“Murderous Mary” – The Elephant they Hanged

Mary the Elephant




Mary (c. 1894–September 13, 1916) was a five-ton Asian elephant, also known as “Murderous Mary”, who performed in the Sparks World Famous Shows circus.

After killing a trainer in Kingsport, Tennessee, she was hanged in nearby Erwin, Tennessee, in 1916. Her death is sometimes interpreted as a cautionary tale of circus animal abuse during the early 20th century.


Mary hanging from a 100-ton derrick in Erwin, Tennessee
SpeciesAsian elephant
DiedSeptember 13, 1916 (aged 21–22)
Nation fromUnited States
OccupationCircus performer
EmployerCharlie Sparks
Years active1898–1916
TrainingPlaying musical instruments
Pitching baseballs
Weight5 short tons (4,500 kg)
Height11 ft 9 in (3.58 m)

Death of Red Eldridge

On September 11, 1916, a homeless man named Red Eldridge, who landed a job as a transient hotel clerk was hired as an assistant elephant trainer by the Sparks World Famous Shows circus.

Sparks circus.jpg

He was killed by Mary in Sullivan County, Tennessee, on the evening of September 12.

Eldridge led the elephant parade, although he was not qualified, riding on the top of Mary’s back; Mary was the star of the show, riding at the front.

circus poster 2.JPG

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.

Related image

A contemporary newspaper account, from the Johnson City Staff, said that Mary

“collided its trunk vice-like 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 beastly 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.”

Eldridge’s Death Certificate

red eldgeridge

It is clear from the photo of her hanging that Mary was either tuskless or had short ‘tushes’ common amongst female Asian elephants.


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! Let’s kill it.”

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 wounded elephant in public.

town that hang her

On the following day, a foggy and rainy September 13, 1916, Mary was transported by rail to Erwin , Unicoi County, Tennessee, where a crowd of over 2,500 people (including most of the town’s children) assemb led in the Clinchfield Railroad yard.

mary hanging 2.JPG

The elephant was hanged by the neck from a railcar-mounted industrial crane between four o’clock and five o’clock that evening.

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.

mart dead with dog

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.

What do I think?

I think Mary was treated appallingly and those that killed her should have been punished for such a heinous act . However in 1916  the world was a very different place and many folks had strange primitive attitude towards animals and animal welfare.

Thankfully we now live in a more enlighten time and we are way to busy killing each other to execute our fella animals.


See below for other Iconic Pictures & pictures that changed the world.

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