The Memorable Death of Five-Ton Mary
Ninety-seven years ago, on September 13, 1916, Mary the elephant was hanged by a railroad derrick car at the Clinchfield Railroad yard. Mary was a five-ton Asian elephant who performed in the Sparks World Famous Shows circus.
Charles H. Sparks owned the show and it had a reputation in the entertainment world as being a 100% "Sunday School" Circus. That is, no short change artist-a clean family entertainment. Charles Sparks had been in the circus business since the late 1800's. The circus purchased its first elephant in 1896. That was Mary. She was four years old and four feet high. At that time the show was a horse and wagon show. By 1905, they had grown to railroad transportation with one railroad car. By 1906, they had three rail cars; by 1916, the show had expanded to fifteen rail cars and five elephants.
The Spark's show played in Jenkins, Kentucky, then on to St. Paul, Virginia where they connected with the Clinchfield Railroad on September 9, 1916. Late in the summer, Louis Reed, the regular elephant trainer, had to leave the show. Paul Jacoby, who had previously been the elephant trainer, took over the job. By the time they got to St. Paul they needed an 'under keeper' for the elephants On Sunday, October 10th or Monday September 11th, Walter "Red" Eldridge was hired as 'under keeper.' Ruth has spent many hours trying to get the background of Red Eldridge. His age was estimated as between 23 and 38 years. He was hired in St. Paul but apparently had no family there..
The circus went from St. Paul to Kingsport where they played on September 12th. Between shows the elephants were driven to a watering hole. On the way back to the tent, Mary went for a piece of watermelon beside the road. Red prodded her sensitive ear with a bull hook and she became enraged. She grabbed Red with her trunk and threw against a drink stand. Then she stepped on his head until it was flat.
The people were terrified. They began screaming, "Kill the elephant!" A blacksmith tried, but the guns that day were not powerful enough. Charlie Sparks soon arrived on the scene and calmed Mary. Mayor Miller and Sheriff Hickman 'arrested' Mary and staked her by the county jail where many onlookers came by to see her. They gave a statement to the Johnson City Staff newspaper that steps would be taken to see that the elephant did not come into contact with the people of Johnson City.
That night, Charlie and Addie Sparks had to make the most difficult decision of their circus careers. After all those years with Mary they had become so attached to her, but they couldn't take a chance that she might harm a circus patron. They decided to have her destroyed. But how were they to destroy a 7500 pound elephant? Shooting her in four soft spots on her head might have worked but was too risky with the crowd of curiosity seekers that the story attracted. She was too smart to eat food laced with cyanide.
In 1903, an elephant had been electrocuted at Coney Island, with the help of Thomas Edison. Kingsport or Erwin did not have enough electrical power for an electrocution. Clinchfield could use two engines to crush Mary, or the derrick could be used for hanging her. Technically, Mary killed Red in Kingsport, so Sullivan County should be where she met her fate.
The summer of 1916 had torrential rains that caused floods and washouts on the railroad tracks. Clinchfield would not risk sending its derrick car 80 miles, round trip, north to Kingsport when it might be needed south, over the Blue Ridge Mountains into North Carolina. Before midnight on September 12th Charlie Sparks made the decision to take Mary to Erwin to be hanged. That decision would also hang on Erwin the fame of elephant killer for the next 80 years.
Wednesday, September 13th was overcast from several days of rain. The five elephants were moved from the circus lot to the railroad siding where the hanging was to take place. It was about 5 PM. Mary's foot was chained to the track and the derrick chain put on her neck. A witness described the derrick chain breaking as she was lifted. The reason, the ankle chain had not been released. The witness said he could hear the ankle tendons being torn. When the chain broke, Mary fell back on the track and was stunned and not able to get up. They quickly got another chain around her neck and hoisted her into the air once more. Within a few minutes she was dead. Mary was buried on railroad property near where she was hanged. A few people today say they can point to the spot. No one has ever been allowed to dig up her bones.