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Mary was a five-ton Asian elephant who performed in the Sparks World Famous Shows circus. Her death is sometimes interpreted as a cautionary tale of circus animal abuse during the early twentieth century.
On September 11, 1916, a hotel worker named Red Eldridge was hired as an assistant elephant trainer by the circus. He was killed by Mary in Kingsport, Tennessee on the evening of September 12. Eldridge led the elephant parade, although he was not qualified. There have been several accounts of his death. One, recounted by W.H. Coleman who claimed to be a witness, is that he prodded her behind the ear with a hook after she reached down to nibble on a watermelon rind. She went into a rage, snatched Eldridge with her trunk, threw him against a drink stand and stepped on his head, crushing it. A contemporary newspaper account, from the Johnson City Staff, said that Mary "collided its trunk vice-like [sic] about [Eldridge's] body, lifted him 10 feet in the air, then dashed him with fury to the ground... and with the full force of her biestly [sic] fury is said to have sunk her giant tusks entirely through his body. The animal then trampled the dying form of Eldridge as if seeking a murderous triumph, then with a sudden... swing of her massive foot hurled his body into the crowd." (It should be kept in mind that female Asian elephants are tuskless.)
The details of the aftermath are confused in a maze of sensationalist newspaper stories and folklore. Most accounts indicate that she calmed down afterward and didn't charge the onlookers, who began chanting, "Kill the elephant!" Within minutes, local blacksmith Hench Cox tried to kill Mary, firing five rounds with little effect. Meanwhile, the leaders of several nearby towns threatened not to allow the circus to visit if Mary was included. The circus owner, Charlie Sparks, reluctantly decided that the only way to quickly resolve the potentially ruinous situation was to kill the elephant in public. On the following day, a foggy and rainy September 13, 1916, she was transported by rail to Erwin, Tennessee, where a crowd of over 2,500 people (including most of the town's children) assembled in the Clinchfield Railroad yard.
The elephant was hanged by the neck from a railcar-mounted industrial crane. The first attempt resulted in a snapped chain, causing Mary to fall and break her hip as dozens of children fled in terror. The severely wounded elephant died during a second attempt and was buried beside the tracks. A veterinarian examined Mary after the hanging and determined that she had a severely infected tooth in the precise spot where Red Eldridge had prodded her. Although the authenticity of a widely distributed (and heavily retouched) photo of her death was disputed years later by Argosy magazine, other photographs taken during the incident confirm its provenance.
Mark Medoff's dramatic version of the story, titled "Big Mary" was first produced by Great Valley High School, Pennsylvania in 1989 and was published by Dramatists Play Service in 1990.
George Brant's 2008 play Elephant's Graveyard tells the story of Mary's execution through the circus members and the residents of Erwin.
Singer songwriter Chuck Brodsky has written a song titled "Mary The Elephant".
Writer Sharyn McCrumb has referenced the hanging of Mary in a few of her 'Ballad' novels. In "She Walks These Hills," a radio d.j. uses the example of 'hanging the elephant' as a warning, begging people not to use vigilante justice against an escaped convict. In the first chapter of "The Devil Amongst the Lawyers," an elderly reporter brags to a cub reporter about the power of the press, insisting that the circus owner was forced to hang the elephant as a result of his inflammatory newspaper articles.
Dana Adam Shapiro told the story of Mary in her book "You Can Be Right (or You Can Be Married): Looking for Love in the Age of Divorce".
Performance troupe Miniature Curiosa created the original puppet spectacle, "Tonight a Clown Will Travel Time", based on the execution of Mary the elephant. The show toured in 17 cities across The United States in the summer of 2013.