Mary (elephant)

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A photograph, purportedly of Mary's execution in 1916. The authenticity of this photo has been called into question.
SpeciesAsian elephant
DiedSeptember 13, 1916(1916-09-13) (aged 21–22)
Erwin, Tennessee
Nation fromUnited States
OccupationCircus performer
EmployerCharlie Sparks
Years active1898–1916
TrainingPlaying musical instruments
Pitching baseballs
Weight5 short tons (4,500 kg)
Height11 ft 9 in (3.58 m)

Mary (c. 1894–September 13, 1916), also known as "Murderous Mary",[1] was a five-ton Asian elephant[2] who performed in the Sparks World Famous Shows circus. After killing circus employee Walter “Red” Eldridge on his second day as her handler in September 1916, in Kingsport, Tennessee, she was hanged in nearby Erwin.

Death of Red Eldridge[edit]

On September 11, 1916, a homeless man named Red Eldridge, who landed a job as a transient hotel clerk,[3] was hired as an elephant keeper by the Sparks World Famous Shows circus. He was killed by Mary in Sullivan County, Tennessee, on the following evening. Although unqualified, Eldridge led the elephant parade, riding atop Mary's back; Mary was the star of the show, walking at the front.[4] There have been several accounts of his death. One, recounted by W. H. Coleman, who claimed to be a witness, is that he prodded her behind the ear with a hook after she reached down to nibble on a watermelon rind. She went into a rage, snatched Eldridge with her trunk, threw him against a drink stand and stepped on his head, crushing it.[3]

A contemporary newspaper account, from the Johnson City Staff, said that Mary "collided its trunk vice-like about [Eldridge's] body, lifted him 10 feet (3.0 m) in 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 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."[3]


The details of the aftermath are confused in a maze of sensationalist newspaper stories and folklore. For example, the aforementioned newspaper account described Mary as impaling Eldridge with her tusks, despite female Asian elephants lacking tusks. Most accounts indicate that she calmed down afterwards and did not charge the onlookers, who began chanting "Kill the elephant! Let's kill it." Within minutes, local blacksmith Hench Cox tried to kill Mary, firing five rounds with little effect.[3] Meanwhile, the leaders of several nearby towns threatened not to allow the circus to visit if Mary was included. The circus owner, Charlie Sparks, reluctantly decided that the only way to quickly resolve the potentially ruinous situation was to kill the wounded elephant in public. On the following day, a foggy and rainy September 13, 1916, Mary was transported by rail to Unicoi County, Tennessee, where a crowd of over 2,500 people (including most of the town's children) assembled in the Clinchfield Railroad yard.

The elephant was hanged by the neck from a railcar-mounted industrial derrick between four o'clock and five o'clock that afternoon.[5] The first attempt resulted in a snapped chain, causing Mary to fall and break her hip as dozens of children fled in terror. The severely wounded elephant died during a second attempt and was buried beside the tracks. A veterinarian examined Mary after the hanging and determined that she had a severely infected tooth in the precise spot where Red Eldridge had prodded her.[6] The authenticity of a widely distributed (and heavily retouched) photo of her death was disputed years later by Argosy magazine.[3]

References in popular media[edit]

  • Mark Medoff's dramatic version of the story entitled Big Mary was first produced by Great Valley High School in Pennsylvania in 1989 and was published by Dramatists Play Service in 1990.[7]
  • George Brant's play Elephant's Graveyard tells the story of Mary's execution through the circus members and the residents of Erwin, first produced by the University of Texas at Austin in 2007 and was published by Samuel French, Inc. in 2010.[8]
  • Writer Caleb Lewis wrote a play about Mary and the events that led to her execution entitled Clinchfield. The play premiered at Flinders University on July 22, 2009.[9]
  • Singer-songwriter Chuck Brodsky wrote a song entitled "Mary the Elephant".[10]
  • Writer Sharyn McCrumb referred to the hanging of Mary in a few of her Ballad novels.
    • In "She Walks These Hills", a radio DJ uses the example of 'hanging the elephant' as a warning, begging people not to use vigilante justice against an escaped convict.
    • In the first chapter of "The Devil Amongst the Lawyers", an elderly reporter brags to a cub reporter about the power of the press, insisting that the circus owner was forced to hang the elephant as a result of his inflammatory newspaper articles.[11]
  • Dana Adam Shapiro told the story of Mary in his book "You Can Be Right (or You Can Be Married): Looking for Love in the Age of Divorce".[12]
  • In the short story anthology McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, Glen David Gold's story "The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter" tells a fictionalized version of Mary's story.
  • Jodi Picoult mentions Mary in her novel Leaving Time, published on October 14, 2014.[13]
  • mewithoutYou refers to a circus elephant on trial and sentenced to hanging in their 2012 concept album Ten Stories, specifically in the song "Elephant in the Dock".[14]
  • "Mighty Mary" is a 2018 novel by Australian author Max Davine which depicts a heavily fictionalized biography of Mary, including her time in the circus and her trial and eventual execution, published in December 2018.[15]
  • The story of Mary's hanging is mentioned in the Scott Pratt [bg] novel Judgement Cometh: and That Right Soon, while describing the setting of Erwin, Tennessee.
  • In his story "A Walk in the Country" (reprinted in his collection Blood and Grits) Harry Crews writes about meeting someone haunted by the memory of Mary's execution.
  • In his Letters to Father Flye James Agee mentions the incident.
  • In the novel “Demon Copperhead” by Barbara Kingsolver the main character is warned "to be careful in Unicoi because there were folks down there mean enough to hang an elephant."
  • Mary’s execution is referenced in the song “Anthropology Days” by the band The Dead Milkmen on their album Pretty Music for Pretty People.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Murderous Mary". 9 April 2009. Retrieved 2015-05-25.
  2. ^ Olson, Ted (2009). The Hanging of Mary, a Circus Elephant. Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press. pp. 219–227.
  3. ^ a b c d e Joan V. Schroeder (February 13, 2009). "The Day They Hanged Mary The Elephant in Tennessee -".
  4. ^ Hodge, Randy; Price, Charles Edwin (1992). The Day they Hung the Elephant. Johnson City, Tennessee: Overmountain Press.
  5. ^ Brummette, John (2012). "Trains, Chains, Blame, and Elephant Appeal: A Case Study of the Public Relations Significance of Mary the Elephant". Public Relations Review. 38 (3): 341–346. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.11.013.
  6. ^ "Big Mary". SnapJudgement. Retrieved 2013-08-21.
  7. ^ "Dramatists Play Service, Inc". Retrieved 2015-05-25.
  8. ^ " "Elephants' graveyard".
  9. ^ "Clinchfield". Caleb Lewis: playwright theatremaker. Retrieved 2015-05-25.
  10. ^ Mary the Elephant, retrieved 2015-05-25
  11. ^ "BOOK REVIEW: 'The Devil Amongst the Lawyers'". The Washington Times. Retrieved 2015-05-25.
  12. ^ Shapiro, Dana Adam (2013-09-17). You Can Be Right (or You Can Be Married): Looking for Love in the Age of Divorce. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781451657784.
  13. ^ Taylor, James. "Leaving Time (Jodi Picoult, 2014)". Jodi Picoult.
  14. ^ "mewithoutYou – Elephant In The Dock - lyrics",, retrieved 2018-11-28
  15. ^ "Mighty Mary".

External links[edit]