When the sentence of death is carried out, it is always noteworthy. Mary’s execution was no exception. This particular use of capital punishment attracted even more attention than usual. People gathered from near and far to see the killer meet her fate at the gallows. The reason for the keen public interest could be attributed to the fact that the sentence was carried out in public — a rarity for the early twentieth century. Additionally, there was the fact that the crime for which Mary would pay with her life commanded the newspaper headlines and made her an instant celebrity. As if that weren’t enough to make this execution stand out, there was the added oddity that Mary was female. The gallows were almost exclusively used upon male convicts. At the tender age of 21 years, she was far from a hardened criminal.
There was one other thing that made the execution so sensational. The convicted killer, Mary, was an elephant.
Editor’s Note: Mary’s story sat in the “Unfinished Stories” folder here at Commonplace Fun Facts for about 18 months. It is a story that meets the requirements of being strange, interesting, and relatively unknown. At the same time, it is a particularly sad story about one of God’s greatest creations: an elephant. We finally pushed the “publish” button, deciding it is a story worth telling and remembering. We do so with the warning that those who are particularly tender-hearted toward animals may find this story disturbing and infuriating.
The star attraction at Sparks World Famous Shows traveling circus was its Asian elephant. She was billed as Big Mary. Born in 1894, she was purchased when she was four years old. Mary was raised and trained by circus owner Charlie Sparks and his wife Addie Mitchell. They treated her as the daughter they never had and raised her to work in the family business. When she was 8 years old, she began performing for the circus.
The Sparks World Famous Shows was your typical traveling circus of the day. Spectators were drawn by performances by clowns and acrobats, as well as opportunities to see exotic animals. Mary grew up and lived in this environment.
She came by her nickname “Big Mary” honestly. Weighing in at 5 tons, she was billed as “The Largest Living Land Animal On Earth.” She stood three inches taller than Barnum & Bailey’s star, Jumbo.
Mary dazzled the crowd with her ability to stand on her head, play musical instruments, and catch baseballs. For nearly 20 years, she left people in awe that such a massive creature could be so gentle.
Although Sparks and Mitchell treated Mary like family, not everyone was as kind. Circuses tend to be a revolving door of employees, so it wasn’t unusual for the Sparks circus to be looking for help. That’s how Red Eldridge came to be in the employ of Sparks World Famous Shows.
Eldridge had fallen on hard times. He was homeless and had just secured a job as a transient hotel clerk. When the circus came to town, he saw an opportunity to find permanent employment and accommodations. He applied and was hired as an under-keeper for the elephants.
Eldridge was given responsibility for the basic maintenance of the elephants. Feeding, watering, and cleaning up after that massive animals was pretty much the extent of what he was supposed to do. This is because those who were experienced with exotic animals knew that it took special skill to have direct contact with them. Even the gentlest of animals can become dangerous when provoked.
On September 11, 1916, the circus was in Kingsport, Tennessee. The circus personnel was busy, getting ready for its next show when tragedy struck. The specifics of the fateful event have been lost in the confusion of what followed. Most accounts agree that Eldridge climbed atop Mary and attempted to lead her to a watering hole by nudging her with a bullhook. All seemed to be going well until Mary grew distracted by a piece of discarded watermelon. She abruptly stopped and reached for the tantalizing snack. Eldridge, contrary to orders, rebuked her with his bullhook. One witness said that he poked her behind the ear with the hook. Others said that he thrashed at her, digging the hook into the elephant’s flesh.
Regardless of the cause, Mary reacted violently. She grabbed Eldridge with her trunk and threw him. Some witnesses claimed he was smashed into the ground. Others insisted he was first tossed into a drink stand. Having been dislodged from her back, Mary approached the stunned man, placed her massive foot on his head, and stepped down. Death was instantaneous.
Word of the tragedy spread like wildfire and quickly made its way into the community. People rushed to the scene, wanting to see the gruesome scene for themselves. As the crowd grew, some terrified and outraged voices could be heard. “Kill the elephant! Let’s kill it!” Soon, the words were taken up as a repeating chant.
Sparks and the circus staff were in shock about the killing, and they were alarmed by the reaction of the crowd. They had a show scheduled in nearby Erwin later that evening, but community leaders sent word that the circus would not be permitted to open if “Murderous Mary” was a part of the show.
The controversy increased throughout the next day. Charlie Sparks came to the reluctant decision that the only way to stop a riot and prevent irreparable harm to his business was to agree to the mob’s demands. It was decided. Mary would be executed for the murder of Red Eldridge.
September 13, 1916, was the date set for Mary’s final show. Before the sentence could be carried out, however, it had to be decided how to do it. Shooting a 10,000-pound animal had definite drawbacks. Looking a bit closer to our time, in 1994, an elephant named Tyke was shot 87 times by Honolulu police after escaping the circus ring mid-show.
Someone suggested a modified electric chair. Back in 1903, an elephant named Topsy was famously electrocuted in Coney Island, New York after trampling three handlers. Electrocution was not an option for Mary, however, since the rural community lacked the resources to pull that off.
Some suggested standing her on a railroad track and crushing her between two trains. Someone else proposed the opposite — tying her front and back legs to two trains running in opposite directions, thereby tearing her apart.
Sparks settled upon a public hanging, in hopes that it would be merciful while also satisfying the crowd’s bloodlust. He secured the use of a 100-ton crane and prepared it to serve as gallows.
As the hour of execution approached, Mary and four other elephants walked in a trunk-to-tail train as they did in countless performances. The poor creature was unaware that this would be the final time.
Mary was led to the base of the crane where circus employees fitted a chain around her neck. The chain would serve as the noose.
Any hopes of the execution being quick and merciful were immediately dashed. The crane lifted Mary about five feet off the ground before the chain snapped under her weight. The terrified animal fell to the ground and had to be calmed as workers hastily secured a second and stronger chain around her neck.
The second time, the chain held. The crane lifted the doomed animal into the air, where she shrieked and thrashed for several minutes before breathing her last. About thirty minutes after being lifted from the ground, a veterinarian declared her dead.
Later that evening, another elephant that had worked with Mary for years escaped from the circus and ran to the railway yard that had served as the execution site for Mary. The runaway elephant was captured and returned to the circus without injury.
Not to minimize the tragic death of Red Eldridge, by any means, but the fact remains that ultimately, Mary was executed for the crime of behaving like an elephant. Elephants are highly intelligent and tend to be gentle around humans. No one, however intelligent or gentle, however, reacts well to abuse.
It would take a full 100 years after Mary’s death for the spectacle of circus elephant shows to go away. In May 2016, the Ringling Brothers’ Circus announced that it would retire several circus elephants, with plans to eliminate their use in shows entirely by 2018. Before the plans could be carried out, the circus went defunct in 2017.
Erwin, the town that carries the shame of executing Big Mary, is now working to make amends. Members of the Erwin community have formed an organization that is devoted to elephant welfare. They are determined that Mary’s death shall not have been in vain.