Mary (elephant)

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Mary hanging from a 100-ton derrick in Erwin, Tennessee
Species Asian elephant
Sex Female
Born 1894
Died September 13, 1916(1916-09-13) (aged 21–22)
Erwin, Tennessee
Nation from United States
Occupation Circus performer
Employer Charlie Sparks
Years active 1898–1916
Training Playing musical instruments
Pitching baseballs
Weight 5 short tons (4,500 kg)
Height 11 ft 9 in (3.58 m)

Mary (c. 1894–September 13, 1916)[1] was a five-ton Asian elephant, also known as "Murderous Mary",[2] who performed in the Sparks World Famous Shows circus. After killing a trainer in Kingsport, Tennessee, she was hanged in nearby Erwin, Tennessee, in 1916. Her death is sometimes interpreted as a cautionary tale of circus animal abuse during the early 20th century.[3]

Death of Red Eldridge[edit]

On September 11, 1916, a homeless man named Red Eldridge, who landed a job as a transient hotel clerk[4] was hired as an assistant elephant trainer by the Sparks World Famous Shows circus. He was killed by Mary in Sullivan County, Tennessee, on the evening of September 12. Eldridge led the elephant parade, although he was not qualified, riding on the top of Mary's back; Mary was the star of the show, riding at the front.[5] 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.[4]

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 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 [sic] 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."[4] It is clear from the photo of her hanging that Mary was either tuskless or had short 'tushes' common amongst female Asian elephants.[6]


The details of the aftermath are confused in a maze of sensationalist newspaper stories and folklore. Most accounts indicate that she calmed down afterward 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.[4] 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 crane between four o'clock and five o'clock that evening.[7] 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.[8] Although the authenticity of a widely distributed (and heavily retouched) photo of her death was disputed years later by Argosy magazine,[4] other photographs taken during the incident confirm its provenance.[9]

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.[10]
  • 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.[11]
  • 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 22 July 2009.[12]
  • Singer songwriter Chuck Brodsky wrote a song entitled "Mary the Elephant".[13]
  • 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.[14]
  • 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".[15]
  • 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.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Murderous Mary". 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. ^ Krajicek, David J. (2015-03-14). "'Fed up' circus elephant lynched for 'murder' in 1916". NY Daily News. Retrieved 2016-09-15. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Joan V. Schroeder (February 13, 2009). "The Day They Hanged Mary The Elephant in Tennessee -". 
  5. ^ Hodge, Randy; Price, Charles Edwin (1992). The Day they Hung the Elephant. Johnson City, Tennessee: Overmountain Press. 
  6. ^ "Elephant Tusks". 
  7. ^ 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: 341–346. 
  8. ^ "Big Mary". SnapJudgement. Retrieved 2013-08-21. 
  9. ^ "The town that hanged an elephant". Retrieved 2015-05-25. 
  10. ^ "Dramatists Play Service, Inc". Retrieved 2015-05-25. 
  11. ^ " "Samuel French, Inc".  External link in |website= (help)
  12. ^ "Clinchfield". Caleb Lewis: playwright theatremaker. Retrieved 2015-05-25. 
  13. ^ Mary the Elephant, retrieved 2015-05-25 
  14. ^, The. "BOOK REVIEW: 'The Devil Amongst the Lawyers'". Retrieved 2015-05-25. 
  15. ^ 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. 
  16. ^

External links[edit]