Mary (Big Mary, Murderous Mary) at Sparks Circus

Female Asian elephant Mary (Big Mary, Murderous Mary) at Sparks Circus

Photo: T.K. Broyles, Clinchfield Railroad employee
† Mary (Big Mary, Murderous Mary)
ID Number:
Species: Asian elephant
Sex and age:Female 30 years
Dead date: 1916-09-13
Death reason: euthanised: hung by the neck from Derrick Car
Location:Sparks Circus
ArrivedSparks Circus 1898-00-00
Born:1886 wild
Document updated2010-09-23:
Mary was a 5 ton heavy female asian elephant hanged in Erwin, Tennessee, after killing the elephant groom Walter "Red" Eldridge, in Kingsport, in 12th of September 1916. Late in the summer, Louis Reed, the regular elephant trainer, had to leave the show. Paul Jacoby, who had previously been the elephant trainer, took over the job. Eldridge had dropped into St. Paul from a Norfolk and Western boxcar, and worked some time as janitor at the Riverside Hotel. Eldridge was hired as elephant groom at 11th of September in St. Paul, Virginia, and was killed after one day on duty.

Theres different stories about what actually happened, but appearently Between shows the elephants were driven to a watering hole. On the way back to the tent, Mary went for a piece of watermelon beside the road, and Eldridge started to punish her, but she grabbed him with the trunk.



  • Version nr 1:
    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 street.

  • 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 head."

  • Version IV: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.




The crowd of onlookers became furious and Blacksmith Hench Cox fired his 32-20 five times at Mary, and later Sheriff Gallahan "knocked chips out of her hide a little" with his .45, according to witness Bud Jones, but with little effect. People demanded the elephant to be killed, and the circus was under pressure. Leaders of several nearby towns threatened not to allow the circus to visit if Mary was included. Charlie and Addie Sparks decided that the elephant must be killed.


"A human's life is something I don't want charged against me," Charlie Sparks later claimed in a 1924 interview. "If people in the business get hurt, that's our lookout. But with an outsider - that's different."



There was no guns strong enough to kill Mary, and no possibility to electrocute her, like Thomas Edison did in 1909 at Coney Island. One option was to take her to nearby Erwin, where there was large cranes at the railway station, where she could be killed by hanging. Before midnight on September 12th Charlie Sparks made the decision to take Mary to Erwin to be hanged.



The circus travelled to Erwin, and Mary and the four other elephants to Clinchfield Railyards in the town Erwin, headquarters of the Charleston, Cincinnati and Chicago Railroad, where there was a 100 ton heavy locomotive crane Derrick Car 1400, strong enough to lift her with a chain. More than 2,500 people gathered to watch Mary die. The chain from which Mary hung snapped shortly after she was raised off the ground, and she fell down on the ground, immobilized from the pain of a broken hip. A heavier chain was attached and this time she was raised into the sky. It took about ten minutes before Murderous Mary was finally dead. They left her hanging for a half-hour, witnesses say, and then, pronounced dead by a local physician, Dr. R.E. Stack, they dumped her in the grave they had dug with a steam shovel 400 feet up the tracks.

Some reports state that mary was a very gentle elephant during her yers with Sparks, others state she was already a killer elephant. Bill Ballantine write in his book Wild Tigers and Tame Fleas: In the old days, circuses simply hushed up a killing by an elephant (after all, wasn't a roughneck just an expendable nobody?), then changed the murderer's name and palmed the animal off on another show. Thus Queen, who choked her keeper to death with her trunk, a la boa constrictor, became Empress, a change which didn't deter her from killing five more persons on one bloody rampage. Under a third name, 'Mary,' she trampled a child during a street parade. Mary, to some accounts, was given a particular send-off. She was hanged from a railroad derrick.

The people in Erwin had whatsoever nothing to do with the decision of killing Mary, the agressions against her was initiated in Kingsport. Erwin just happened to be the closest town with such heavy equipments. Still, today, Erwin known as the town that hanged the elephant.

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