Weird true story of the Sparks World Famous Shows circus and the public hanging of “Murderous” Mary, a circus elephant. Written by Craig Dominey.
WARNING: Some images below might be disturbing
Before the days when television, DVD players and the internet beamed countless entertainment options into even the most remote American communities, the traveling circus was small town America’s ticket to worlds of magic and wonder. Each year, young and old alike would excitedly fill the streets to watch the parade of gaily colored wagons, clowns, performers and animals roll into town. As railroad systems spread into the outermost corners of rural America, more circuses of all sizes fought for the hard earned dollars of American families.
But when Sparks World Famous Shows, a mid-sized, 15-rail car circus, rolled into the mountainous community of Erwin, Tennessee on September 13, 1916, they promised a bizarre spectacle that no circus had ever offered before. After the matinee performance, they promised Erwin’s citizens a free, public hanging of who was then the most notorious killer in Tennessee, “Murderous Mary…”
…A circus elephant.
What you are about to read is a true story. Some events leading up to the hanging of Murderous Mary have been clouded over time by faulty memories, the oral tradition and outright lies and exaggerations. To this day, some of Erwin’s citizens refuse to even discuss the incident.
But there is little doubt that an elephant was hung in the Erwin rail yards on September 13, 1916 – an event that would forever label this little known community as the “Town That Hung the Elephant.”
Throughout his life, Charlie Sparks, owner of Sparks World Famous Shows, knew how to please an audience. He was the son of English music hall performers and, by age eight, was performing as part of the highly regarded Jack Harvey Minstrels as a drummer and World Champion Clogger. When his father died, he sang and danced on street corners to support his widowed mother.
Charlie’s circus days began when, during a tour stop in Utah, he and his mother met a vaudeville performer named John H. Weisman at the hotel where they were staying. Weisman was quite impressed with young Charlie’s performing skills, and quickly befriended both Charlie and his mother. They became such good friends that, when Charlie’s mother fell seriously ill with tuberculosis, she asked Weisman to care for Charlie. Shortly thereafter, Weisman not only adopted Charlie, but took the unusual step of changing his own last name to Sparks – perhaps because it was a more “circus sounding” name.
Father and son performed together as an after show act until 1890, when John H. organized his first small circus, the Sparks and Allen Wagon Show. It was later renamed John H. Sparks Virginia Shows and, for a small horse and wagon operation, was quite successful. In 1901, when Charlie was 25, his father grew weary of touring and bought a hotel near Winston-Salem, North Carolina, adding a fishing lake and a small zoo. In an ironic twist, John H. was bitten by a lion cub in this zoo, causing an infection that would lead to his death two years later.
This tragedy left Charlie in full control of the circus. He knew that, for his show to thrive, it had to latch onto the vast network of railroads that were spreading across the country at that time. Sometime after 1903, he moved the show on the rails, starting with just one rail car, performing horses and ponies, and draft stock.
As the railroad grew, so did the show, which was later renamed Sparks World Famous Shows. By 1916, it had ballooned into a successful, 15-car circus with clowns, acrobats, horses, lions and elephants. Some of Charlie’s performers were so skilled that mighty Barnum and Bailey Circus tried to steal them away. Charlie became a trusted and well-respected figure in the circus world, and was a common sight strolling down the street in his Stetson hat and cane, a smoldering cigar in his mouth.
Without a doubt, the star of Sparks World Famous Shows was Mary, a giant Asian elephant. She was advertised on Sparks posters as “The Largest Living Land Animal on Earth,” weighing “over 5 tons” and standing “3 inches taller than Jumbo,” the star elephant of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Crowds throughout the country roared with delight as Mary performed tricks like standing on her head, playing musical instruments and pitching a baseball. But it was her size that awed many people from rural communities who had never seen an animal this large or exotic. Mary was valued anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000, and was the primary reason many people came to the show.
But Mary was more than just a performer to Charlie Sparks. His father had purchased Mary in 1898 when she was four years old, and she had been the family pet ever since. After Charlie married Addie Mitchell, the circus’s head cook and animal doctor, Mary, in essence, became the child that this childless couple never had. Charlie firmly instructed his employees to be kind, gentle and respectful to all his animals, especially his beloved Mary.
Despite the show’s success, it still lagged behind its major competitor in the South, John Robinson’s Four Ring Circus and Menagerie, which boasted 42 railroad cars and larger numbers of performers and animals. Competition between the two circuses and other traveling shows became so fierce that each resorted to unique tactics to separate itself from the others.
Being a family-owned circus, Sparks World Famous Shows advertised itself as a “100% Sunday School Circus,” meaning that it was fair and honest with the public, and allowed no short changing of customers. To avoid tipping off rival shows, Charlie kept his routes under his hat, and rarely advertised in circus trade papers. Mere days before his show arrived in town, his scouts would plaster the area with colorful posters.
On the morning of September 11, 1916, before the circus arrived in the small mining community of St. Paul, Virginia, a local hotel worker named Walter “Red” Eldridge spotted one of these posters. He was about to change the life of the Sparks circus forever.
To this day, little is known about Red Eldridge except that he was between 23 and 38 years of age, worked at the Riverside Hotel in St. Paul and, when the Sparks circus arrived, approached head elephant trainer Paul Jacoby for a job. Despite Eldridge’s inexperience, Jacoby hired him as an under keeper of the elephants. Eldridge’s job responsibilities included watering the elephants and preparing them for the parades and shows. For the next few days, Eldridge was instructed according to Sparks’ “gentling care” philosophy when it came to the animals.
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After the show, Eldridge left his job at the hotel and traveled south with the circus to their next stop in Kingsport, Tennessee. Kingsport then looked like a town out of the “Wild West.” The Carolina, Clinchfieid and Ohio Railroad (known simply as the “Clinchfield”) had recently been completed, linking Kingsport with the coal fields to the north and turning it into an industrial boom town. Workers streamed into Kingsport, with many having to stay in temporary tent shelters in the center of town. The streets were muddy and clogged with wagons, wild animals and crowds.
On September 12, Kingsport was putting on its first county fair, and Sparks World Famous Shows was going to be a part of it. Crowds from the surrounding hills came into town, swelling Kingsport’s already overcrowded streets. Sometime during the day, crowds lined the roadsides to watch “Mighty Mary” and her fellow elephants – Queen, Topsy, and the two babies, Ollie and Mutt – march through town, trunk to tail.
What happened next has been debated for years, but the most popular version of the story is that the elephants were being led to a watering ditch between shows. Eldridge used a bull hook – a stick with a hook on its end – to guide Mary, but had been warned in his training to nudge her gently and not to provoke her.
According to this story, sometime during the procession, Mary suddenly stopped. Several eyewitnesses claimed that she had spotted a piece of watermelon on the ground and was reaching down to grab it with her trunk. Eldridge forgot his training and roughly prodded her with the stick. Enraged, Mary suddenly grabbed Eldridge with her trunk, lifted him in the air, and flung him against what some claim was a drink stand. Then, according to eyewitness accounts, she stomped over and, with her massive foot, crushed Eldridge’s head like a ripe melon.
The crowds screamed and ran for their lives. Some say that a local blacksmith fired shots at Mary, but the bullets bounced off her thick hide. Hearing the screams, Charlie Sparks rushed over and put his arm around Mary’s trunk, calming her down. He then saw the mangled body of Red Eldridge, the magnitude of Mary’s actions suddenly apparent.</p> <p>But what was even more frightening was the chant coming from the crowd. Anger had burned away the fear in many of the onlookers. Now their voices rang out in unison: “Kill the elephant!”
Kingsport officials quickly “arrested” Mary and staked her by the county jail, where more onlookers gathered around her. Meanwhile, Charlie Sparks and his staff had a gut-wrenching decision to make concerning Mary’s fate.
In those days, “rogue” elephants who injured or killed someone could quietly have their names changed and be sold to another circus. But the story of Eldridge’s gruesome death had spread like wildfire throughout northeastern Tennessee. The newspapers had already nicknamed the elephant “Murderous Mary,” and claimed that she had killed before. The mayor of nearby Johnson City, the circus’s next stop, had banned Sparks World Famous Shows from setting foot in the city as long as Mary was with them, and more cities were almost certainly to follow. What’s worse, it was rumored that a lynch mob was on its way to Kingsport to kill Mary – armed with an old Civil War cannon.
Charlie was a smart businessman, and he knew that, if he didn’t satisfy the public’s desire for swift justice, his show could be financially ruined. But his final decision ultimately came down to his concern for public safety. “A human’s life is something I don’t want charged against me,” he later claimed in a 1924 interview. “If people in the business get hurt, that’s our lookout. But with an outsider – that’s different.”
With great reluctance, Charlie decided that Mary had to be put to death publicly. But how? Shooting her in the four soft spots on her head would be both difficult and dangerous with the large crowds that would certainly gather around to watch. Mary was too smart to eat food laced with cyanide, and there wasn’t enough electricity in that part of Tennessee to electrocute her. Even more gruesome scenarios were brought up and quickly dismissed.
Finally, he decided that the only “humane” way to execute Mary would be to hang her. Clinchfield Railroad had huge, 100-ton derricks that they used to unload lumber off their freight cars. If these derricks could handle those heavy items, they could surely handle a five-ton elephant.
But then more problems arose for Sparks. The summer of 1916 had brought torrential rains that caused floods and wash outs all over the mountains. Clinchfield refused to send a derrick car all the way to Kingsport when an emergency might require it south over the Blue Ridge Mountains. If Charlie wanted to use a derrick car, he would have to take his circus south to Clinchfield’s headquarters and repair facilities in Erwin, Tennessee.
And so, on the morning of September 13, the circus train carrying Mary and the rest of Sparks World Famous Shows chugged south toward Erwin, and that city’s date with history.
Erwin in 1916 had been transformed by the Clinchfield Railroad from an isolated mountain hamlet of about 500 people into a boom town of over 2,000. Clinchfield imported hundreds of skilled workers for its repair facilities, and the newly relocated Blue Ridge Pottery employed many more. Like Kingsport, Erwin had a “western flavor,” with muddy streets, boardwalks for sidewalks, and many workers with disposable incomes eager for entertainment and spectacle.
Sparks World Famous Shows pulled into Erwin on a dreary morning. An all night rain had turned the ground into a sticky quagmire, and drizzle continued throughout the day. They would first put on an unscheduled performance without Mary that day – but it was only a sideshow for what was to come. Several eyewitnesses claim to have spotted Mary chained outside the Sparks tent, swaying back and forth nervously, seemingly sensing that something was wrong.
After the show, thousands of people from Erwin and surrounding areas rushed over to the rail yard. They filled every available boxcar, engine and tower, jostling with each other for the prime viewing spots. Some Erwin citizens and Sparks performers couldn’t bear to watch the execution, and quickly fled the scene.
In an attempt to calm Mary, Charlie decided to have her walk to the derrick with the other elephants, trunk to tail, like they did most every day. But several eyewitnesses claim that Mary didn’t appear fooled for, according to them, she hesitated several times and trumpeted loudly.
When Mary reached the derrick, some circus roustabouts quickly chained her legs to the rail to keep her still. The other elephants were led away out of sight range of the horrible event that was to come. Meanwhile, about 500 yards down the track, another group of roustabouts and railroad laborers were hastily digging a large grave with a steam shovel.
An eerie hush fell across the crowd as one of the roustabouts threw the derrick’s 7/8-inch chain around Mary’s neck, fitted the end through a steel ring, and signaled the derrick operator to lift her. The operator threw the handle forward, the winch squealed and the chain tightened around Mary’s neck. She struggled as her front feet slowly lifted off the ground.</p> <p>Several eyewitnesses claimed that the roustabouts forgot to release Mary’s ankle chains as she was lifted, and they could hear the gruesome sound of her tendons being torn.
Suddenly, a loud crack shattered the silence. Mary fell to the ground with a loud thud. The neck chain had broken! The crowd screamed and started running away, fearful that this “mad elephant” would kill them all. But Mary sat stunned on the railroad track like a giant jack rabbit, the fall having injured her gravely.
When order was restored, a roustabout climbed up Mary’s back and attached a heavier chain around her neck. Mary fought less this time as the derrick hoisted her into the air again. The chain held, and within a few minutes, Mary fell limp and died.
Before Mary was buried, a photograph was taken for posterity. Although Argosy Magazine later claimed that this photo was a fake, most researchers agree that it is indeed real, although noticeably touched up due to the foggy weather conditions.
With nothing left to see, the crowd dispersed. Mary was lowered off the derrick and buried in her makeshift grave. The other elephants were led back to the circus train. According to historical articles on the Sparks circus, the elephants trumpeted loudly as they were taken away, sensing that Mary was missing. These same articles claim that it took several performances for them to adjust to Mary’s sudden absence.
One of the more persistent and bizarre stories surrounding this event is that, in an attempt to reclaim some of his financial losses, Charlie Sparks ordered his roustabouts to dig Mary up and cut off her tusks for a touring exhibit. This highly doubtful story is made even more so by the fact that Asian elephants don’t even grow tusks. And, if the picture of her hanging is to be believed, then it’s obvious that Mary never had tusks at the time of her death.
Another story claims that the Associated Press asked Charlie Sparks to dig up Mary and hang her again for a photograph. Again, this is another story that is placed in the “highly doubtful” category.
The story of Mary’s execution occasionally pops up in magazines such as Playboy and the National Enquirer. It was even used as a question on the game show Jeopardy!
But the exact spot where Mary was buried remains a mystery to this day. The railroad now belongs to CSX, and there is no marker or memorial to be found. Because of the embarrassment and shame later-day Erwin residents felt because of this event, some city leaders would like to keep it that way.
An ironic footnote to this story is that Middle Tennessee now has its own elephant sanctuary. The Elephant Sanctuary, located about 65 miles southwest of Nashville in Hohenwald, contains 100 acres of designated grounds for sick, old and needy elephants to roam in peace, as well as heated barns containing comfortable stalls.
Perhaps if such an organization had been around in Mary’s time, it could have provided an alternative to the gruesome spectacle that took place that rainy September day and forever linked Erwin, Tennessee and “Murderous Mary” in American history.
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