May 1, 1997

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Editor's Note: This story was originally published in the May/June 1997 issue of Blue Ridge Country. For more great stories like this, download our iPad app or view our digital magazine today!

It was 1916, and things were changing fast. World War I raged in Europe. Dadaism, ripe with comic derision and irrationality, took hold in artistic circles. Freeform jazz took hold of the American music scene. Margaret Sanger opened the first birth-control clinic. It was a good year for scapegoats. It was a good year to hang an elephant.

The Place

Erwin, Tennessee seems to be a polite and patriotic town, where campaign signs ask voters to "Please Elect...," then thank them in advance. It's a place where many of the Main Street businesses mark the Fourth of July by closing down for four days, and nobody seems to mind the inconvenience.

In 1916, Erwin was a railroad boom town, home to the Cincinnati, Clinchfield, and Ohio Railroad's repair facilities, "sprouting like a boy growing too fast for his own britches," according to longtime resident Hank S. Johnson. The population of Erwin (which was supposed to be called Ervin, in honor of the man who donated 15 acres of land for the town, but was misspelled by a postal worker) nearly tripled in the first 16 years of the century. Makeshift boardwalks stretched above the ankle-deep yellow mud in the streets.

The Clinchfield line used to carry coal out of the Tennessee mountains; Clinchfield and Blue Ridge Pottery were the major employers in Erwin. For decades, the railroad yards were the busiest place in town.

Now, the yards are quiet: pigeons roost in the old passenger station, and most of the tracks are dull from disuse.

This is where Murderous Mary, a five-ton cow elephant with the Sparks Brothers Circus, was hung by the neck from Derrick Car 1400 on September 13, 1916. The story of why and how Mary died is, of course, obscured by time and countless retelling: an example of the best and worst of oral history. It is tragic, absurd, excessive: quintessential turn-of-the-century America.

The Players

Charlie Sparks, the owner of Sparks World Famous Shows, was a frustrated man. His circus was two-bit, compared to his southern rival, John Robinson's Four Ring Circus and Menagerie. A circus's net worth was measured in rolling stock and elephants: Sparks' dog-and-pony show traveled in a mere 10 railroad cars, compared to Robinson's 42; Sparks could boast of only five elephants compared to Robinson's dozen. Never mind Barnum and Bailey -- 84 railroad cars was beyond Charlie Sparks' reach.

So Charlie did the best he could, traveling around the South, putting up advance posters and enticing folks with a noon circus parade prior to the day's two performances. Sparks posters claimed a certain degree of moral superiority:

"Twenty-five years of honest dealing with the public!"

"Moral, entertaining, and instructive!"

"The show that never broke a promise!"

What else did Sparks offer? Educated sea lions. Greasepainted and powdered dogs and humans, posing like Greek statues. Clowns. The Man Who Walks Upon His Head. And elephants.


May 1, 1997

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Comments (19)

Comment Feed

What the Hell

This makes me so upset. I cried while reading this I absolutely love Elephants and if you ask me he deserved it for jabbing her. It's cruel and she shouldn't have had to endure the pain of her broken ribs before she died. I can't believe it. People are horrible.

Kali 25 days ago

Name of town

Erwin is German, it is pronounced Ervin

B.W. 32 days ago


This really pisses me off. Not because they hung her. Although that pissed me off. But because of the idiots who didn't bother to make sure it wasn't a medical issue as to why she was like that. Elephants are very intelligent animals. So I think that whoever had pissed her off was the one who was killed. Because elephants have a memory like humans we remember things people have done to us

Marissa 42 days ago


why did they hang an elanfont that wrong

kkjk 153 days ago

They should hang elephant trophy hunters

This is a typical (well, not so typical) example of how humans are portrayed as "victims" of random animal encounters, while countless millions of animals are shot, trapped, hooked and poisoned by people, often for recreation. Pure hypocrisy.

If this happened today, I hope they would at least understand and retire her to a farm or special zoo.

Alec Sevins 231 days ago

Humanity is cruel and stupid!

Idiots do stupid things, and it pains me that our stupidity was taken out on this beautiful creature. Its like working with a horse that won't budge. You have two choices: 1. the animal is being stubborn and you need to try harder or a different method, or 2. Something is wrong and they must be in pain or discomfort. You need two things around animals, PATIENCE and a Sense of HUMOR!

Hannah Mckenna 263 days ago

I can not believe,

I'm ashamed To call myself a East Tennessean. The reason We hung actual people was and is to so others, What happens when you comment this crimes. So why honestly Hang A Elephant the owner is just a COWARD AND ANYONE INVOLVED / HELPED IS JUST AS COWARDLY.

Shawn Beets 285 days ago

Asian Elephant

mary = female asian elephant = did not have tusks. the newspaper column was sensationalized. the photo also depicts her without tusks. it is far more likely that mary followed the rules of zoology and did not have tusks to begin with, than it is to believe that someone had the ability or courage to saw the tusks off of a five ton human killing elephant on death row.

Elefante Mecanico 294 days ago

Asian elephant tusks

Both male and female Asian elephants have tusks

Elephant check 181 days ago

RE: Asian Elephant Tusks

Wrong! Female Asian elephants rarely have tusks, if they do it's a fluke of nature and they're called 'tushes' because they're not proper tusk. Tushes are so small that you can only see them when the elephants mouth is open.

Check your elephants better 153 days ago

Mary the Elephant in Tennessee

Another band immortalized Mad Mary in song. It's quite a toe-tapper and crowd pleaser.Check out the video at:

Kimber 316 days ago

RIP, Mary.

This is one of the worst things I have ever seen. Terrible. That poor, beautiful elephant. I will never be able to get this image out of my head.

Valerie more than 1 years ago

Hillbilly elephant hate

Proving that the Tea Party was around in 1916..only ignorant hillbillies would do something so cruel.

Leon Foonman 361 days ago


How delusional are you? If you want to turn this discussion into a political one, let me ask you this. Why are millions of innocent animals still being euthanized every year in our supposedly civilized society? The tea party has nothing to do with elephant Mary's murder. Both the left-wing and right-wing turn their heads away from animal abuse. The reality is is that there are gravely sick, twisted sociopathic individuals in our society that do this kind of stuff because our politicians on both sides turn a blind eye to it. Obtaining votes for themselves is easier when they promise handouts instead of promising action and god forbid, actually having to fight for a cause. And, unfortunately, these politicians will let these travesties happen for mere votes without any regard for suffering. RIP Mary - A truly sickening image that I wished I never saw. May you rest in happiness and tranquility.

Mari 334 days ago

Semitic Genius

TEA party? More likely the NAZI party. By the way, if your taxes are not high enough, perhaps you could pay mine. TEA is an acronym for Taxed Enough Already. I'd imagined a beak nosed nap head would be intelligent enough to comprehend that.

Norman Johnston 319 days ago

mary the elephant

it wasnt hillbillies that hung the elephant! it was the circus owner,aYANKEE! you are ignorant for profiling,and putting down southern and or mountain people. KNOW THE HISTORY OF A SUBJECT SO YOU DONT END UP WITH YOUR FOOT IN YOUR MOUTH!....not hating,just saying!

David W. Gross 301 days ago

So tragic

I know I heard about this and another elephant name topsy I cried for them so sad

Terri 361 days ago

Sparks Circus

Charlie Sparks did run a clean circus in an era when many circuses were not welcome in "nice" towns. I'm not sure if the statements about his being jealous of larger units are fact or speculation, I think speculation.

Steve Shelton more than 1 years ago

Mary the elephant

Excellent song on Mary by Them Bird Things entitled "Pachyderm Nightmare" at

Leon Strange more than 1 years ago

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