Executions · Tennessee

“Murderous Mary” the elephant is hanged

September 13, 1916
Erwin, Tennessee
Mary the elephant, dubbed “Murderous Mary” following a sensationalized media frenzy, is publicly hanged

Mary had been the star of many circus performances including a parade on September 11, 1916. During this particular parade a homeless man named Red Eldridge, who had recently been hired as an elephant trainer despite having no qualifications to do so, was riding on Mary’s back at the front of the procession.


Mary is ridden through town to promote a local bank

 

According to one witness, Eldridge prodded Mary behind the ear with a hook which sent her into a rage, throwing Eldridge from her back against a drink stand and stopping on his head. A veterinarian who examined Mary after her death found she had a severely infected tooth in the area Eldridge was said to have prodded her, which would account for her uncharacteristically violent outburst.

 

According to newspapers at the time, likely more interested in making sales than reporting factual evidence, such as the Johnson City Staff in an article published September 13, 1916, stating Mary “collided its trunk vice-like about Eldridge’s body, lifted him 10 feet into the air, then dashed him with fury to the ground…. and with the full force of her beastly fury is said to have sunk her 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 the body into the audience.” (Though I could not find a copy of the original article, it was quoted here) This account of events is immediately discredited by mentioning Mary sinking her tusks entirely into Eldridge’s body as Mary was, as evident by multiple photos, tuskless. Accounts regarding the immediate aftermath are also extremely varied, from local reports stating Mary was calm directly following Eldridge’s death to the more sensationalized reports that the local blacksmith shot Mary 5 times to prevent further loss of human life, though the bullets seemingly had no effect.


A flier advertising the circus and featuring Mary

Regardless, the frenzy whipped up by the accusations brought a demand for justice against the elephant and, under pressure of the leaders of nearby towns threatening to not employ the circus unless Mary was dealt with, the circus owner Charlie Sparks reluctantly decided to have Mary publicly hanged.


The crane used to lift Mary

On September 13, with 2,500 in attendance (including most of the town’s children), a rail-mounted industrial crane was used to bring Mary up by a chain around her neck. The first chain snapped, causing her to fall and break her hip. She was hoisted up again, this time killing her.


The execution of “Murderous Mary”

The most famous picture (shown below) depicting her death has had its authenticity disputed for years, primarily due to its heavy retouching, though many other photos exist of the event confirming the event did take place.


The retouched and criticized photo of Mary’s death

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