The Hanging of Mary the Elephant


Unicoi County, Tennessee

TNGenWeb Project

Updated May 03, 2021

   Back to County History  


The Hanging of Mary the Elephant

By Hilda Padgett - Erwin, Tennessee, 1996

More than eighty years ago, on September 13, 1916, something happened in Erwin, Tennessee that even today causes disagreement among the natives.  Mary the elephant was hanged by a railroad derrick car at the Clinchfield Railroad yard.  The hanging of Mary has been referred to in many writings.   It was a question on a TV quiz show and even the focus of an article in Playboy magazine.

A number of Erwinites would like to have the story buried and forgotten and never heard of again.  There are also a number of people who are interested in the story and would like to know all of the facts.  After all, this actually happened and is part of the history of our town.  My friend, Ruth Pieper, who moved to Erwin nine years ago, has been fascinated with the story.  She has spent much of her time, effort, and money on tracing the history of the Spark's World Famous Show. 

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.

In some writings about Mary it is speculated that she was a 'killer elephant' that had been sold from one circus to another. That is not true.  Mary had been with the Spark's circus for twenty years, as their first wild animal.  Charles Sparks and his wife, Addie, were very caring people.  They saw that the animals connected with their show were well cared for.  The trainers were instructed to use 'gentling care.'

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. It was learned that he had been working in a hotel in St. Paul before he was hired for the circus. Also, one lead was that he was from Mt. Vernon, Indiana. That was checked out with no results. His death certificate did not give names of parents or birthplace. Ruth would be very interested to learn if anyone knows anything about Red Eldridge.

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 [named Topsy*] 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. 

Today if an elephant is judged to be dangerous it would be an entirely different story.  Because at the present time there are sanctuaries for old, sick, and needy animals. One such place is the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.  It is located at Hohenwald, in Lewis County. They now have two elephants and room to expand to care for as many as ten more.   If such a place had existed in 1916 perhaps Mary could have been sent there and today Erwin would not be known as the town that hanged the elephant.


Illustration of Mary by V. Dawn Burrell


Other Related Articles: 


TNGenWeb Project 2007-2021  All Rights Reserved. The information contained herein is the property of the individual submitters.   For information about how to become a TNGenWeb County Host, please visit our guidelines page at  Unicoi Co. webmaster: Beth Bradford-Pytel