Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Elephant of Erwin



Murderous Mary


In the early 1900’s when the circus came walking into the mountains towns everyone closed up the shop, turned off the school lights, and ran to the festivities. In 1916 something was going to be different in the railroad “boomtown” of Erwin, Tennessee. As the Sparks Brothers Circus came into town they brought fun, happiness, color, and above all animals. So many strange and wonderful animals toured along the main street parade routes with grandeur and intoxication as a small dose these mountain folk would get from the two days under the tent. The day before Charlie Sparks brought this world into the hills of Erwin Tennessee he needed someone to be the sole caretaker for Mary the Elephant, a five ton 30 year old elephant which was said to be the “largest animal on earth.” Mary was officially measured to be 3 inches taller than Jumbo the elephant. On Monday September 11 1916 Sparks’ circus played in St. Paul Virginia, which is where Red Eldridge a drifter at the time was officially employed as the main caretaker for Mary. During the early 1900’s a caretaker for an animal needed no formal training. Eldridge needed a job and who would turn down the circus. So Tuesday, September 12 1916 was Red’s official first day of work. Many accounts for the day of September, 12 have floated around in oral tradition but the one I will use is one that has been documented several times. As the circus paraded around the city streets Red, carrying his prodding stick, struck Mary in the wrong place and enraged the elephant. Mary turned to the man whom she did not know and whom was abusing her, grabbed him with her trunk swung him around in the air and threw him to the ground. In a couple of seconds Mary had killed Red Eldridge. The town went into hysteria. The accounts of how many people Mary had killed went from one to two to eight to eighteen. The story of “Murderous Mary” ran through the hills and the villages all along the region within the day. People wanted revenge. They wanted justice. Mary was at this time “arrested” and chained outside the courthouse of Erwin. Now, this incident fell into the same timeline that Thomas Edison defended and encouraged the difference between AC and DC power, especially for the use of criminal punishment (death by electrocution.) Edison believed that a successful electrocution of an elephant could show the country the importance of his power currents. The town supporters heard about Thomas Edison’s electrocution of the Coney Island NY elephant Topsy and wanted to invite Edison in for an official trial of death by electrocution. (video of actual electrocution- violent images) The problem here in Erwin is that at the time the city did not have a power supply like NY that could hold what was needed for the charge. So the city turned to what they had. Since they were such a railroad institution they had the use of a derrick car, a car that had the ability to lift train engines off the tracks and replace them. This was perfect for the hanging. Mary was found guilty of murder by judge and jury and sent to the railroad tracks where she was chained to the car and to the track. Upon the event of hanging someone forgot to unchain her leg from the track and as she was pulled up into the air. Still chained to the tracks she broke her leg from dismemberment. She fell to the ground and was then raised again into the air after the proper procedure. Mary was then put to death by hanging that afternoon.

I have heard about this hanging all my life. My father grew up in Erwin, Tennessee from the family of railroad men. My grandfather, 3 uncles and countless descendents of my family worked on the railroad. They all talked about this amongst themselves but never to anyone else. After the fact this act of hanging an elephant was somewhat frown upon, like it was a bad dream that still haunted the town.

5 comments:

cechols said...

Is it coincidence or terrible, terrible irony that we've got two elephant stories in succession?

Anonymous said...

I thought this actually occured in Kingsport, TN. The elephant was transported to Erwin to be "hung" because Kingsport lacked a railroad crane sufficient for the job. Check with ETSU.

John said...

Mary did kill eldridge in Kingsport on the 12th. I've lived here all my life and that's the way I've always heard it. This account sounds to be nearly identical to the way it's been told here other than they neglected to mention she killed the trainer here, the day after the show in St. Paul. I heard they tried to shoot her here in Kingsport before taking her to Erwin. There's a Wikipedia Entry sounds pretty accurate.

Castle said...

Have we evolved since this horrific tragedy of animal abuse?

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