Bizarre true story of the 1916 hanging of Murderous Mary, a circus elephant from Sparks World Famous Shows, in a Tennessee mountain town.

WARNING: This story describes the killing of a circus elephant.  It may be too disturbing for some readers.  But we present the story in its entirety so we may learn lessons from the past.

LISTEN: Storyteller Chuck Larkin Tells His Version of “Murderous Mary The Elephant”

Before the days when television and the internet beamed countless entertainment options into even the most remote American homes, the traveling circus was small town America’s ticket to worlds of magic and wonder. Each year, young and old alike excitedly filled the streets to watch a parade of festively colored wagons, clowns, performers and exotic animals roll into town. As railroad systems spread throughout America, circuses of all sizes fought for the hard earned dollars of American families.

Nolichucky River in Appalachian Mountains east of Erwin Tennessee
Nolichucky River east of Erwin, Tennessee. Photo by Mark Fickett licensed under CC BY 3.0.

But when Sparks World Famous Shows, a mid-sized, 15-rail car circus, rolled into the mountain community of Erwin, Tennessee on September 13, 1916, they promised a bizarre spectacle no circus had offered before. After the matinee performance, they promised Erwin’s citizens a free, public hanging of who was then the most notorious killer in Tennessee: “Murderous Mary.”

Mary was a circus elephant.

What you are about to read is a true story. Some events leading up to the hanging of Murderous Mary the elephant, aka Big Mary, have been clouded over time by faulty memories, folklore and media exaggerations. Some of Erwin’s citizens avoid discussing the incident to this day.

But there is little doubt the hanging of Mary the elephant took place in the Erwin rail yards on September 13, 1916. An event that would forever brand this little known community as the “town that hung the elephant.”

Sparks World Famous Shows

Throughout his life, Charlie Sparks, manager of Sparks World Famous Shows, knew how to entertain an audience. He was the son of English music hall performers.  By age eight, he was performing in the popular Jack Harvey Minstrels as a drummer and world champion clogger. When his father died, he sang and danced on street corners to support his widowed mother.

Ad Sparks World Famous Shows Circus Charles Sparks

Charlie’s circus days began during a tour stop in Utah. He and his mother met a vaudeville performer named John H. Weisman at the hotel where they were staying. Charlie’s performing skills impressed Weisman, who quickly befriended both Charlie and his mother. They became such good friends that Charlie’s mother asked Weisman to care for her son when she fell gravely ill with tuberculosis. Weisman not only adopted Charlie, but oddly changed his own last name to Sparks (perhaps because it was a more “circus sounding” name). John H. Sparks would subsequently have a son of his own, Clifton Sparks.  

John H. and Charlie performed together as an after show act until 1890, when John H. organized his first small circus, the Sparks and Allen Wagon Show. They later renamed it John H. Sparks Virginia Shows.  For a small horse and wagon operation, it was quite successful. 

In 1901, when Charlie was 25, his father grew weary of touring. John H. bought a hotel near Winston-Salem, North Carolina, adding a fishing lake and a small zoo.  Bizarrely, John H. would later die from an infectious lion cub bite at his zoo.

This tragedy left Charlie as manager of the circus, assisted by his brother Clifton.  Charlie knew for his show to thrive, it had to latch onto the vast, newly bulit network of American railroads. So after 1903, he moved his circus on the rails. Charlie started with just one rail car, performing horses and ponies, and draft stock.

As the railroad grew, so did the show, which they renamed Sparks Circus, aka Sparks World Famous Shows. By 1916, it had ballooned into a successful, 15-car circus with clowns, acrobats, horses, lions and elephants. Some of Charlie’s performers were so skilled the mighty Barnum and Bailey Circus tried to steal them away. Charlie Sparks became a trusted and well-respected figure in the circus world.  He was a common sight strolling the midway in his Stetson hat and cane, smoking his usual cigar.

Big Mary the Elephant

Without a doubt, the star of Sparks World Famous Shows was Big Mary, a giant Asian elephant. Sparks advertised Big Mary on its posters as “The Largest Living Land Animal on Earth.” They claimed she weighed over 5 tons and stood “3 inches taller than Jumbo,” the star elephant of Barnum and Bailey Circus. Crowds roared with delight as Mary performed tricks like standing on her head, playing musical instruments and pitching a baseball. 

But it was her size that awed many people from rural communities. They had never seen an animal this large or exotic. Big Mary was valued anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000 (a huge amount at the time).

But Mary was more than a performing elephant to Charlie Sparks. His father had purchased Mary in 1898 when she was four years old. She had been the family pet ever since. After Charlie married Addie Mitchell, the circus’s head cook and animal doctor, Big Mary, in essence, became the child this couple never had. Charlie firmly instructed his employees to be kind, gentle and respectful to all his animals, especially his beloved elephant Mary.

Posters covering a building near Lynchburg to advertise Downie Brothers circus
Typical Charlie Sparks Circus Posters in Early 1900s

Despite the show’s success, it lagged behind its major competitor in the South, John Robinson’s Four Ring Circus and Menagerie. John Robinson’s show boasted 42 railroad cars and larger numbers of performers and animals. Competition between the two circuses and other traveling shows became so fierce, each resorted to unique tactics to separate itself from the others.

Red Eldridge, The Victim

Being a family-owned circus, Sparks World Famous Shows advertised itself as a “100% Sunday School Circus,” meaning it was fair and honest with the public, and allowed no shortchanging of customers. To avoid tipping off rival shows, Charlie Sparks kept his routes a secret, and rarely advertised in circus trade papers. Mere days before his show arrived in town, his scouts would plaster the area with colorful posters.

On the morning of September 11, 1916, before Sparks Circus arrived in the small mining community of St. Paul, Virginia, a local hotel worker named Walter “Red” Eldridge spotted one of these posters.

He was about to change the life of Charlie Sparks and his circus forever.

To this day, historians know little about Red Eldridge. At the time, Eldridge was between 23 and 38 years of age and worked at the Riverside Hotel in St. Paul.  When Sparks Circus arrived, Eldridge approached head elephant trainer Paul Jacoby for a job. Despite Eldridge’s inexperience, Jacoby hired him as an under keeper of the elephants. 

Eldridge’s job responsibilities included watering the elephants and preparing them for parades and shows. For the next few days, Eldridge followed Sparks Circus’s “gentling care” philosophy when it came to the animals.

When the show ended, Eldridge quit his hotel job and traveled south with Sparks Circus to their next stop in Kingsport, Tennessee. Kingsport then looked like a town out of the Wild West.  The recently completed Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railroad (known simply as the “Clinchfield”) linked Kingsport with the coal fields to the north, turning it into an industrial boom town. Workers streamed into Kingsport, with many living in temporary tent shelters in the center of town. The streets were muddy and clogged with wagons, wild animals and crowds.

“Murderous” Mary

On September 12, Kingsport was putting on its first county fair, and Sparks World Famous Shows was going to be a part of it. Crowds from the surrounding hills came into town, swelling Kingsport’s already overcrowded streets. Sometime during the day, crowds lined the roadsides to watch Big Mary and her fellow elephants – Queen, Topsy, and the two babies, Ollie and Mutt – march through town, trunk to tail.

Historians debate what happened next. But the most popular story is that the elephants were being led to a watering ditch between shows. Eldridge guided Mary with a bull hook – a stick with a hook on its end. Sparks Circus trained Eldridge to nudge her gently and not provoke her.

According to this telling, sometime during the procession, Mary stopped. Several eyewitnesses claimed she spotted a piece of watermelon on the ground, reaching down to grab it with her trunk. Eldridge forgot his training and roughly prodded her with the stick (some believe at the site of Mary’s sore tooth). Enraged, Big Mary grabbed Eldridge with her trunk, lifted him in the air, and flung him against what some claim was a drink stand. Then, according to eyewitness accounts, she stomped over and, with her massive foot, crushed Eldridge’s head.

The crowds screamed and ran for their lives. Some say a local blacksmith fired shots at Mary, but the bullets bounced off her thick hide. Hearing the screams, Charlie Sparks rushed over and put his arm around Mary’s trunk, calming her down. He then saw the mangled body of Red Eldridge, the magnitude of Big Mary’s actions suddenly apparent.

Erwin Tennessee Union and Main Streets Early 1900s
Downtown Erwin, Tennessee in the early 1900s.

But what was even more frightening was the chant coming from the crowd. Anger had burned away the fear in many of the onlookers. Now their voices rang out in unison: “Kill the elephant!”

Charlie Sparks’s Heartbreaking Decision

Kingsport officials quickly “arrested” Mary the elephant and staked her outside the county jail, where more onlookers gathered around her. Meanwhile, Charlie Sparks and his staff had a gut-wrenching decision to make concerning Mary’s fate.

In those days, “rogue” elephants like Big Mary who injured or killed someone could quietly have their names changed and sold to another circus. But the story of Eldridge’s gruesome death spread like wildfire throughout northeastern Tennessee. The newspapers already nicknamed the elephant “Murderous Mary,” and claimed she had killed before. The mayor of nearby Johnson City, the circus’s next stop, banned Sparks World Famous Shows from setting foot in the city as long as Murderous Mary was with them.  More cities were almost certainly to follow. What’s worse, rumors spread of a lynch mob on its way to Kingsport to kill Mary – armed with an old Civil War cannon.

Charlie was a smart businessman.  He knew if he didn’t satisfy the public’s desire for swift justice, his show would be financially ruined. But his final decision ultimately came down to his concern for public safety. “A human’s life is something I don’t want charged against me,” he later claimed in a 1924 interview. “If people in the business get hurt, that’s our lookout. But with an outsider – that’s different.”

How Was Mary The Elephant Killed?

With great reluctance, Charlie decided to put Murderous Mary to death publicly – but how? Shooting her in the four soft spots on her head would be both difficult and dangerous with the large crowds that would certainly gather to watch. Mary was too smart to eat food laced with cyanide, and there wasn’t enough electricity in that part of Tennessee to electrocute her. Even more gruesome scenarios were brought up and quickly dismissed.

Finally, he decided the only “humane” way to execute Mary the elephant would be a public hanging. Clinchfield had huge, 100-ton derricks they used to unload lumber off their freight cars. If these derricks could handle those heavy items, they could surely handle a five-ton elephant.

But then more problems arose for Charlie Sparks. The summer of 1916 brought torrential rains that caused floods and washouts all over the mountains. Clinchfield refused to send a derrick car all the way to Kingsport when an emergency might require it south over the Blue Ridge Mountains. If Charlie wanted to use a derrick car, he would have to take his circus south to Clinchfield’s headquarters and repair facilities in Erwin, Tennessee.

Clinchfield derrick used in

And so, on the morning of September 13, the circus train carrying Mary and the rest of Sparks World Famous Shows chugged south toward Erwin, and that city’s date with history.

Like Kingsport, Clinchfield had transformed tiny Erwin, Tennessee from an isolated mountain hamlet into a boom town of over 2,000 citizens. Clinchfield imported hundreds of skilled workers for its repair facilities, and the newly relocated Blue Ridge Pottery employed many more. Like Kingsport, Erwin had a “western flavor,” with muddy streets, boardwalks for sidewalks, and many workers with disposable incomes eager for entertainment and spectacle.

Hanging of Mary the Elephant

Sparks World Famous Shows pulled into Erwin on a dreary morning. An all night rain had turned the ground into a sticky quagmire, and drizzle continued throughout the day. They would first put on an unscheduled performance without Big Mary that day – but it was only a sideshow for what was to come. Several eyewitnesses spotted Mary chained outside the Sparks tent, swaying back and forth nervously, sensing something was wrong.

After the show, thousands of people from Erwin and surrounding areas rushed over to the rail yard. They filled every available boxcar, engine and tower, jostling with each other for the prime viewing spots. Some Erwin citizens and Sparks performers couldn’t bear to watch Mary’s execution, and quickly fled the scene.

In an attempt to calm Mary, Charlie decided to have her walk to the derrick with the other elephants, trunk to tail, like they did most every day. But several eyewitnesses claim Mary didn’t appear fooled.  According to them, she hesitated several times and trumpeted loudly. 

When Murderous Mary reached the derrick, circus roustabouts quickly chained her legs to the rail to keep her still. Other elephants were led out of sight range of the horrible event to come. Meanwhile, about 500 yards down the track, another group of roustabouts and railroad laborers hastily dug a large grave with a steam shovel.

An eerie hush fell across the crowd as one of the roustabouts threw the derrick’s 7/8-inch chain around Murderous Mary’s neck, fitted the end through a steel ring, and signaled the derrick operator to lift her. The operator threw the handle forward, the winch squealed and the chain tightened around Mary’s neck. She struggled as her front feet slowly lifted off the ground.  Several eyewitnesses claimed the roustabouts forgot to release Mary’s ankle chains as she was lifted. They heard the gruesome sound of her tendons being torn.

Suddenly, a loud crack shattered the silence. Mary fell to the ground with a loud thud. The neck chain had broken! The crowd screamed and started running away, fearful this “mad elephant” would kill them all. But Mary sat stunned on the railroad track, the fall injuring her gravely.

When order was restored, a roustabout climbed up Mary’s back and fastened a heavier chain around her neck. Mary fought less this time as the derrick hoisted her into the air again. The chain held, and within a few minutes, Mary fell limp and died.

Murderous Mary the Elephant Hanging Photo Erwin Tennessee 1916

Murderous Mary’s Controversial Death

After the hanging of Mary the elephant was complete, a photograph was taken for posterity. Although Argosy magazine later claimed this photo was a fake, most researchers agree it is real, if noticeably touched up due to the foggy weather conditions.

With nothing left to see, the crowd dispersed. Workers lowered Murderous Mary off the derrick and buried her near the rail yards. The other elephants were led back to the circus train. Some circus historians claimed the elephants trumpeted loudly as they were led away, sensing Mary was missing. These same historians claim It took several performances for them to adjust to Mary’s sudden absence.

One of the more persistent and dubious rumors surrounding Mary the elephant’s hanging is that, to reclaim his financial losses, Charlie Sparks ordered his roustabouts to cut off her tusks for a touring exhibit. But Asian elephants don’t grow tusks. And, if one believes the elephant hanging picture to be genuine, Mary never had tusks at the time.

Another story claims the Associated Press asked Charlie Sparks to dig up Mary and hang her again for a photograph. Again, this is another doubtful story.

Where is Mary the Elephant Buried?

The exact spot of Mary’s grave remains a mystery. CSX Transportation now owns the railroad, with no marker to be found. County officials transformed the depot near the hanging site into the Unicoi County Public LibraryAsphalt covers what were once dirt roads and train yards.

But Mary the elephant’s hanging proved to be a stain on the community not easily washed away.  Though many Erwin residents avoid the topic, international visitors still identify Erwin as the “town that hung the elephant.”  Younger residents became curious about the story and the community’s reluctance to address it.

In 2016 (the 100th anniversary of Murderous Mary’s hanging), a community improvement organization called RISE Erwin created a weeklong series of events to celebrate elephants, commissioning artists to paint fiberglass elephants placed around town.  In 2019, a group of high school students from nearby Elizabethton created a podcast on Murderous Mary that won National Public Radio (NPR)’s Student Podcast Challenge.  

Mary the Elephant in Modern Culture

The story of Murderous Mary reemerged over the years in magazines like Playboy and the National Enquirer.  The game show Jeopardy! used the event as a contestant question. Mary’s death inspired numerous novels and plays (see Mary the elephant’s Wikipedia page for a full list).

While Mary’s hanging didn’t immediately lead to circus reforms, changes would gradually come.  Charles and Clifton Sparks eventually sold Sparks Circus in 1928 to the American Circus Corporation who, a year later, sold its assets to John Ringling.   But even the mighty Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus would not survive accusations of elephant cruelty by animal rights groups in the 21st century.  Changes in public perception and declining ticket sales forced Ringling Bros. to end touring in 2017, a once unfathomable blow to the circus industry.

Nevertheless, international circuses and private zoos still engage in questionable treatment of exotic animals, including elephants.  One organization coming to the rescue of aging and once captive elephants is also located in Tennessee.  The Elephant Sanctuary, located about 65 miles southwest of Nashville in Hohenwald, contains over 2700 acres of designated grounds for sick, old and needy elephants to roam in peace.  Along with a Discovery Center to educate the public on the threats elephants face, and their importance to our world.

Perhaps if The Elephant Sanctuary had been around in Big Mary’s time, it could have provided an alternative to the gruesome spectacle that took place on that rainy September day, forever linking Erwin, Tennessee and “Murderous Mary” in American history.

Main Street in Erwin Tennessee
Main Street, Erwin, Tennessee. Photo by Brian Stansberry licensed under CC BY 3.0.

More About Erwin, Tennessee

While Erwin may be best known for the sad story of Murderous Mary the elephant, it is nevertheless a beautiful part of the country offering much to visitors.

Unicoi County, Tennessee, known locally as “The Valley Beautiful,” is located in the mountains of upper east Tennessee. The name “Unicoi” is believed to be of Cherokee origin, meaning “hazy” or “fog-like” – probably a reference to the mist draping these lush hills. The Nolichucky River, Unicoi County’s main waterway, blasts through one of the deepest gorges in the eastern United States and is a popular spot for whitewater rafting.

Unicoi’s county seat is Erwin (population 6,097 as of 2010).  Erwin’s founders intended to name the town “Ervin” in honor of D.J.N. Ervin, who donated 15 acres of land to the county. In 1879, post office officials mistakenly recorded the name as “Erwin,” and the name has stuck ever since.

Erwin, Tennessee has a long history as a railroad town.  It was once the location for repair shops of the old Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio rail system (now owned by CSX Transportation). The old CC&O, or “Clinchfield,” was known as “America’s Most Unusual Railroad” since it overcame so many mountainous obstacles during its construction.

Clinchfield was the county’s largest employer until 1916, when Southern Potteries located in Erwin. Southern Potteries specialized in hand painted dinnerware called Blue Ridge China. These potteries imported many workers from the north.  Some of the old “pottery houses” built by Southern Potteries for its workers are still standing in Erwin today.

When imported pottery came into the United States after World War II, Southern Potteries lost money and eventually shut down. Antique stores now sell Blue Ridge Pottery as a collectors item. The major employer in Erwin today is Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc., a privately owned supplier of fuel for nuclear powered navy ships.

Unicoi County is also well known for its apple crop. The Coffee Ridge section of the county contains ideal conditions for apple growing. Every October, Unicoi Coutny holds its annual Apple Festival in Erwin, attracting over 60,000 people a year to its craft fair and recipe contests. The festival also serves as a homecoming for former residents.

NOTE: This story was originally published in 1998 under the title “Murderous Mary.” It has been updated with current developments.

Story Credits

Audio version told by Chuck Larkin. Sound Design by Henry Howard

Unless otherwise noted, story photography provided by:
Martha Erwin, Assistant Curator, Unicoi County Heritage Museum
Circus World Museum, Baraboo, Wisconsin

Special thanks to Ruth Pieper, Martha Erwin and Paul Bernhardt for research assistance.

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This Post Has 80 Comments

  1. Diana Murray

    I learned about Mary the Elephant two weeks ago during a You Tube segment on strange but true things. I can’t get it out of my. I’ve cried a river over Mary now. I can’t imagine what was going through this poor elephant’s mind. Charlie Sparks is guilty of not providing veterinary care to his circus animals, including, and most of all Mary who had an infected tooth at the site she was prodded in with a sharp point. I hope everybody that took part in this horrific and inhumane hanging paid dearly for it one way or another. Mary had many years ahead of her. I only wish I was in that dreadful town when they did this to her. I would have done anything to stop it.

  2. Kayone

    To Someone:
    This was a mistreated elephant (all circus elephants are broken) and Elridge, by the way, had only himself to blame for hitting the elephant. In any other case, she would be innocent. And she certainly didn’t deserve to hang!

  3. Kayone

    To BaghdadRunner:
    No,human lives doesn’t stand above animals. By the way, we are anumals, too.

  4. Shannon

    Not mentioned is the fact that a vet examined Mary after her death and realized she had an abscessed tooth right in the area she was prodded.

  5. Jim

    I didn’t remember this story until my granddaughter played a part in a school play about it. The story is very disconcerting (as was the play), but the fact is that animals that kill humans are required to be destroyed in almost all locales.

    Some say that the animals never do anything like this, which is obviously wrong. Animals do not have much for brains, but their instincts are well developed. It seems that Mary’s indiscretion was due to the fact that she felt severe pain as a result of the unusual (to her) treatment by her trainer. The punishment for the perpetrator of the severe pain was a reaction engrained in elephants for millennia – however, human trainers had taught her how to deal with it – except this time she didn’t. This is a fact that comes back to haunt owners of wild animals. Their beloved animal would never hurt them – until it does.

    The responsibility for this is upon the owner. The people of the towns were well within their rights to insist that the animal be destroyed. The chants as depicted are much like the denunciations of ‘those people’ for hurting poor Mary. I do not believe that they were pure by any means – just failed humans like you are, but they do not deserve to have their posterity treated with the kind of contempt and disdain as described here.

    That said, the decision to execute her in the manner described was, in twenty-twenty hindsight, very flawed. The reasoning behind it unclear, but whatever the case, it did not turn out so well. Even then it was not nearly as bad as insinuated. Of course, things do go wrong when they are not thoroughly planned and thought out for every possible happenstance. Do you fault them for the chain breaking – it had no doubt held many more tons than Mary was supposed to weigh before that. Do you blame the people who neglected to loosen Mary’s restraints – you could not have gotten me to go near her. Someone forgot to tell the crane operator. So obviously the whole thing was a fiasco at the expense of the elephant. Who is at fault for that – why all of you people who lived afterward of course. that is no more ridiculous than your crazy tirades against the people of the town, etc.

    This is a lesson of history – it is not a story that demands torment for those involved or for those who lived in the town at the time or since, nor for anyone else. It is a sad story of circumstances gone wrong. Something to learn from. A reason to not attempt to enslave or even keep a wild animal unless you are willing to accept that it might turn on you (like the lady with the chimp).

    Besides that it sounds like many of the residents of Erwin were against the hanging – they certainly didn’t have a vote in it. Those of you who are so angry at the residents have a streak of pure meanness in you or you would realize that these folks were not even born at the time. As for many other items of historic interest, they serve as reminders of things that have happened, good or bad. To blame someone or group for these happenings is totally childish – and not a product of contemplative thought.

    And about the tusk story – if the picture is reasonably accurate, Mary did not have even tushes because even they are large enough that on an elephant her age they would have been visible in the picture.

    And about the Bible verses that were so glibly offered, they are totally without context to this story – sorry.

    About animals who do things to their kind – I have seen sows kill their piglets just after they were born. I have seen cows kick their calf half way across the barn, I have seen cats that got up after giving birth and never go back to their babies. I have seen a dog lead her young pups into the field in a clear attempt to lose them. I have seen a horse seemingly go mad and rare up against its owner. I have seen pigs kill and eat a weaker pig in a feed lot. I have seen a bunch of pigs attack chickens catch and kill them.

    I have watched countless documentaries showing animals doing very cruel things to others of their own group – for example, a wolf correcting a pup in its charge, a wolf killing another for an indiscretion. The list goes on and on. The fact is that you animal lovers do not know the depravity of animals, but we shouldn’t expect anything else from them and should not be surprised when they act like animals – they ARE animals. When they show what we consider is friendliness or affection towards us, we love them – are they really capable of loving us in return or is that our wishful thinking? I think that you know the answer but will never admit it.

  6. Nikki

    What is so disgusting is that they want to hide this from the world and forget about the poor elephant, I hope this picture is a constant reminder of their past and I hope the never live it down

  7. Adam Sanders

    I can,t believe how stupid some of these comments are lol don,t you realize anyone
    who saw this happen even at 1 year old would now be 101 years old hahah As for Erwin Tn. people almost every one are loving God fearing people. Try to remember back in 1916 justice was swift Even for an Eliphant that killed. I love Elephants I wish this had never happend, Erwin is very sorry this is in their history, But Before you throw Stones Visit this sweet little town of about 6,000 people and Attend the Church of your choice – there are a lot in Erwin. RIP MARY

  8. Research and Common Sense

    It’s not true that Mary killed the trainer by accident as many of you in the comments have claimed. Elephants are very smart and in some ways perform better mentally than humans, such as memory. This was a deliberate murder and the sentence was fair…

    But since she survived the first hanging attempt, for the sake of fairness they should not have tried again.

  9. Jono

    Hope reply wolf suffered! White trash alcoholic trash

  10. Jono

    Anyone from Irwin that watched this horrific retire of an innocent beautiful animal I hope you all burn in hell assholes. Must be inbreds! Karma that’s all I can say! Poor Mary – humans are idiots!

  11. Jono

    Anyone from Irwin that watched this horrific retire of an innocent beautiful animal I hope you all burn in hell assholes

  12. L.Emery

    I think people should remember one bad apple in the bunch doesn’t make the whole bushel bad. I am Cherokee,Blackfoot, white, and Irish. I don’t come down on the whites and blacks who wiped out entire Indian tribes. I hate what happened to the black race… the KKK should all rot in HELL… I hate what Hitler did to the Jews. Omg… why can’t we all just get along. Why are people attacking all americans over what some people did to this elephant. I didn’t kill her. I didn’t hang no black men even tho they killed off plenty of the indian race my ancestors died horribly and still treated like we are animals. Look at the statistics… most blacks killed are killed by their own race. I hate what everyone is doing and saying against each other. God gave us the same color blood… why can’t we just get along . I hate what happened to that elephant. I have four pets I love dearly. It’s horrible what happened to Mary . It’s a true shame the guy made a terrible mistake by poking Mary he truly was warned. Mary reacted by protecting herself. I cry thinking how she died a painful long death, shame on her owners… they knew how horrible this was going to be. I can’t believe this happened in 1916 and we have p e pile going off on us Americans for what happened before I was born. Wow wow wow. This is so amazing. Get a life peeps. I forgave what people did to my ancestors. I have black best friends I love with all my heart. I have worked wit Iraqis…Mexicans…Blacks…Germans…Chinese… I never in my life seen harder workers than the ones I worked with. We h a ‘ve bad in each race. Not all of us are bad. We have the same color blood people. We work to take care of family and help those who need help. I love people no matter their race. Let’s be what Jesus wanted us t o be. He died for us . God lost his son so we could keep living. Stop this dawn hate.

  13. wes

    I’m from kingsport tn and know people whose relatives saw it done it’s definitely a true stoty. My grandpa thinks one of his relatives saw the elephant kill red.

  14. Cindy

    Seriously Obadiah, no black people have ever done violent acts? *snort*
    The problem is too many HUMANS are violence loving, black white and every other color. Why keep spreading discord?

  15. Obadiah18

    This is you so called white folk’s legacy. You hang black men, you hang animals, you kill kill kill for sport. You love blood for sport. You are the biblical edomites (Edom, Esau, Idumea) and the Universal Laws of Justice will eventually come into play on your posterity. Many of you are reincarnated murderers from the jim crow past. Here is what the scriptures say will happen to the lot of you in the coming future.

    18 And the house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau for stubble, and they shall kindle in them, and devour them; and there shall not be any remaining of the house of Esau; for the LORD hath spoken it.

    You are the ones who destroy everything, you pollute Outter space, you kill the earth, you kill the animals and you kill people for sport.

    Revelation 11:18
    And the nations were angry , and thy wrath is come , and the time of the dead, that they should be judged , and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth.

    Good bye devils!

  16. Laurie

    What miserable, small-minded people these hicks must have been! Elephants are amazing animals — much brighter and more social than the pieces of sh*t who killed her! Elephants do NOT belong in circuses — no animals do. I hope these murdering pigs are burning in Hell — perhaps they died slow, miserable deaths …. I certainly hope so!!!!

  17. SantaFeJack

    At a time in history where men were still publicly lynched, I can believe they could do the same to an elephant. I’m so glad this could not happen today, but animal cruelty lives on, just typically with less fanfare.

  18. Patrick

    This was a great story. I believe it is a folk tale and that The “murderous” elephant was never hung. Some parts may be true but the hanging was probably a rouse to qual the angry mob.

  19. jd wolff

    whats not widely known is that damn animal also killed my great,great grandpappy “redly wolff”.

    1. Sharmon

      Maybe your great great grandpappy should have remembered what he was taught and not provoked a poor dumb animal

  20. Edgar

    I hope the ones who did this are rotting in hell!!! Because that is where they belong! I only wish I had been alive in 1916. R.I.P. SWEET MARY!

  21. Debbie Bowling

    My grandfather had one of the original pics of this an yes it did happen! He retired. From clinchfield railroad, but this happened when he was a young boy about 12. It bothered it him too. That picture hung in his room the rest of his life, he shared that story with us kids an our children still talk about that picture scareing. Them when they were little. I have the picture now an will pass it down with the story too.

  22. Jessy

    This is an awful story. I understand the business aspect of it. And the man’s life was ended by her. But really? He was told ‘Do Not Be Aggressive’. It was his fault to began with. Would anyone want to be poked and prodded with a stick with a hook on the end? She just wanted a piece watermelon. Was that so wrong? I mean, really. How much time would’ve been lost if she could’ve eat that? Five? Ten minutes? I’m ashamed to say I live in Kingsport. And even more ashamed to say that I live near Erwin. Or that I’ve even been to Erwin.

    Moral of the story? Do not hire people who are inexperienced when it comes to potentially dangerous animals. They don’t know what they’re doing, and no one wins if they screw up.
    R.I.P. Sweet Mary.

  23. ElephantsArentToysMorons

    this story as it is told here is clearly the fault of the humans involved; an inexperienced caretaker who knew nothing about elephants, particularly mary & what she was accustomed to, is charged w/ mary’s care, the absolute lack of sympathy or humanity of the crowd, the betrayal of mary by her ‘owner’ & the brutal means of execution told here are tragic & shameful but i wouldn’t blame this town. it didn’t happen there, the crowd chanting for her death were not these people & even if they were, they’re long dead….i wouldn’t blame some one’s great grand kid if their ancestor punched me in the head, would you….HOWEVER anyone defending the actions of any players that were involved…gth you’re demented. r.i.p. mary et. all

  24. Jesse

    A fantastic song by a band called Them Bird Things about Mary can be heard at youtube. It’s called “Pachyderm Nightmare”!

  25. BaghdadRunner

    I think there are’nt a lot of hunters posting here. It is a tragic story, but a human life was lost, and animal life is not above human life. I suspect some of the same people posting here go to gruesome websites out of curiosity. Fortunately I don’t have to, I live in the Middle East. Wish I were in Erwin TN right now… ;]

  26. Chonna

    Omg, is this really true?! I still can’t comprehend how so many people acted like barbarians back in the day. killing animals, treating people like animals.. when will it ever end?!

  27. Jacob

    I am from Erwin TN, and not one word is ever mentioned about this except as jokes. *Putting us on the map* I find it very weird that no one says that her burial site is unknown. Most the town knows, It is called the drive in, I have smoke so much marijuana on good ol’ mary’s grave. The area is about the length of 4 cars, and around 7 wide. Kids go there because it is surrounded by trees now and is a straight place to smoke. Most unknowing that they stand on top of a 5ton elephant. Erwin was just the place with the crane.

  28. SnowLeopard

    @Anna….pardon me? Do your research, you idiot! They DID repeatedly shoot her – 5 times to be exact. Her owner said the gun wasn’t big enough. When that didn’t work, they tried electrocuting her and that didn’t quite work either. Then they had a hairbrained idea to tie her between two trains that would travel in opposite directions and dismember her. Now, you’re absolutely sure they didn’t do anything intentionally? You really think they didn’t know the previous attempts to kill her were painful? Really? Please. And by the way, one of her legs was broken during the hanging…and they didn’t think this was torture?

  29. mikuhatsune

    creepy poor elephant

  30. Anna

    I cant believe some of you people. The owner didn’t want to kil her, had it not been so public he would have sold her quietly. Not only that, but rumors were spread that she had killed before (obviously told by his competetors to further ruin him) fueling the paranoia and fear of her.

    And no snow leapord, the didn’t do it intentionally. If they had, they would have repeatedly shot at her body until she died, or burried her alive, or broke her legs somehow. They hung her. The didn’t know it would go wrong. You are such a moron.

  31. Qwagalyn

    I hate that I love animals it was not her flate she killed that guy it was his flate he hit her with the skck.They did not have to hang her the poeple made her mad all the time.POOR POOR POOR MARY. I hate who ever had to hang her and I feel sorry for that familly’s pet and that man who got her when he was 4 year’s old.

  32. SnowLeopard

    I don’t care what anybody says, just because it was back then doesn’t mean they didn’t know any better. I’m sure they knew this was a horrible act of cruelty and that she would suffer a terrible end. However, the crowd shouting ‘Kill the elephant’ and the public demanding her death shows how uncivilized they were. Although we now have animal interest groups that fight for our precious cargo, even today, there continues to be unbelievable acts of cruelty allover the world against men and creatures. Only man is capable of this….animals don’t start wars; animals don’t kill for the thrill and hang trophy heads on their walls, or for stupid male enhancing products. Most animals in captivity will injure or kill because some human has mistreated/tortured them. And you can’t hold that against them.

  33. Chris

    Sad to ay this is a true story. My family is from this are and my grandmother was 6 years old when this happened. She would tell us this story when were were kids!

  34. Rachel

    This is tragic. There had to have been a more humane way to euthanize her. Too smart to eat cyanide? I say nay.

  35. Sonic the hedgehog

    oppd i wrote that wrong o well

  36. Sonic the hedgehog

    Oh My Gosh she hung an elephant ….. wait how do you do that and i didnt thik that it was possible to do that you ………can you even do that gosh she really was merderous

  37. Sonic the hedgehog

    but Toby:
    maybe they didnt have guns back then

  38. Sonic the hedgehog

    I thought this would be bloody because of the warning but it was still an awesome story i just feel sorry for the elephants in this story POOR ELEPHANTS

  39. Buk Lau


  40. Sickened

    This has made me so angry I can barely function. Seriously. That town should never be allowed to forget what their forebears did. Fuck ’em all.

    Hideous abuse of an animal since her birth. HIDEOUS, EVIL, EXPLOITATIVE.

    I’m away to throw up…

  41. Tom

    To Someone: A life for a life? I guess you are a vegetarian, guiltless of any killing anything?

  42. :(

    That’s so cruel..poor elephant. She didn’t know any better..RIP 🙁

  43. 100% WTF

    That story was utterly disturbing and heart-numbing. I’m going to go watch Christian the Lion on YouTube again to feel better.

  44. thatgirl

    i am from tennessee, and this was a horrible mistake and all but, it was a long time ago, and we have learned from our mistakes. everyone should just put the mary story to rest in peace…. R.I.P Mary the elephant

  45. Depressing

    Can you imagine what Mary’s last day was like? Confusion for not being in the show yet hearing it going on. Anxiety from the greater than normal amount of attention she was getting. Add to that that animals pick up on stress and anxiety being carried by people around them and she must have been really upset by that point. Then being led to the rail yard by circus employees she no doubt trusted. Finally feeling that chain first tighten around her and begin to pull upwards slowly. Torture as her leg feels like it is being ripped off of her and her oxygen is cut off. Anxiety turns to fright which then turns to panic when she realizes something is wrong and unable to do anything about it. If she could talk she would no doubt simply be asking “why are you doing this to me?” Then falling which injures her severely. Despite the pain, she would probably have been happy to see Charlie again for comfort and protection. Instead someone that she probably didn’t see attaches a new chain and the process starts again. Eventually the anxiety, fear and panic fades when she eventually looses consciousness. What a horrible end- all the while the elephant never understood what it had done wrong or why the humans she trusted were treating her like this.

  46. Someone

    She got what was coming a life for a life.
    Thats justice.

  47. Rita

    Sadly, the story is very true. I live in a neighboring town to Erwin TN. (No, not in Kingsport)… There are well documented pictures and countless, reliable, eye witness stories of the event that took the elephants life.

    keep in mind, that the residents of this small town had nothing to do with the decision (or the method to be used on the animal) Rather it was thrust upon them by another town’s city officials who demanded justice (and her owner who willingly agreed). The people involved in her execution was NOT from Erwin, but with the circus and the (out of town) equipment operators.

    Every September the local papers tell the story or Mary, complete with pictures and details of that dreadful day.

    Sad.. very sad.

  48. Rus

    Only the Americans can hang roosters and elephants!

  49. Toby

    I guess if I lived in Erwin, I would be too ashamed to talk about it either. If she was to be executed, the most humane way would be with a gun. If a guy can climb on her back TWICE to encircle a chain, somebody could’ve climbed up there and shot her.

  50. Kendra

    How digusting! People of the world are so pathetic and petty when it comes to money and entertainment. I just can’t believe anybody would go to such extremes for the use of so called “entertainment” purposes. What really makes me boil inside is that they called Mary “murderous” when in reality they were the ones who killed her!

  51. Sage

    Somehow I believe this story. Humans Are filled with such conciet that we believe we do no wrong and that our way is the humane way. We as a species have the the most cruel, abusive and obcene ways of handling things. We kill enslave and torture eachother and the beautiful things around us, for pleasure. Do elephants have guns? do elephants beat there children? Would anything out there besides us make people slaves because of the color of their skin or their religous beliefs? sometimes i am sickened and embarrassed to be a human. We are a destructive, disgusting race. and we suck at upholding our own views of a free country.
    It was an elephant.A person was killed.It was 1916.1916,jesus!They didn’t know alot about the animal.This was before they had technology.How did they know the elephant did it by accident??

    WTF.Some of that is true,and some is offensive.Please rant somewhere else!Go on some feelings-sharing site,don’t post here!Believe we do no wrong?Alot of people know when they do wrong.

  52. Ryann?

    Crystal-Im guessing he was very shocked and just used a hook w/o thinking.
    Pella-Hell?That’s..harsh.This was before they had alot of knowledge about everything.She did kill a person,and though it was by accident,they may have not seen it that way.They may have not seen it as a crime-More like taking Mary’s life in exchange for her taking the guy’s life.

    This story is sad,but I think it’s true too.

  53. crystal

    please tell me this didnt happen. OMG he used a hook on her just because she wanted a watermelon? no wonder she did it. i say it was justifiable. she had every right

  54. Ahmed

    this is not the only case..thomas edison killed an elephan with electrocution..

  55. Amy

    This made me cry. How could anyone stand there and watch that? I prayed that these people are forgiven and repented before they died. I really hope that the poor animal did not suffer as much as you have portrayed. If the people did not repent, I hope they saw that elephant and heard her every night when they went to bed. Hopefully, they couldn’t sleep and thought about what animals THEY were.

  56. Pella

    I hope those that did this are hanging in hell, with their feet chained to the ground.
    This is an unforgivable crime to do this to an elephant.

  57. omg! thats scary and very mean,thats the worst thing to ever do to an animal!!!! i hate the ppl who did that!!!

  58. Julia Simpson

    Somehow I believe this story. Humans Are filled with such conciet that we believe we do no wrong and that our way is the humane way. We as a species have the the most cruel, abusive and obcene ways of handling things. We kill enslave and torture eachother and the beautiful things around us, for pleasure. Do elephants have guns? do elephants beat there children? Would anything out there besides us make people slaves because of the color of their skin or their religous beliefs? sometimes i am sickened and embarrassed to be a human. We are a destructive, disgusting race. and we suck at upholding our own views of a free country.

  59. Bridget

    This is sick – it made me cry 🙁

  60. Robbie Scifres

    I agree, wasn’t Mary supposed to be the “child they never had?” I would hate to have been his “child”. In his place I would have moved heaven and earth to protect Mary. Financial gain or not I would not have done it. This more than any other story I have ever heard makes me ill and gives me bad dreams – I have heard it before. Even the movie “Psycho” didn’t affect me this way. Robbie

  61. jennifer

    these people where soooooooo SICK and I thought Charlie loved Mary :(~

  62. Erica Hester

    i hated that it made me sick……………………………………………!

  63. Hannah

    That is so cruel and barbaric. How could they do such a thing!

  64. Katy

    That makes me SICK. How can humans be so cruel? It’s not like Mary was so murderous creature.

  65. spy

    that was cruel! im going to study to be a vet in a few years and that was
    disturbing. why would you hang her a 2nd time if she had already broken some limbs??? you really expect her to kill someone again? :C

  66. Ele-Phant

    POOR MARY! 🙁 I LOVE elephants. HOW could they. This is a horrible tale of animal cruelty. :*(

  67. tim

    wow this is beyond animal cruelty this is easily possible because humans do worst to our own kind this is the worst thing ive ever heard of and they should have blamed red eldridge because he provoked her and that was extremely inhuman because when humans were hanged it almost instantly snapped their necks this was just twisted.

  68. Sandy List

    What a horrifying story. Horrible, horrible–humans are supposed to be wiser guardians than that. What a terrible end for an animal who gave and gave all of her life, and who was carelessly put in custody of a cretin who had no understanding of how to treat her. What a terrible betrayal of trust. Horrible. Horrible.

  69. heather street

    That’s horrible. I wouldn’t doubt it’s true though, humans have done worse to each other let alone animals..

  70. Robbie Scifres

    How awful, careless, and idiotic. Hang and elephant? Why didn’t someone try to let her feet loose, or stop the crane until her feet could be freed? It was sheer torture for the animal – it couldn’t happen today without some one taking responsibility for it.

  71. Melody

    cruel and barbaric…i wonder if there’s any truth in it?