East Tennessee History: Murderous Mary Part 2

Published 1:36 pm Tuesday, May 12, 2020

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There was an excitement in the air on September 11, 1916, when the Sparks Brothers Circus came to this area and brought with it their world-famous circus. The circus included sea lions, clowns, and even five very large elephants.
 The star of the elephants was a giant named Mary who was billed as the largest elephant in the world. This gentle giant would stand on her head, played musical instruments and even caught baseballs.
 Red Eldridge worked with the circus as a janitor and elephant handler, though he had no formal training handling elephants. According to the story, 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 Mary by using a stick to guide her.
 The story says that when Mary reached for a piece of watermelon, Eldridge tried to stop her with his stick. Mary turned on him, grabbed him, threw him into a food stand and then walked over and crushed his head with one of her massive feet.
   For whatever reason, Mary had just 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 firearm 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 and hooked the animal up to 44,000 volts but all it did was make her dance.
 Someone had an idea that they should hook her up to two opposing train engines and dismember her or crush her between the two engines. Both of these methods were deemed to be too cruel.
 Finally, they decided to hang her from a derrick car in the Clinchfield’s railyard in Erwin, Tennessee. More than 2500 people gathered to watch the execution of Mary, including every child in Erwin.
 After marching Mary to the railyard, they placed a chain around her neck and then hooked the boom to the neck chain. As she was lifted off the ground, the chain broke and she fell back to the ground, breaking her hip.
 Once they found a larger chain, someone climbed up her back like they were climbing a little hill and placed the chain around her neck. Then, they tried to pull her up again. This time the chain and winch both worked well and after a few minutes, she died.
 They left her hanging for around 30 minutes then they dumped her in a grave they had dug for her 400 feet up the tracks. Some claim that she was dug up during the night and her tusks were cut off. There is even one legend that says that someone took the tusks and made a pair of dice from them. Whether she had tusks or not is still debated today. But if you look at the photo of her hanging in the railyard, she does not have tusks. Maybe they were cut off after she died and then the photo was staged. We will never really know.
 After Mary’s death, a veterinarian examined the body and discovered there was one final little fact that could have changed everything about the story of Murderous Mary. The doctor discovered she had a very badly abscessed tooth.
 Maybe, just maybe, she was not a crazed murder who was just looking for someone to kill. Maybe she had a toothache, and the handler prodded her on the tooth. If that is true, can we really blame her for turning on her handler? A good dentist could have solved this entire situation.
 Sometimes the truth is greater than legend, but in the case of Mary the Murderous Elephant, we will probably never be able to distinguish between the truth and the legend.

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