In 1916, Erwin was a railroad boom
town, home to the Cincinnati, Clinchfield, and Ohio Railroad's repair
facilities, "sprouting like a boy growing too fast for his own
britches," according to longtime resident Hank S. Johnson. The population
of Erwin (which was supposed to be called Ervin, in honor of the man who
donated 15 acres of land for the town, but was misspelled by a postal worker)
nearly tripled in the first 16 years of the century. Makeshift boardwalks
stretched above the ankle-deep yellow mud in the streets.
The Clinchfield line used to carry
coal out of the Tennessee mountains; Clinchfield and Blue Ridge Pottery were
the major employers in Erwin. For decades, the railroad yards were the busiest
place in town.
Now, the yards are quiet: pigeons
roost in the old passenger station, and most of the tracks are dull from
This is where Murderous Mary, a
five-ton cow elephant with the Sparks Brothers Circus, was hung by the neck
from Derrick Car 1400 on September 13, 1916. The story of why and how Mary died
is, of course, obscured by time and countless retelling: an example of the best
and worst of oral history. It is tragic, absurd, excessive: quintessential
Instinctively, the Harmons reached for their guns. It was the second year of the French and Indian War, and the Shawnees weren't to be trusted. Five months earlier, they'd swooped down onto the tiny nearby settlement of Draper's Meadows, murdering four, wounding two, and taking five hostages.
So Charlie did the best he could,
traveling around the South, putting up advance posters and enticing folks with
a noon circus parade prior to the day's two performances. Sparks posters
claimed a certain degree of moral superiority:
"Twenty-five years of honest
dealing with the public!"
"Moral, entertaining, and
"The show that never broke a
What else did Sparks offer? Educated
sea lions. Greasepainted and powdered dogs and humans, posing like Greek
statues. Clowns. The Man Who Walks Upon His Head. And elephants.
Mary was billed as "the largest
living land animal on earth"; her owner claimed she was three inches
bigger than Jumbo, P.T. Barnum's famous pachyderm. At 30 years old, Mary was
five tons of pure talent: she could "play 25 tunes on the musical horns
without missing a note"; the pitcher on the circus baseball-game routine,
her .400 batting average "astonished millions in New York."
Rumor and exaggeration swarmed about
Mary like flies. She was worth a small fortune: $20,000, Charlie Sparks
claimed. She was dangerous, having killed two men, or was it eight, or 18?
She was Charlie Sparks' favorite,
his cash cow, his claim to circus fame. She was the leader of his small band of
elephants, an exotic crowd-pleaser, an unpredictable giant.
On Monday, September 11, 1916,
Sparks World Famous Shows played St. Paul, Va., a tiny mining town in the
Clinch River Valley.
Which is where drifter Red Eldridge
made a fatal decision. Slight and flame-haired, Red had nothing to lose by
signing up with Sparks World Famous Shows: he'd dropped into St. Paul from a
Norfolk and Western boxcar and decided to stay for a while. Taking a job as
janitor at the Riverside Hotel, Eldridge found himself pushing a broom and,
then, dreaming of moving on.
Eldridge was hired as an elephant
handler and marched in the circus parade that afternoon. It's easy to imagine
that what he lacked in skill and knowledge, he made up for with go-for-broke
bravado. A small man carrying a big stick can be a dangerous thing.
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
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
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.
Regardless of the details, the end
was the same -- a man dead. Justice to be served. And besides, Charlie Sparks
was no fool: no town in Tennessee would invite his circus to perform with a
certifiably rogue elephant. Johnson City, where performances were scheduled for
September 26, had already passed a privilege-tax ordinance restricting
carnivals' operations within city limits, in order to protect its citizens from
wholesale fleecing; it was common knowledge that Johnson City officials were
looking for an excuse to ban all traveling shows. As valuable as Mary was, she
had to go.
The problem was, how?
Guns, of course, were the first
course of action. Just after Eldridge's death, blacksmith Hench Cox fired his
32-20 five times at Mary; the story goes that the bullets hardly phased her.
"Kill the elephant. Let's kill him," the crowd began chanting. Later,
Sheriff Gallahan "knocked chips out of her hide a little" with his
.45, according to witness Bud Jones. But the circus manager stated, "There
ain't gun enough in this country that he could be killed"; another
approach would have to be attempted.
Someone suggested electrocution:
"They tried to electrocute her in Kingsport -- they put 44,000 volts to
her and she just danced a little bit," railroader Mont Lilly claimed.
Others report that electrocution was never an option, because there wasn't
enough power running in the railroad yards to affect Mary. (Since most American
railroads continued to use steam locomotives until the 1930s, it's curious that
railroad electrocution was even a possibility.)
Other reports suggest a third
execution method: hooking Mary to two opposing engines and dismembering her, or
crushing her between two facing engines. Both were dismissed as too cruel.
And so it was decided, instead, that
Murderous Mary would be hung by the neck from a derrick car the next day.
More than 2,500 people gathered to
watch Mary swing near the turn-table and powerhouse on that drizzly afternoon;
perhaps the number of eyewitnesses, as well as the unforgettable, sad spectacle
of the event, explains the consensus on this part of the story.
One of those witnesses, Myrtle
Taylor, remembered that every child in Erwin was at the Clinchfield Yards.
"And they took the other elephants and Mary down Love Street from the
performance to the railyards, trunk to tail. We kids hung back because we were
scared to death, but still we wanted to see it."
Wade Ambrose, who was 20 at the time
Mary was hung, recalls that the roustabouts chained Mary's leg to the rail,
then drove her companions back around the roundhouse.
"They had a time getting the
chain around her neck. Then they hooked the boom to the neck chain, and when
they began to lift her up, I heard the bones and ligaments cracking in her
foot. They finally discovered that she'd not been released from the rail, so
they did that."
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. (The reports of the grave size vary from
a too-small 10 by 12 feet to "big as a barn.")
When Mary's massive and valuable
tusks were sawed off is a matter of debate. Some, such as eyewitness M.D.
Clark, claim that "they dug down that night and cut her tushes off."
Mont Lilly, who helped hang Mary, claims someone made a pair of dice from the
A careful observer of the one
photograph allegedly taken at Mary's hanging will notice that the elephant
suspended there has no tusks. So either Mary's tusks were removed before she
was hung -- or they were removed after the hanging and Mary was
"rehung" for a photo-op. A third possibility -- that the photograph
was a hoax -- ought not to be discounted; when it was submitted to Argosy
magazine for publication, the photo was rejected as a phony.
Tusks or no tusks, Mary or a
superimposed substitute: The photograph revealing the hung elephant is a mirror
of the times, in which Old Testament, frontier justice was served (Mary had,
after all, killed two or three or 18 men), and people's insatiable hunger for
grotesquery was, at least temporarily, satisfied.
There is also in Erwin a woman named
Ruth Piper, who has made it her mission to memorialize Mary, to wash the town
clean of elephant blood. Piper believes that Erwin has for too long taken the
rap for Mary's death.
"Kingsport, the railroad, and
Mr. Sparks are to blame for what happened to Mary -- not Erwin. People feel so
guilty about it -- we've got to release it. It is a sad, sad thing that
happened, but we have to let it go."
Somewhat paradoxically, Piper wants
an elephant statue and fountain built in town, a movie at the visitor center, a
memorial wreath laid in the railroad yards. In October 1995, she presented her
proposal to the Erwin Bicentennial Committee. Nothing came of it.
There is a final irony clinging to
the story of Murderous Mary, one that firmly places Mary's murder in a time and
place. In an article published in the March 1971 issue of the Tennessee
Folklore Society Bulletin, author Thomas Burton reports that some local
residents recall "two Negro keepers" being hung alongside Mary, and
that others remember Mary's corpse being burned on a pile of crossties.
"This belief," Burton writes, "may stem from a fusion of the
hanging with another incident that occurred in Erwin, the burning on a pile of
crossties of a Negro who allegedly abducted a white girl."
The murder of an elephant: a
spectacle. The murder of "a Negro": another spectacle.
It was 1916 -- a good year for
scapegoats in America.
Twenty-odd years ago, I went to
eastern Tennessee to puzzle through the story of Murderous Mary, the five-ton
Sparks circus elephant who killed her novice trainer in Kingsport one day and
died by hanging in Erwin’s railyard the next. I spent time in the Archives of
Appalachia at East Tennessee State University reading oral histories from those
who witnessed the hanging or heard the stories told in the aftermath.
In the story I wrote for Blue Ridge
Country, I shared the convictions of Ruth Piper, who believed then that her
town had suffered long enough. Back then, she was a lone voice in Erwin:
“Kingsport, the railroad, and Mr. Sparks are to blame for what happened to
Mary—not Erwin. People feel so guilty about it—we’ve got to release it. It is a
sad, sad thing that happened, but we have to let it go.”
It took a while, but today, Ruth
Piper’s words are echoed by many. Erwin, Tennessee is tired of being known as
the town that hung an elephant.
What I found when I returned to
Erwin was a town determined to make amends for its elephant crime, and in the
process, reinvent itself socially and economically.
First things first. Here’s what
happened in mid-September, 1916.
The Sparks World Famous Shows was
traveling the rails through eastern Tennessee when they picked up a new
elephant handler. Walter “Red” Eldridge was a drifter, a dreamer and a
daredevil—the day after he was hired, he rode massive Mary (“The Largest Living
Animal On Earth”) through the streets of Kingsport.
When Mary stopped to enjoy some
discarded watermelon rinds, Red hit the side of her head with his elephant
stick. You can guess the rest: Mary lifted him in her trunk and tossed Red onto
the street, then put her foot on his head and “squashed it like a ripe melon,”
as Charles Price put it in his 1992 book, “The Day They Hung the
(Speculation later was that
Eldridge had hit an infected tooth, causing Mary’s violent response. But since
that report came from an alleged autopsy conducted by a veterinarian deep in
Mary’s grave several days after her hanging, one can only wonder.)
Circus owner Charlie Sparks didn’t
want to kill Mary…she was valued at $8,000 and was a major draw. But Johnson
City and Rogersville, scheduled to host the circus later in the week, had
banned Mary from their towns, and public opinion was turning fast. Word was
that a vigilante group from Kingsport was coming armed with a relic Civil War
cannon to kill Mary if Charlie Sparks wouldn’t do it himself.
So the next day, in Erwin, Mary the
Elephant was hung from a 100-ton Clinchfield Railroad crane car before an
audience of, they say, 2,500. And then she was buried in a massive, hand-dug
grave somewhere in the railyard, unmarked to this day.
RISE Erwin was born a few years
back, when CSX left town and the railyard fell silent. “Four hundred jobs,
gone. The town was in mourning,” Rice says. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘who are
we?’ We weren’t a railroad town any longer, and we were tired of having the
stigma as the town that hung the elephant. We knew we had to create a new
identity for ourselves.”
The 100th anniversary of Mary’s
hanging was looming, and the members of RISE Erwin came up with a creative
idea. Reaching out to the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee—one of
only two certified sanctuaries in America—they offered to do a fundraiser for
the sanctuary by auctioning off public-art elephant statues. The Erwin Elephant
Revival was born.
“We bought unpainted elephant
statues from a business in Denmark called The Elephant Parade. They protect
elephant habitats all over the world. We had local artists paint them, and
after they were displayed around town for a couple of months, we auctioned them
off. The profits went to the Elephant Sanctuary,” Rice says. In the past two
years, RISE Erwin has donated $20,000 to the Elephant Sanctuary.
“Tomorrow’s Great Outdoors Festival
is the debut of our new herd,” Jamie says. “They’re on display out in front of
The elephants are beautiful, with
their sunlit colors and whimsical designs. Children wander among them, touching
their trunks and leaning against their legs. Cell-phone cameras are everywhere.
A hiker who’s come off the Appalachian Trail removes his pack and sits on the
Courthouse steps, taking them in. They are mesmerizing, these elephant
Down the street, Glenna Lewis is
sitting outside the Valley Beautiful Antique Mall, which she owns with her
“My father was there when they hung
Mary,” she tells me. “I don’t remember what he said about it…but it happened
More than 5,000 pieces of Southern
Pottery are stacked high in the narrow shop, which used to be housed in the
Hanging Elephant Antique Mall down the street. Opening in 1916—the year Mary
was hung—Southern Pottery was a major employer in Erwin and the parent company
of famed, hand-painted Blue Ridge Pottery. The town, with its extensive rail
service, was also home to Cash Family, Erwin, Clinchfield, and Clouse pottery.
The Lewises seem to have cornered
the market. This is the place to come to if you collect Blue Ridge. Spend an
hour with Joey Lewis, and you’ll learn everything there is to know about the
I ask about the elephant figurines
in the front window. “They’re from the 1920s, made here in Erwin to memorialize
Mary,” Joey says. He watches my hand move toward one lustered white elephant:
“Southern Potteries Rare Elephant Figural. 18k gold detail. $1,000.”
“She’s half-price—it’s our
anniversary month,” he says. “I could go down to $400.”
I take a last, longing look and
leave without it. As beautiful and historic as the pottery elephants are, my
money would be better sent to The Elephant Sanctuary. (I know this to be
true—but the $6.95 red elephant watering can I buy down the street is small consolation.)
In Clinchfield Pharmacy on the
morning of the Great Outdoors Festival, there’s a giant inflatable elephant
standing to the side of the pharmacy counter. “What’s that thing doing standing
there?” a customer asks the clerk.
“Oh, you know, Joe,” she says,
pointing to the pharmacist. “He was going to hang it, but he couldn’t find a
The clerk tells me a slightly skewed
version of Mary’s demise, saying it was her owner that Mary killed, not her
handler. “Always wondered, why didn’t they inject her with something and put
her down that way? The killing happened over in Kingsport—why’d they have to
come to our town to kill her?”
It’s an interesting question,
unanswerable but inviting speculation.
As the morning passes, Main Street
fills. Kids have their pictures taken with Smoky the Bear. A man strolls by
with an iguana draped on his shoulder. Volunteers from Kingsport’s Bays
Mountain Park have brought snakes and birds of prey. Appalachian Trail hikers
stop by the AT booth to share stories. Skateboarding ramps and jumps line a
side street. Plants are for sale on every corner. I eat Elephant Tracks ice
cream and am happy for RISE Erwin: Despite a questionable weather forecast, the
crowds have turned out for their Great Outdoors Festival.
Near the open stage and food trucks
at the end of Main Street, Tyler Engle, executive director of the Unicoi County
Joint Economic Development Board, stands smiling big. He’s young, and he’s
cheerful, and he’s on the front lines of RISE Erwin. He’s an Erwin native who
returned with his wife Logan to help bring his hometown into a new future.
“This is the most exciting time in
the past 60 years here in Erwin,” he says. With the rise and subsequent fall of
the railroad and Southern Potteries, the arrival of Nuclear Fuel Services in
the 1950s was a major stabilizer. Now Unicoi County’s largest employer with a
workforce of 1,000, Nuclear Fuel produces fuel used for Navy nuclear submarines
and aircraft carriers.
There’s more. An industrial park.
Fiberoptic throughout the county. A new hospital. Rocky Fork, Tennessee’s 55th
state park, under construction. Grant-funded waterline extensions. A library
housed in the former Clinchfield/CSX Rail Passenger station. The Appalachian
Trail and the Nolichucky River. Main Street festivals—this one, and an Apple
Festival in its 41st year that draws 110,000 visitors.
And an Elephant Revival. Eyewitness
Wade Ambrose ended his account of Mary’s hanging like this:
So they buried the elephant there,
and as far as I know, her bones are still there, near the back track, below
where the old powerhouse used to be. Sometime, in a hundred, or five hundred
years from now, somebody will probably find her and wonder how in the world
those bones got there.
I’d like to think that Mary’s bones
will stay buried where they are, at peace in this small mountain town, her
memory ongoing in elephant revivals, public elephant art, and support for
elephants who are a lot more fortunate than Mary was.
The word that comes to mind is
The Sanctuary lies 80 miles
southwest of Nashville. But if you’re thinking of a visit, think again.
Visitors are prohibited, in order to safeguard the elephants and their
However, through the use of
solar-powered cameras, the world can catch glimpses of the elephants.
Distance learning opportunities are available to schools and groups around the
world. To access, go to www.elephants.com and click on the ELECAM link.
Todd Montgomery, Volunteer and
Outreach Manager of the Sanctuary, is grateful to RISE Erwin for its
“It’s a cool partnership we have
with them. We’re so touched—I guess that’s the best word for it—that an
entire community has come forward to support us. For so long, Erwin was
known as a town where an elephant was hung. Instead of pretending that it
didn’t happen, they’ve found a way to honor the memory of Mary.”
I think Jamie Rice got it right when
she said, “If Mary had lived in today’s world, she’d be at the Elephant
Today, if you google some variation
of “Hanging Mary the Elephant,” you’ll be overwhelmed by hundreds of results.
• Mary’s been written about in the Daily Mail. The New
York Daily News.
NPR’s “Snap Judgment” did a Mary skit.
Mary is on Pinterest.
She’s been alluded to by bestselling novelists Sharyn
McCrumb and Jodi Picoult.
Matthew Carlton’s play, “Hanging Mary,” won first place
in the 2012 Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights competition.
There’s even been a ballad written about Mary, by
Asheville songwriter Chuck Brodsky.
Mary is also one of two elephants written about in Mike
Jaynes’s book “Elephants Among Us: Two Performing Elephants in
The original Blue Ridge Country
article is cited as a reference for much of what’s been published since it
appeared in 1997. Let’s hope that this new story of Erwin and its Elephant
Revival gets equal attention.