East Tennessee History: Murderous Mary

Published 2:42 pm Tuesday, May 5, 2020

It was September 13, 1916, when the world that existed in tiny little Erwin, Tenn., changed forever.
It was a peaceful time on Main Street in Erwin. The world was at war, but America wasn’t. People were watching silent films, and King Lear was one of the most popular films of the year. Talking pictures were almost a decade away, and most people were seeking entertainment where they could find it. It was a good time for the circus to come to town.
The Sparks Brothers Circus came to the area and brought with it all the wonders of any circus. This included entertaining sea lions, clowns, a man who walked on his head and of course, elephants.
These five-ton creatures were the stars of the circus, and Sparks Brothers was proud to have five of them.
Mary was the star among stars as she was billed to be the largest land animal in the world. Sparks Brothers even said that she was larger by two inches than Jumbo, a giant elephant owned by P.T. Barnum and his circus.
To drum up business, Sparks Brothers billed Mary as one of the most dangerous animals in the world, having killed from two to 20 men. No doubt this part of the story is pure myth, and it is highly doubtful that Mary had ever killed anyone before.
On September 11, 1916, Sparks Brothers made it to Kingsport, Tenn., and set up camp. Drifter Red Eldridge was traveling with them and worked as a janitor and an elephant handler. He had no formal training as an elephant handler and had just gotten this job to pass the time and make a few dollars before he hopped on a train and moved on to the next town on the line.
The story goes that Eldridge was told to take all five of the elephants to a large ditch that ran down the town to let them splash in the water. On the way back, Eldridge drove her by using a stick. Here is where the story takes on some controversy.
One version has Mary reaching over for a watermelon rind, and Eldridge jerked her chain to make her keep moving. It is said Mary picked Eldridge up with her trunk and threw him against a drink stand. She then walked over to the already lifeless body and stepped on his head, mashing the poor man’s head flat.
Another version has Mary throwing Eldridge 10 feet in the air, slamming him to the ground, running her tusks through him and then stepping on his head.
Still another version says she swiped her tail at Eldridge. Her tail struck him in his head killing him instantly.
The final version says she had two abscessed teeth and was in extreme pain. When Eldridge pulled on her chain or struck her with the stick, she got mad and went for Eldridge, eventually killing him.
Regardless of the reason, Mary had killed a man, and she was going to have to pay a price. She would have to be executed.
The problem was how do they execute her? No one had a gun large enough to execute her quickly and humanely. A local blacksmith shot her with his 32-20 rifle, and it had little effect. A local sheriff shot her with his .45 handgun and only “knocked chips out of her.”
They thought about electrocuting her, but that seemed too cruel. In 1903 there had been a short movie made entitled Electrocuting an Elephant, and the movie showed the cruelty of the method.
Then someone had an idea that they would hang her. The result was one of most famous events in east Tennessee history and an event that put one quiet little community on the map.
We will continue this true story next week in this East Tennessee History column.