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Mary the elephant

Updated on January 23, 2012

Elephant Mary

This is a heartbreaking but true story dedicated to the memory of Mary the elephant, a circus animal trained for the pleasure of families who paid to see her perform.

The story of Mary the elephant

The story goes that in 1916, Sparks Circus rolled into the American railway town of Erwin in Tennessee. Sparks Circus was small in comparison to its rivals; featuring performing dogs, sealions, clowns, horses and a handful of elephants. The star attraction of the show was Mary, a 30 year old female elephant who was reported to be the largest living animal at that time weighing in at an impressive five tonnes! Mary was a crowd pleaser who had been with Sparks since 1896 when she had been bought by Charlie Sparks (owner) and his wife Addie as a four year old.

Charlie and Addie were animal lovers and treated all of their animals well. The trainers were under instruction that all of the animals should be handled gently. There are several versions of events that have evolved over the years regarding what happened on that fateful day of September 13th, 1916.

Mighty Mary

Louis Reed had been the regular trainer and had decided to leave the circus. A short time later, a man named Walter "Red" Eldridge was appointed as Animal Handler. There is not a lot known about his past, although there was a lot of speculation that he had no experience as an animal handler. Some say that he had no family and had worked previously in hotels, drifting from town to town. Other reports claim that he was a local man wanting a change in career.

On the morning that tragedy struck, Mary and the other four elephants had been led to a drinking hole for fresh water and were making their way back to the tents. Noticing some watermelon on the ground, Mary stopped to eat it. Rather than waiting for her to finish eating, "Red" kept prodding her with a bull hook on her ear which was very sensitive. Mary went berserk and attacked him, lifting him with her trunk and throwing him to the ground. While "Red" was lying on the ground, she trampled on his head with her huge feet. He died instantly. The towns people were furious and called for the animal to be killed.

The hanging of Mary the elephant

After working with Mary for over 20 years, Charlie and Addie Sparks were devastated. All who had known Mary knew that she was a huge beast who was a bit temperamental, but insisted that she had never been dangerous to work with. The towns people dubbed her Murderous Mary. The Sheriff deemed that Mary should not be allowed to perform again and that she had to be put to death. She was taken to the jailhouse and chained outside. Huge crowds gathered for one last glimpse of her, before her fate was decided. Several options were considered, including crushing her between railroad carriages, shooting and even lacing some food with cyanide.

Very reluctantly, and with tears in his eyes, Charlie Sparks decided that she should be hanged from a railway crane. Onlookers gathered to witness the creature being killed.

The hanging of poor Mary.
The hanging of poor Mary. | Source

The first attempt to hang her failed as the chains snapped under her weight, the second attempt succeeded. She died within a few minutes.

Mary was buried in the ground near the railway tracks where her life had ended. Opinions were divided over this hanging. Many people thought that Mary should have been killed as she had herself taken a life. Others thought that she was a wild animal who had tried to be tamed and taught tricks to be performed for money. It was later discovered, after her death, that she had untreated dental problems which could have lead to the attack on "Red". This could perhaps explain why she went into a rage after being prodded by him with the bull hook.

It is a controversial subject, and my opinion is that animals should not be allowed to perform in circuses. I think it is demeaning, cruel and an infringement on the animals rights.

Do you think it's acceptable to have animals performing in circuses?

See results

Remembering Mary

Since her death sentence in 1916, Mary has been the subject of books, newspaper articles, plays, and even a song.

"So many gods, so many creeds, So many paths that wind and wind, While just the art of being kind is all the sad world needs." Wilcox, Ella Wheeler

Mary will never be forgotten as she is part of our history. This upsetting story should be told, to avoid unnecessary cruelty in the future.

For me, the R.S.P.C.A.'s slogan today says it all:

The RSPCA as a charity will," by all lawful means, prevent cruelty, promote kindness to and alleviate suffering of all animals".


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    • jacqui2011 profile image

      jacqui2011 4 years ago from Norfolk, UK

      @ Gloshei - Thank you so much. I think that it is important to tell these stories and ensure that these things never happen again.

    • Gloshei profile image

      Gloria 5 years ago from France

      Nice to see people are still responding to this Blog, the more that know about these tragedies the better. Keep up the good work

    • jacqui2011 profile image

      jacqui2011 5 years ago from Norfolk, UK

      @Leftyfusion1888, thank you for taking the time to comment on my hub. One thing that I have taken from this is that I will never support anyone who makes animals perform for fun. I will never take my child to a circus as I am of the opinion that it is animal abuse. Animals should be allowed to be animals. Thank you so much for your reply.

    • Leftyfusion1888 profile image

      Christopher Lingsch 5 years ago from Alexandria, NH

      Greatly told and written by you BUT What a terrible story and a shame on all humans involved in the mistreatment of animals. As their so called 'masters' how could we dare defy our own arrogance and make her an equal for her actions in condoning and carrying out so severe a capitol punishment? This just shows how stupid and confused so many people's judgments are. She was an animal with an animal's mind and instincts and nothing more. I'm saddened to read that this ever even happened.The only positive to this tale in my mind is that Walter Red Eldridge got what he probably deserved in the first place for his foul and sadistic treatment or these elephants.

    • jacqui2011 profile image

      jacqui2011 5 years ago from Norfolk, UK

      Hi Simone - I know what you mean, I cried at Dumbo. Thank goodness that laws have changed for the better and animal cruelty to this extent no longer exists. It was such a barbaric and tragic end to Mary's life.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Oh my god, and I thought DUMBO'S story was sad!!! This is horrific!

    • jacqui2011 profile image

      jacqui2011 5 years ago from Norfolk, UK

      @ Gloshei - Hi, and thanks for dropping by. I totally agree with you. It is such a sad story and I can't believe that so many people called for the death of Mary. I love elephants too, they are such gentle and clever animals, but I think they should remain wild. Thank you so much for your comments, I appreciate them.

    • Gloshei profile image

      Gloria 5 years ago from France

      What a tragic story they should have hung Walter Eldridge instead. I love elephants and remember as child going into their tent whith their trainer. They are so gentle, but I do not agree with these magnificent animals being taken away from their natural surroundings.

      Great hub and thank you for sharing it.

    • jacqui2011 profile image

      jacqui2011 5 years ago from Norfolk, UK

      Hi MM.....I had tears in my eyes when I was researching the article. I think more and more people are realizing that its not natural for wild animals to perform. There was a circus going round the UK in November last year and it was reported that the animals were being trained for too long without breaks. It was stopped in its tracks and now are not allowed to use most of the animals. They only use ponies and dogs now. Like you, I hope one day that animals will not be used in circuses. The shows can still be entertaining with acrobats, clowns and trapeze acts without involving animals. Thank you for your valued comments. Best wishes Jacqui

    • jacqui2011 profile image

      jacqui2011 5 years ago from Norfolk, UK

      @ Brett Winn - Thanks for reading my article. It is such a heart breaking story that really affected me. I think wild animals should be allowed to live a natural life. Thanks again for your comment.

    • jacqui2011 profile image

      jacqui2011 5 years ago from Norfolk, UK

      @ teaches12345 - It is such a tragic story. I know that here in the UK there is a huge debate going on through parliament to stop the use of animals in circuses. I've been to a few safari parks where you drive through. As you say, the animals there are free to roam and live in natural groups. Thank you for your comments.

    • Movie Master profile image

      Movie Master 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hi jacqui, Mary the elephant is such a sad story....

      We took our grandson to a circus about 5 years ago and I was amazed there were hardly any animals there, thank goodness - I hope one day animals will be banned from circuses.

      Thank you for sharing and voted up

    • Brett Winn profile image

      Brett Winn 6 years ago from US

      Oh my goodness, what a disturbing article (and photograph). I had never heard of Mary. Thank you for posting this!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 6 years ago

      What a tragedy. I do not know what the regulations are for animals in captivity or training standards but I would imagine they have improved through the years. I love the open zoos where the people drive through in vehicles and the animals are free to roam. Interesting article!

    • jacqui2011 profile image

      jacqui2011 6 years ago from Norfolk, UK

      Hi Angie, I know it is so cruel and barbaric the way that Mary was treated. It was so upsetting when I was researching it. In an ideal world, there will be no animals used in circuses. Currently I am campaigning with several organizations to have animals banned from circuses. Thank you so much for your comments.

    • jacqui2011 profile image

      jacqui2011 6 years ago from Norfolk, UK

      @ Peggy W - I totally agree with you, I think they should be allowed to live as nature intended - in the wild. Thanks for your comments and the vote up.

    • Angie Jardine profile image

      Angie Jardine 6 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Jacqui ... this story is appalling! Well done for researching and sharing it. I just can't get over the ham-fisted way they decided to kill the poor thing. How utterly barbaric ...

      I'm afraid this may well stay with me for some time. Like you I believe there is no longer any necessity for animals to be trained to perform tricks for humans.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

      What a sad story about Mary the elephant. It is a shame when they are taken out of their natural environments where they live as family units. Excellent and informative hub. Voted up and useful.