about 40 feet of dirt, ash, and cinders. The acidity of the ground is so high in the yards, now owned by the CSX, that any organic matter decays rapidly. Even Mary's massive skeleton has probably been reduced to dust.
That’s just as well. If her memory cannot rest, at least we can leave her body in peace.