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.
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.
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.”
Table of contents
- Sparks World Famous Shows
- Big Mary the Elephant
- Red Eldridge, The Victim
- “Murderous” Mary
- Charlie Sparks’s Heartbreaking Decision
- Mary the Elephant in Modern Culture
- More About Erwin, Tennessee
- Photo Gallery
- Story Credits
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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 Library. Asphalt 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.
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.
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.