The Public Hanging of a Circus Elephant

Mary the ElephantPhoto: Unknown

Horror stories of animal abuse in the circus are well-known to us all. The cruel lash of the lion tamer’s whip or the sting of the cattle prod are familiar memories of a bygone era when exotic animals were novelties made to perform for our entertainment. But on September 13th, 1916, more than eighty years ago, the small town of Erwin, Tennessee witnessed an event that has gone down in history as one of the most barbaric acts of animal cruelty ever committed.

On the 12th of September, 1916, the Sparks Brothers Circus came to Kingsport, Tennessee and with them came Mary – a thirty-year-old, five-ton elephant. Red Eldridge was the man charged with the job of elephant ‘under keeper’, despite his inexperience, and was responsible for feeding Mary between shows. Nobody knows exactly what happened that day, but at some point between shows Red prodded her sensitive ear with a bull hook, enraging her. The animal then grabbed him with her trunk and threw him against a drink stand before trampling him to death under her great weight.

Mass panic ensued. Crowds baying for Mary’s blood marched through the streets screaming “kill the elephant!” and seconds later a blacksmith opened fire, only to realize that the poor animal’s hide was too thick to be penetrated by normal caliber rounds. Sheriff Hickman ‘arrested’ Mary and staked her next to the county jail for all to see before demanding that Charlie Sparks guaranteed she would not harm the public. Several towns in the state even claimed they would not allow the circus to visit whilst Mary was still alive.

Something had to be done and that night Charlie and his brother Addie decided upon drastic measures: the next day Mary the elephant was hung by her neck from a railroad car at the Clinchfield rail yard before a crowd of onlookers. Her suffering was prolonged when the chain on the industrial crane used to winch her into the air snapped, causing her to fall and break her hip. The second attempt was successful and Mary was buried beside the railroad tracks near the spot where she was hung.

It seems incomprehensibly cruel to hang an elephant to us. Today, if an elephant is judged to be dangerous there are sanctuaries for them and ironically one such place is now located only a few miles away in the same state at Hohenwald, Lewis County. Charlie Sparks was later to be inducted into the circus hall of fame, despite his decision to put poor Mary to death in such a cruel manner.

Perhaps they could have used a different method of execution back on that day in 1916, but the real barbarity lies in the fact Mary was treated like any other common criminal and publicly hanged. Can an animal be judged according to human laws? Surely the cruelty of such an approach to nature is plain for all to see.

Sources: 1, 2