It’s hard to tell if the photograph is fake or real. Either way, the story of Mary – the only elephant in the world to have been hanged – will send chills down your spine. Cruelty towards animals is by no means rare, but stories like these seriously leave you wondering if there is any hope for us humans.
Mary’s fate was sealed on a cold afternoon in February 1916 when Charlie Spark’s traveling circus arrived in the small town of Kingsport, Tennessee. She was the star of the circus – she could pick out 25 tunes on musical horns using her trunk. She was also the champion pitcher of the circus’ baseball team. As a promotional activity, the circus conducted a parade along the main street that day. Mary, or ‘Murderous Mary’ as she would later be known, was ridden by 38-year-old Walter Eldridge.
Eldridge happened to be a drifter – he had only joined the circus the day before and had no experience of handling elephants. But that was no concern; he would do fine as long as he could wield the ‘elephant stick’ – a long rod with a sharp spear at the end. The elephant stick is a notorious instrument that evokes extreme fear out of tortured creatures. To make an elephant perform tricks, it first has to be broken down into subservience. And that’s where the stick comes in handy. Trainers repeatedly poke the giant creatures until they bleed profusely. Ultimately they will do anything the trainer asks, in order to avoid the stick.
Mary was obviously trained with the stick too. She would do as Eldridge ordered as long as he held it – or so he thought. Unfortunately, on that fateful afternoon, Mary happened to be suffering from a painfully abscessed tooth. She stopped during the parade to chew on a piece of watermelon rind and Eldridge jabbed her to keep moving, catching her on the exact spot of the infection.
It is said that elephants can go mad with rage in an instant; that’s exactly what happened with Mary. She reached up with her trunk, pushed Eldridge to the ground and stomped on his head. It was all over within a matter of seconds. According to one eye-witness, “Blood and brains and stuff just squirted all over the street.”
You’d think that the crowd and the circus would take Mary’s side and understand her plight. But this is the 1900s we’re talking about, and a town where the mob pretty much ruled. They surely hadn’t hesitated to lynch black men for crimes such as ‘fighting a white man’ or ‘having bad character’. So mercy towards an elephant was unthinkable.
Predictably, the crowd went berserk with chants of, “Kill the elephant, kill the elephant,” while Mary stood rather calmly. Terrified spectators screamed and fled the area. A local blacksmith fired five rounds of ammunition at the elephant, but they could do no damage to her thick hide. Even circus-owner Charlie Spark bailed on Mary – he decided to kill her to appease the crowd and avoid cancelling dates in other cities.
Once he made the decision to do away with the elephant, I suppose Spark wanted to milk it for all its worth. So he made a spectacle of the killing. There was much deliberation on the method of killing (elephants can detect poison in food and electrocution was not an option in the small town). Some suggested that Mary be crushed between two railway engines. Others asked for her head and legs to be tied to trains heading off in opposite directions, dismembering her alive.
Finally, Spark settled on the sensational idea of hanging. Whoever heard of hanging an elephant – the very thought sounds ridiculous, right? But Spark had plans of his own. The town of Erwin – the circus’ next stop – had a 100-ton crane used to lift railway carriages. It was perfect for the job. He even offered the crowd a free viewing of the hanging, in exchange for the use of the crane.
On the day of the hanging, Mary was led into the railway yard along with the other four elephants from the circus. A chain was placed around her head and one of her legs was tethered to a rail to stop her from running away. As the crane whirred into action and hoisted her up, a loud crunching noise filled the air. The geniuses apparently forgot to release the chain around Mary’s leg – her bones and ligaments snapped under all the strain.
But that was nowhere near the end. The tragic comedy of errors continued – she was raised just 5 foot in the air when the chain snapped and she crashed to the ground, instantly breaking her hip. “It made a right smart little racket,” recalled one of the spectators. Mary was in terrible pain as a stronger chain was attached to her neck. This time, the contraption worked.
Mary was raised high in the air as her huge legs thrashed around and she slowly choked to death. The spectators cheered and laughed, even while she let out terrible shrieks of agony. She was left hanging for half-an-hour before a vet declared her dead.
The photograph of Mary’s gruesome end is often suspected to be a fake. Comparing it with other photographs taken at the time, however, do point towards its authenticity. It is rumored that a huge grave was dug out for her using a steam shovel, but its exact whereabouts are unknown.
And here’s the bit that truly breaks your heart – as the circus was preparing to leave, one of the remaining elephants broke away from the herd and ran back towards the site of the hanging. Perhaps it was mimicking the behavior of wild elephants that return to the bones of fallen family members for many years. Or maybe it was just searching for Mary. Either way, Mary was gone for good. And that’s the only consolation – her muted misery was finally put to an end.