Mary the Elephant, hanged after killing her trainer by stepping on his head

Mary the Elephant (c.1894–September 13, 1916), also known as “Murderous Mary”, hanged after killing her trainer by stepping on his head, Erwin, Tennessee, USA, 1916. #HistoryVille

Mary’s talents included picking out 25 tunes on musical horns, which she tooted with her trunk. She was also the champion pitcher on the circus’s baseball team.

But on that tragic day, she had been stripped of her red-and-gold saddle and head-dress of artificial blue feathers and stood tethered in disgrace outside the tent.

Waiting there in the drizzling rain, it was said that she trembled fearfully, as if aware of the awful fate about to befall her.

And well she might have done, for ‘Murderous Mary’, as she became known, had not only killed a man but had made the mistake of doing so near Erwin, Tennessee.

She stamped on her brutal handler’s head

This newly booming American railroad town had pretensions to civilisation, boasting its own post office, theatre and courthouse.

It also had a jail, but the sheriff’s authority counted for little in a part of the world where mob rule still prevailed.

Between 1882 and 1930, there were 214 victims of lynchings in Tennessee. Most were black men, summarily found guilty of such crimes as ‘fighting a white man’ and having ‘bad character’.

But soon their tragic ranks would be joined by Mary, surely the only elephant in history ever to have been hanged.

And it seems particularly pertinent to remember her in the week that Prince Charles hosted a much-heralded international conference to address the illegal trade in wildlife parts.

Elephants were among the species highlighted as most at risk, but the supposedly enlightened Western world has not always been so concerned about the welfare of these majestic creatures, as we are reminded by the barbarity of Mary’s death.

Her fate was sealed the day before the hanging, when Charlie Sparks’s circus train arrived in the small town of Kingsport, about 40 miles from Erwin.

As always, it advertised its presence with a parade along the main street, during which Mary was ridden by 38-year-old Walter Eldridge, nicknamed Red because of his rusty-coloured hair.

A drifter who had been with the circus only a day, he had no experience of handling elephants, but the only qualification required was the ability to wield an ‘elephant stick’ — a rod with a sharp spear at one end.

A clue as to why this held such fear for the animals comes from an account of how a baby elephant named Mademoiselle Djek was tamed for a short stint on the London stage in 1829.

While critics marvelled at her docility, Charles Reade, a novelist of the time, described how her keeper first gained mastery over her by stabbing her in the trunk with a pitchfork, at which she ‘wheeled round, ran her head into a corner, stuck out her great buttocks and trembled all over like a leaf’.

He then jabbed her with all his force for half an hour until ‘the blood poured out of every square foot of her huge body’ and he had ‘filled her as full of holes as a cloved orange’.

Similar techniques would have been used to break Mary. But although the elephant-stick usually kept her in line, she was suffering from a painfully abscessed tooth that day.

When she stopped during the parade to nibble on a piece of discarded watermelon rind, Red Eldridge jabbed her to keep her moving and inadvertently hit the tender spot. Her reaction was swift and deadly.

 

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