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September 13, 1916
"the Hanging of "Murderous Mary"
Compliments of the Antique Mall and the Unicoi
In Unicoi County, words like Nolichucky, Unaka, Clinchfield and several others all carry great meaning for local sons and daughters. But the event which has received world-wide attention and still, even today, gathers a crowd on Main Street when mentioned, is the now well-recorded hanging of the elephant, Mary, on September 13, 1916.
It was recorded in such area newspapers as The Saturday Blade, Johnson City Staff, The National Banner, and others.
The hanging of "Murderous Mary" was the talk of East Tennessee and received national acclaim in "Popular Mechanics and "Ripley's Believe It Or Not". Documented accounts, carried many times not only in this newspaper but by other area media, unfold the tale as follows:
On Wednesday afternoon, September 13, 1916, Mary, a veteran performing pachyderm with the Sparks-World Famous Shows was hanged in Erwin from a railroad derrick. According to published accounts throughout the area, Mary had killed her trainer, Walter "Red" Eldridge of St. Paul about a day before her own sad demise occurred. The incident reportedly happened in Kingsport following a daylight performance of the circus. Rumors spread as to the actual number of people Murderous Mary had slain, ranging from three to 18. She was said to have performed for some 15 years and was billed by the circus as the "largest living land animal on earth." Mary was 30 years old at the time she was hanged, or approximately one-half of her life expectancy. She performed as part of a quintette. Her value was placed at $20,000 by circus sources.
Accounts surrounding the circus trainer's death vary; one indicates that Mary became enraged when Eldridge failed to give her a portion of watermelon she spied; another says she flew into a rage when Eldridge handled the beast roughly; and still another account says the elephant suffered pain from abcessed teeth and was just plain "irritable" on that fateful day. Regardless of circumstances, Mary killed Eldridge in what was described as a bloody triumph for the mammoth. Whether afraid of losing box office receipts or for reasons unknown, the elephant's owner bowed to the public sentiment and agreed to dispose of the elephant. The circus owner added that there wasn't a gun big enough to bring Mary down, however.
It cannot be said for certain who condemned Mary to death, but on Wednesday, September 13, 1916, the Sparks Brothers Company moved to Erwin and plans were made for Mary's destruction. Some say that Mary had to be kept close to the other elephants in order that she not become enraged. Being very subtle, circus personnel lured Mary in to place in the shop yards of the CC&O Railroad. The wreck car was pulled into place and a chain looped around Mary's thick neck. The elephant had been hoisted into the air, maybe five or six feet, when the 7/8 inch chain about her neck snapped. The confused pachyderm fell to the ground, and in a stupor from the fall, offered no resistance as another chain had replaced the broken links. Hoisted again, Mary gave a twist and a sigh and expired in Erwin on that historic September day.
Following the hanging, her corpse was buried with a steam shovel. The actual site was of the burial is disputed, but is rumored to be south of the old roundhouse location and below the tracks. Mary reportedly had enormous tusks and these were allegedly sawed off, either at the time of burial or sometime the same night by unknown persons. At least one photograph was taken of the hanging and copies still survive today. Many artists' conceptions also survive. Little did those people realize on that late summer day in 1916 that local history was being made.
This page is for perpetual written accounts of historical events that have occurred in the city. Anyone who feels they have pertinent information may submit it. This includes all people in or out of Erwin and could involve any interested adults or children with events or items that are of interest. Items may be submitted for publication on this page where they will remain as part of a historical archive for the city. Items of interest may include noteworthy events, special events of historical importance, information about area growth that pertains to the history of the city, and other pertinent notes. We hope to establish a large data base of information about the history of each city. Historical Societies are encouraged to open their own page on Key to the City for more extensive historical information.
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