Her name is Mary. She was born in 1894 and died on September 13, 1916 at the young age of 21. She loved to play musical instruments, throw a baseball and adored the smiling faces and laughter of children. She stood 11 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 5 short tons. She was employed by Charlie Sparks as a circus performer in the Sparks World Famous Shows circus. Even after 100 years have passed since her disturbing death, the story of “Murderous Mary” continues to awe locals and visitors to the small mountain community of Erwin, TN. Many still ask, what does an elephant named Mary and the town of Erwin, TN have in common?
Mary was purchased by Sparks in 1896 when she was only 2 years old and quickly rose to her fame as the most famous circus elephant. The addition of Mary helped the circus to begin traveling by railcar and not the usual horse and buggy. Over the years and with much success from Mary, the circus expanded to over 15 railcars and 5 elephants with Mary proudly leading the team.
In 1916, the Southern Potteries plant opened for operation in Erwin TN along Ohio Avenue. Here the world famous, hand painted dishware known as Blue Ridge that became notoriously popular in the 30’s and 40’s was produced. With a population of less than 3000 residents, Erwin was starting to make a name for itself. This newly booming American railroad town had pretensions to civilization, boasting its own post office, theatre and courthouse. But you may still be asking yourself, “Okay, but what do an elephant named Mary and the town of Erwin have in common?”
The day was Tuesday September 12th, the year was 1916, the town was Kingsport, TN. Mary had just finished performing the first show in the town of Kingsport TN and was taken to a local pond with the rest of her elephant troupe for drinking and splashing around. After spending some time at the pond, Mary was leading the elephant parade back to the circuit tent with her inexperienced handler, Red Eldridge riding on top. During the trip back, Mary noticed a watermelon and decided to go after it with her trunk. Eldridge noticed and didn’t want the onlooking crowd to think he didn’t have control of Mary, so he used his elephant hook to try and herd her back on path. This is where the story becomes confusing because there are two very strong differences of what/how it happened. One story states that Eldridge hooked Mary in her ear causing her pain while startling her at the same time. The second story states that Mary had a bad abscessed tooth (the infections were, of course, only found after Mary was killed) and Eldridge hit this tooth with the hook causing her agony. No matter which story is accurate, the next incident leaves no room for speculation. Wherever Eldridge hit Mary with his hook, it was enough that it sent her into a rage and she wrapped his body with her trunk and threw him into a drink stand in front of her. When his body fell to the ground, she walked over and stepped on his head with her front right foot ending his life.
Onlookers were horrified and scared and some even took out guns and began to shoot Mary. The bullets had little effect on her thick hide and only caused small holes in her skin. The crowd became more scared and mad and started chanting, “Kill her! She must be killed!” Sparks knew if his show was to survive, he had to do something about Mary, and it appeared ending her life was the only option he had. It was decided that Mary, due to her size and strength, would have to be hanged. But in 1916 what would hold a 5-ton elephant long enough to hang? It was obvious the only thing that would hold her weight was to use a railroad crane and only the railyard in Erwin had one strong enough, a 100-ton train derrick used to lift railcars. Because of the week worth of rain the area had before the circus and the potential of mudslides around the tracks, the Clinchfield Railroad didn’t want to send their biggest crane 80 miles away to Kingsport and risk it being stranded, so Mary was brought to Erwin instead. Here Mary was hoisted up twice before the execution was successful (the first time the chain broke and Mary fell breaking her hip and sat crying in pain before a second chain was attached and she was lifted again). After left hanging for over 30 minutes, for photographs and witnesses to see, Mary was taken 400 feet up the tracks and buried in an unmarked grave at the Clinchfield Railyard.
So now you know what an elephant named Mary and the town of Erwin have in common. Erwin has carried this fame, or ignominy for more than 100 years for something that was created in the neighboring town of Kingsport. In 2016, Erin saw a new festival come to town. This festival was one to remember Mary the Elephant in a more positive light. The Erwin Elephant Festival this year took things a step further and created eight different pint size elephants that are bursting with color. These will be on display throughout the town until October 21st, when they will be auctioned off with the money to help The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, TN. You do not have to be present to bid, you can contact the Erwin Town Hall at 423.743.6231 for information on placing absent bids.
Erwin has tried for so many years to get rid of the shadow of Mary the Elephant that has literally “hung” over the town. This great festival is just one of the many ways the town is trying to turn the event into something more positive. So while the festival for 2017 is over, be sure and make plans to attend the 2018 festival in Downtown Erwin! Admission is free and there is plenty to do for everyone.