An almost unbelievable story of human idiocy.
Get a cup of tea and I’ll begin…
Charlie Sparks was the owner of Sparks World famous Shows circa 1916 Tennessee. The son of English music hall performers he knew all there was to know about giving the audience what they wanted. Without doubt the star of his show was a large Asian elephant called Mary, billed as ‘The Largest Living Land Animal On Earth.’
Mary would perform tricks like standing on her head, playing musical instruments and pitching a baseball. Indeed despite what we know about circus and the training of animals Charlie Sparks was said to have loved Mary and he and his childless wife treated her like the child they never had. With that mindset he did not use whips and such on her.
Unfortunately when they hired a new elephant trainer he forgot this and use a bull whip on Mary during a procession through the streets. Much has been debated about the exact turn of events since, but basically Mary was said to have grabbed the trainer with her trunk and threw him. Then according to eye witnesses marched over to the fallen man and stomped on his head.
The audience scattered in fear screaming. Their screams brought Charlie Sparks over to calm the elephant. Once she was calmed the crowds fear turned to anger and they yelled for Mary to be killed.
The 100 ton derrick
What happened next is a story that happens even today with scary regularity across our oh so modern social networks and press.
Firstly Mary was arrested. (Yup….I know!) Whilst languishing in ‘jail’ the news of the hands death caught fire. She was labelled ‘Murderous Mary’ and stories began to spread that she had killed before. The circus’s next stop Johnson City made it clear that the low down ‘murderer’ and her cohorts (the circus) were no longer welcome in their city and more and more bookings fell apart.
Then a rumour went round that a lynch mob was on it’s way with to Kingsport Tennessee to kill Mary. Charlie Sparks began to feel the impact of it all on his business. He knew that if he did not mollify the mob and give them what they wanted he would be ruined.
He decided to put Mary to death publicly.
Having dismissed other methods to kill her like shooting, poison and electrocution he came to the conclusion that hanging would be the most ‘humane’ method to dispatch Mary the elephant.
To have access to the specialist heavy duty 100 ton derricks used for uplifting railroad cars, the whole circus had to move to the city of Erwin where they could be hired. And so it was a grey, drizzly, utterly bizarre day of September 13 1916 that the circus pulled into town.
Mary is hanged
The crowds had gathered from all over. Residents of Erwin had traveled down to watch the killing. Witnesses said that Mary felt that something was amiss and was reluctant to participate trumpeting her unease. They decided to procession her as normal to her death with the other elephants to calm her down, then the others were hastily taken out of eye sight and Mary was quickly set upon by the roustabouts. They threw the derricks thick chain around her neck before she had time to object and the signal was made to lift her.
As the chain tightened and Mary was lifted off the ground she struggled. Eye witnesses say that the roustabouts had forgotten to release her ankle chains and they could hear the sickening noise of Mary’s tendons being torn.
Suddenly the chain snapped! Poor Mary fell heavily onto the ground. The crowd shrieked and ran away in fear that Murderous Mary would rise up and seek retribution. But she was stunned by the fall and obviously in great pain from the sustained injuries.
When the ‘murderer’ did not get up shooting from the hip Hollywood-style, the crowd regained it’s cockiness and a roustabout climbed onto Mary’s back to attach a heavier chain. Unsurprisingly Mary struggled less this time as she was hoisted up again and in the grim, grey rainy surroundings the great creature hanging with all
her weight trained on her neck fell limp and died.
The exact spot Mary was hanged remains a mystery. There is no marker or memorial as later Erwin residents did not enjoy the association with the historical embarrassing event and preferred not to refer to it, although judging the event by today’s treatment of animals I would suggest they should not feel too isolated.
What Say You?
Simple question today… Are people nuts?!
Images: Martha Erwin asst curator Unicoi County Heritage Museum.