The little-known story about an elephant named Mary is one of the most heart-wrenching, soul-ripping cases of animal cruelty you may have ever heard. How did one of the world’s most famous elephants end up with a noose around their neck for all the world to see? This is the story about a grisly public execution of a beloved family elephant. The story of Murderous Mary, as she came to be known, has sparked fury for over a decade. It’s also led to some reform and animal activism.
Who Was Big Mary the Elephant?
Mary was a 5-ton Asian elephant who went by the name of “Big Mary.” She allegedly stood 3 inches taller than Jumbo from Barnum & Bailey’s Circus. A man named John Sparks purchased Mary when she was only 4-years old and trained her for his travelling circus, Sparks World-Famous Shows.
When John Sparks passed away, his son, Charlie, took over the family circus. To Charlie, Big Mary was the family pet. When Charlie married a woman named Addie, they continued to raise Big Mary like “the child they never bore,” emphasizing gentleness and care when handling her.
Big Mary was considered the “star” of the Sparks Shows. She could play musical instruments, catch baseballs, and even stand on her head. She continued to be the star of the show until she was 30 years old, when one man made a fatal mistake.
How Did Such a Beloved Animal Get the Nickname “Murderous?”
Warning: Continue reading at your own risk. This might make you cry.
Although the Sparks family believed in caring for their pets with gentleness, a rookie mistake made that philosophy fly out the window one day.
On September 11, 1916, a hotel worker named Walter “Red” Eldridge saw a poster for the Sparks World-Famous Shows. He was in the town of St. Paul Virginia. Eldridge had never worked with animals before, but he asked the show’s head elephant trainer, Paul Jacoby, for a job. Surprisingly, Jacoby gave Red a job as an elephant undertaker. Red’s job was to water the elephants and prepare them for shows and parades.
Red was taught about “gentling care,” and supposedly followed directions to be respectful and gentle with the elephants—for a day.
The very next day, on September 12, the show made its way to a town called Kingsport, Tennessee. Massive crowds showed up for a parade. Big Mary was set to march along with the other circus elephants — Topsy, Queen, and two babies named Mutt and Ollie.
The New Elephant Handler May Have Hurt Mary
Red was told to never poke or prod the elephants, but the story alleges that he forgot his training.
While marching in the parade, along with the other elephants, trunk to tail, Big Mary saw some watermelon and stopped to eat it. That’s when Red decided to prod her with a bull hook. Some say that he prodded her in a spot where she had a sore tooth. Regardless, Mary reacted in a way she never before had —but elephants have been known to react.
Upset, Mary picked up Red with her trunk and flung him against a drink stand before stepping directly on his head. Crushing his skull in the blink of an eye, Mary was now a murderer in the public’s eyes. Children and families ran, screaming, and some tried to shoot Mary with bullets, but her skin was too thick to be penetrated.
The Show Must Go On
Mary was “arrested” by Kingsport authorities, chained, and staked to the ground while her owner figured out what to do with her.
The circus’s next stop, Johnson City, banned the Sparks Show unless they got rid of Mary. Other cities followed suit and threats of a lynch mob armed with a Civil War cannon were made. The reputation of the Sparks World-Famous Show was rapidly deteriorating, all because of Mary’s reaction to the new elephant undertaker.
Charlie Sparks decided that he needed to side with the public in order to save his reputation. So, he opted to publicly execute his dear, beloved pet of 26 years. When he discovered that the next town over, Erwin, Tennessee, had a 100-ton crane in its railyard, he decided that the proper way to euthanize Mary was via a gruesome and public lynching.
Charlie Sparks Offered to Publicly Lynch His Family Pet
Indeed, Sparks made a spectacle out of the ordeal, offering the “show” in return for the ability to use the crane. Crowds gathered around to watch as Mary was tied, and they attempted to lynch her.
The story varies, but most agree that Mary’s leg was either still tied or stuck on something as they tried to lift her with the giant crane. A loud, sickening sound of breaking bones and ligaments filled the air. Then Mary fell from 5 feet up, landing on her butt. Her hips broke, and she sat there, immobile. And then they once again attempted to lift her up and lynch her.
Mary hung there for about 30 minutes, crying, and screaming in pain as people looked on. One person took a photograph of the murderous spectacle. That photo circulates on the internet to this day.
How a man could kill his family pet in such a horrific fashion is unfathomable to many. But it wasn’t just Charlie Sparks’ conscience that was affected by the lynching. The entire town of Erwin has also felt marred in their hearts since that day.
Trying To Make it Right
Over 100 years later, residents from the town of Erwin have to hear about what their ancestors did to the poor elephant. In fact, the only reason why anyone seems to know anything about Erwin, Tennessee is because of the murder that the town assisted. Erwin has ever since been referred to as “The Town That Hanged The Elephant.”
One woman named Jamie Rice, who grew up in Erwin, decided that something needed to change. Shortly before the 100th anniversary of Mary’s death, Rice called up the Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary. She made an odd request.
Rice cold-called the sanctuary and said, “My name is Jamie Rice. This is a really weird phone call. I live in Erwin, and we feel really bad about Mary.” Rice said that the sanctuary was well aware of Erwin and that people who visited the sanctuary asked about the town constantly. The Elephant Sanctuary agreed to help the town of Erwin to try to make things right.
Now, Erwin is trying to rebrand itself as the town that “Loves Elephants.” Every year, the town hosts a week-long art series commemorating and celebrating the beloved animals. In 2016, artists came to paint fiberglass elephants. The elephants were prominently displayed around town and later auctioned off.
No More Animals in Circuses?
As more information comes to light about the cruel and inhumane treatment of animals in circuses, so too has public pressure to stop using them for entertainment purposes. One famous example is Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. The circus retired all of its elephants in 2016 and moved them to an elephant sanctuary in 2021. The bad publicity of its treatment of animals caused the entire show to shut down. Although, it did recently return — but this time, without animals.