Mary – The Elephant Hung for Murder, 1916

The story of the folks of Virginia State who hung an elephant for killing her handler seems barbaric even by early 20th Century standards. Was she really murderous or the victim of cruel treatment? Find out here

Mary the elephant lived during the turn of the 20th Century performing with Sparks’ World Famous Shows — a travelling circus with all the bells and whistles; clowns, acrobats and many exotic animals.

Mary became the star attraction, playing musical instruments, standing on her head, and even catching baseballs.

This gentle giant awed crowds across the USA but then the circus reached Virginia and something happened that sent this big girl into such a rage the repercussions cost her life.

There, circus owner Charlie Sparks, a refined gentleman, made the ill-advised decision to hire Walter “Red” Eldridge, a transient hotel clerk with a horse-jockey’s physique and so irritable the smallest hindrances triggered bouts of hollering and flailing limbs. He had absolutely no experience working with animals, less so as their head elephant keeper of all things.

Although instructed to treat the elephants with care, being the buffoon he was, he armed himself with a bullhook to control his charges and would readily use it.

One day he was riding atop Mary and the big girl stopped to nose a watermelon rind.

Unbeknown to Eldridge, Mary was suffering from acute toothache which probably contributed to what happened next. ‘Red’ jabbed at her to get going again, likely in the area around the bad tooth and the big girl finally snapped.

Mary flung her tormentor off her back, gored him with her tusks before delivering the coup-de-gras with a crushing stomp to his head.

A crowd quickly gathered and, aghast at the spectacle and in their ignorance of both sides of the story, began to chant ‘Kill the Elephant’.

Within minutes the local blacksmith tried to do that; firing five rounds with little effect.

Word spread and, with folks threatening to boycott the circus if this elephant remained, the circus owner Charlie Sparks reluctantly decided that the only way to quickly resolve the potentially ruinous situation was to kill the wounded elephant in public.

On the following rainy September day, 1916, a crowd of over 2,500 people assembled in the Clinchfield Railroad yard and the elephant was hanged by the neck from a railcar-mounted industrial derrick.

The first attempt resulted in a snapped chain, causing Mary to fall and break her hip as dozens of children fled in terror. The severely wounded elephant died during a second attempt and was buried beside the tracks.

Mary the elephant was hung from a train derrick in front of thousands of people (

A heart-wrenching tale that nonetheless reminds us that, though we’re still far from perfect, we’ve since come a long way with regards to our treatment of animals, at least.


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