Mary was a five-ton Asian elephant, also known as Murderous Mary, who performed in the Sparks World Famous Shows circus. After killing a trainer in Kingsport, Tennessee, she was hanged in 1916. Her death is sometimes interpreted as a cautionary tale of circus animal abuse during the early 20th century.
On September 12, 1916, a hobo named Walter Eldridge, nicknamed Red because of his rusty-colored hair, was hired as an assistant elephant trainer by the Sparks World Famous Shows circus.
A drifter who had been with the circus only a day, he had no experience of handling elephants, but the only qualification required was the ability to wield an ‘elephant stick’ — a rod with a sharp spear at one end. Eldridge led the elephant parade riding on the top of Mary’s back; Mary was the star of the show, riding at the front.
There have been several accounts of his death. One, recounted by W.H. Coleman who claimed to be a witness, is that he prodded her behind the ear with a hook after she reached down to nibble on a watermelon rind. She went into a rage, snatched Eldridge with her trunk, threw him against a drink stand, and stepped on his head, crushing it.
As the terrified spectators screamed and fled, a local blacksmith shot Mary with a pistol, unloading five rounds of ammunition into her thick hide to little effect. She stood still, suddenly calm again and seemingly oblivious both to the bullets and the commotion as the townsfolk encircled her with chants of “Kill the elephant, kill the elephant!”.
The circus owner, Charlie Sparks, reluctantly decided that the only way to quickly resolve the potentially ruinous situation was to kill the elephant in public. It was decided to hang the elephant by the neck from a railcar-mounted industrial crane.
On the following day, a foggy and rainy September 13, 1916, Mary was transported by rail to Unicoi County, Tennessee, where a crowd of over 2,500 people (including most of the town’s children) assembled in the Clinchfield Railroad yard.
As she was led to the railway yard, Mary was followed by the circus’s other four elephants, each entwining their trunk in the tail of the animal in front just as they had done on countless parades. Charlie Sparks hoped that their presence would keep her compliant but, as a chain was placed around her neck at the “scaffold”, they trumpeted mournfully to her and he feared that she might try to run away.
To stop this from happening, one of her legs was tethered to a rail. No one thought to release it as the derrick whirred into action and, as she was hoisted into the air, there was an awful cracking noise, the sound of her bones and ligaments snapping under the strain. She had been raised no more than five feet when the chain around her neck broke, dropping her to the ground and breaking her hip.
The industrial crane was powered up again and this time Mary was raised high in the air, her thick legs thrashing and her agonized shrieks and grunts audible even over the laughter and cheers of those watching below.
Finally, she fell silent and hung there for half an hour before a local vet declared her dead. Her gruesome end is recorded in a photograph so horrifically surreal that some have suggested it must be a fake — but, all too sadly, its authenticity has been confirmed by other reports and photographs taken at the time.