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Big Mary


Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT from PRX and NPR, the "Circus Circus" episode. I get to be your master of ceremonies, Glynn Washington. And for the next act in our circus, we're going to take you back - way back. Team SNAP has spent months gathering up newspaper clippings and testimonials from 1916. And understand, bad things do happen, so sensitive listeners and parents with small children should be advised.


WASHINGTON: The summer of 1916 was a tough one for America, but even tougher for small-town Tennessee. A polio epidemic wracked the region, and the country was about to send 1 million of its finest young men to World War I.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And the United States took up arms.

WASHINGTON: So when the Sparks Bros. Circus rolled into town after town, people were glad for the relief. With the circus came laughter and joy. And Charlie Sparks, he led his fledgling little circus and served as ringleader extraordinaire. The pride of Charlie's show was a 5-ton elephant named Big Mary who Charlie insisted was a full 3 inches taller than PT Barnum's Jumbo.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Come see Big Mary, the largest living mammal on Earth.

WASHINGTON: People flocked from miles around and under the big top. In dusty towns across the country, Big Mary thrilled audiences by playing songs on 25 musical horns without missing a note.


WASHINGTON: The audience's favorite was Mary's baseball act. Wielding a bat in her trunk, the bandstands roared with laughter when Mary faked anger at the umpire and trumpeted in his ear.


WASHINGTON: Anger played very well with this audience, but Mary's fury was no laughing matter. The massive elephant was said to be gentle one moment and fly into a rage the next. Charlie's secret was that Mary had actually killed two of her previous owners. Known for her temper, she'd been passed from circus to circus to circus to Charlie.

So one day in St. Paul, Va., when an eager, young hotel bellhop, named Walter Red Eldridge, came up and explained his dream to be an animal keeper, Charlie quickly hired him as Big Mary's trainer. And despite his background, Red Eldridge proved a competent elephant handler.

His third day on the job, in the small town of Kingsport, Tenn., Red Eldridge perched proudly atop Mary's head as elephants paraded, trunk to tail, right down the town's main street. And that's when things went terribly wrong for Red Eldridge, for Charlie Sparks and for Big Mary.

It seems that Mary spotted a rind of juicy, red watermelon on the side of a dirt road. And when she moved her trunk to snatch it up, Red prodded her with a stick on the side of her head. One onlooker, the 18-year-old H.W. Coleman (ph), described what happened to a local newspaper.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: That big, old elephant turned, and, boy, was she ever mad. She trumpeted real loud and grabbed Eldridge around the waist with her trunk.

WASHINGTON: Poor Red Eldridge was no more. Once again, Big Mary had become Murderous Mary. The crowd shrieked with fear and scattered down the road. A local blacksmith named Hench Cox charged out of his shop, waving a pistol, and shot five rounds into Mary. But the elephant barely flinched.

So the crowd began to chant, let's kill the elephant, let's kill the elephant, let's kill the elephant. Louder and louder, the crowd grew even more furious and more terrified. They had faced polio and war and poverty, but this was too much.

Charlie Sparks, terrified with the prospect of losing his main attraction and his $8,000 investment, tried to calm the crowd. I'd be happy to kill her, folks, I'd be happy to, but there ain't a gun in the land big enough to do the trick. Eventually, people from the circus managed to calm Mary down and lead her back to her home under the big top. Meanwhile, panic spread across eastern Tennessee about the killer elephant. Rumors began that she killed four people, then eight. And the Johnson City Comet falsely reported that she killed 18 men.

Later that same night, performing in the circus, Big Mary made her final mistake - in the middle of the show, the elephant snuck up on Charlie Sparks, removed his hat from his head and slapped him in the face with it.


WASHINGTON: While the crowd roared with laughter, Charlie Sparks, red-faced, fuming with anger, hatched a plan to get his revenge on Big Mary. The next day, the circus pulled into a rainy Erwin, Tenn. And after Mary helped pull the train cars through the muddy fields, she performed her last circus. The mood under the big top was said to be tinged with sadness. All of the performers, all of the audience, everyone knew this would be Mary's final act. Charlie had invited them all to view the elephant's hanging following the circus.


WASHINGTON: In the early evening, a crowd of hundreds followed Big Mary to the railroad derrick. People were everywhere. Grown men clamored to the tops of trains in the rail yard to get a better view. Newspapers report that one man who thought he was coming to see a black person lynched became incensed when he found the condemned was actually an elephant.

He got up and started yelling at the crowd, you should be ashamed of yourselves. You are a dishonorable people. The railroad crane operator refused to hang the elephant. He worked the night shift and feared the image would haunt him in the rail yards. So a rail worker, named One Eyed Steve Harvey (ph), volunteered for the job.

The crowd watched in silence as Harvey fixed a massive chain around Mary's neck. She was lifted 10 feet off the ground, where she breathed her last breath and then fell limp. The town folk seemed to think that justice had been done. E.H. Griffith, a woman who saw all of the events transpire said...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I don't believe any of those who saw the event felt it was inhumane. Mary paid for her crime, just as anyone else would.


WASHINGTON: The elephant was lowered into a grave by the river, where a local veterinarian performed an autopsy on her giant corpse. He discovered that Mary had a badly infected tooth in precisely the area where Red Eldridge had smacked her with a stick.


WASHINGTON: In the end, she was just an animal acting out in pain. She was not spiteful, not vengeful, not cruel, just hurting. If you go to Erwin, Tenn., today, you'll not find a grave or a statue, but only a tiny antique store holding onto Mary's memory. The name of the store - Hanging Elephant Antiques.


WASHINGTON: That sad but true story was produced by Anna Sussman and myself. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.