The Strange Story of a Town that Publicly Lynched an Elephant for Murder

▪ Elephant was part of traveling circus called Sparks World Famous Shows
▪ New inexperienced handler was put in charge of the elephant during a parade
▪ He prodded her in the spot of her tooth abscess which caused her extreme pain
▪ Elephant killed the handler in a fit of rage sending spectators running in a panic

This is the most publicized photo of Mary’s hanging on Sept. 13, 1916. Credit: Google / Public Domain

Erwin, Tennessee — “Murderous Mary” sounds like a name that would be attached to a notorious serial killer, but it couldn’t be further from that — the name actually belongs to a 5-ton Asian circus elephant named Mary.

Mary was part of the Sparks World Famous Shows circus, a traveling circus that entertained towns up and down the United States during the early 20th century.

This photo, circa 1905 or 1906, shows the Sparks Circus company before heading out on a parade. Owner Charlie Sparks is shown seated on the right in the buggy (bottom-left corner of the photo). Credit: Pfening Collection / CircusHistory.org

Along with the other elephants of the circus, Mary would perform various acts such as standing on her haunches, forming adorable trains with her fellow elephants, playing baseball, and even trumpeting tunes for a raucous crowd.

Main entrance to a Sparks Circus show circa 1912. Credit: McClintock Collection / CircusHistory.org

As with most circuses from the time period, animal cruelty played a large part in training the animals into performing these various tricks and feats. It was common for animals to be whipped, poked, and prodded into submission, and Mary’s treatment was no different.

Fateful Trip to Tennessee

This Sparks Circus handout flyer billed Mary as “The Largest Living Land Animal On Earth”. Mary weighed 5 tons and was the largest elephant the circus had. Notice the top of the flyer says “Moral, Entertaining and Instructive”. Credit: Google / Vince Staten / Public Domain

Mary would earn her name during one fateful visit to Erwin, Tennessee on September, 1916, in which a tragic accident gave birth to events that are still remembered today — for all the wrong reasons.

The circus was set to perform a parade in Kingsport, a small town about 40 miles north of Erwin, featuring an appearance from the star attraction Mary. In what can be viewed as a strange decision, Mary was handled by an individual named Walter Eldridge, who had only been working with the circus for a day.

Despite his lack of experience handling elephants, Eldridge was given the role because the only real qualifications anyone required was being able to effectively use an ‘elephant stick’ — a rod with a sharpened spear at one end used to prod and control the elephant.

Eldridge soon found himself riding atop of Mary at the head of the parade, which is when the aforementioned accident occurred.

Day of the ‘Murder’

While there are many accounts of what actually happened, the consensus is that Mary killed Eldridge in a fit of rage after mistreatment. What was unknown to the handler at the time was that Mary was suffering from tooth decay, causing her to be in constant pain (not to mention the emotional pain from her continual mistreatment from trainers).

Sparks Circus commonly handed out these free special courtesy tickets to town officials. Credit: Google / Vince Staten / Public Domain

It is thought that Mary stopped to have a bite to eat on a watermelon rind, causing Eldridge to prod her to continue moving with the parade. Instead, he managed to strike Mary right where her tooth decay was causing so much distress, causing her to swiftly react in the deadliest way.

Sparks Circus animal coach. Credit: Google / Public Domain

Mary grabbed Eldridge with her trunk and threw him from her back before stomping on his head, killing him in the process. Given the violent turn of events, the crowd reacted in horror at what they had just witnessed, with many fleeing while others called for her death.

A blacksmith is said to have shot Mary in retaliation for the killing while hundreds of frenzied spectators screamed….

‘Kill the elephant, kill the elephant!’

Completely unaware of the events that had just transpired, Mary stood still and remained docile, even despite being shot multiple times and with all the screaming people around her.

Public Lynching of Murderous Mary

Pictured here is a rail-mounted industrial crane identical to the one used to hang Mary. Credit: Google / Public Domain

Charlie Sparks, the owner of the traveling circus, was fearful that the events that had just transpired could result in show cancellations and a bad reputation for his business, leading him to relent to the vengeful demands of the people of Kingsport. Wanting a quick resolution to the problem, Sparks agreed to put ‘Murderous’ Mary to a public death.

While its unknown how the decision was made, Mary was to be hanged by the neck using a railcar-mounted industrial crane. It was very much a public lynching, with the accused being a 5-ton elephant that had no understanding of what was happening and why.

So the following day on September 13, 1916, Mary was transported south by train back to the Erwin railway yard where she was publicly hanged in front of a crowd of 2,500 spectators –- including countless children.

In a cruel public display, she was led alongside her fellow elephants like they had done in endless parades, with the hopes of keeping her calm and compliant prior to her execution. However, as the chain was placed around her neck, she began to mournfully trumpet, leading Sparks to worry that she may try to flee in panic.

This eyewitness photo shows the moment Mary was hanged. About 2,500 curious spectators, including the entire town of Erwin, showed up to watch the macabre event. Credit: Google / Public Domain

As a result of this, one of her legs was tied to a rail. But in a horrible turn of events, no one thought to untie her leg when she was hoisted into the air, causing her bones and ligaments to be severely damaged.

The chain lifting her into the air would then proceed to snap causing her drop five feet from the air, with the impact from the fall completely shattering Mary’s hip and causing her even more agony during her final moments. She was then hoisted high into the air for a second time, with the chain holding her immense weight this time.

This postcard photo taken during the early 1900s shows how the Erwin railway yard would’ve looked during that time period. Mary was hanged and then buried in an unmarked grave somewhere around this yard. Erwin city officials have no interest in locating her grave for fear of creating a tourist attraction that would give their town a bad reputation. Credit: Google / epodunk / Public Domain

Mary grunted, kicked and thrashed in the air as she was slowly hanged to death in front of a cheering crowd. The tragic events were captured on camera which resulted in many macabre photographs testifying to a truly tragic tale of animal cruelty and bloodthirsty revenge.

The images of Mary’s gruesome execution remain so abhorrent that it is easy to assume they couldn’t possibly be real, but they corroborate with personal and news accounts of what occurred on that fateful day. Perhaps the one solace to take from the story is that Mary’s horrific and cruel treatment throughout her life was finally over.

This is how the Erwin railway yard looks like today. The depot station house in the top-left corner has been converted to the J.F. Toney Memorial Public Library. Credit: Sue Guinn Legg / Johnson City Press / Screen Grab

And coincidentally, there’s now a sprawling Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee that aims to provide a safe haven for retired circus elephants.

If this story makes you feel disgusted, CLICK HERE to read the story about the elephant that was rescued from a cruel life of slavery.

Here are local newspaper accounts of the incident:

1“Big Crowd Sees Elephant Kill Keeper” (Click to Enlarge)

This account of Mary killing Walter Eldridge was reported by the Johnson City Staff paper. No reports by Kingsport, TN papers are known to have survived. Credit: Google / Vince Staten / Public Domain

2“Sparks Show Co. Kills Big Elephant”

Newspaper report published by the Johnson City Staff paper the day after Mary was hanged. Credit: Google / Vince Staten / Public Domain

3“Elephants Ball Game”

This newspaper article describes one of the featured acts of the Sparks Circus elephants — playing baseball. Credit: Google / Vince Staten / Public Domain

4Mary Being Hanged

This is the original publicized photo of the execution of Mary dated Sept 13, 1916. Credit: Google / Public Domain

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