Long lives memory of ‘Murderous Mary’
By Buzz Trexler | (email@example.com)
My first encounter with “Murderous Mary” took place more than 600 miles away from where the terrible deed took place.
Strolling past a fellow airman’s bunk in 1975 while in “weather-guessing” school at the Naval Air Technical Training Center at Lakehurst, N.J., I glanced down at the Playboy magazine he had spread before him. (It was the artist’s illustration that caught my eye — I swear!)
There, across two pages, was a mountain scene that also depicted an elephant hanging from a rail car.
The opening sentence of the essay: “Leaving Johnson City on the Erwin highway ...”
I literally grabbed the magazine from his hands and went on to read a semificticious account of the death of “Murderous Mary,” whom the writer renamed “Sally.”
What I didn’t know at the time was the essence of the story was true: Nearly 100 years ago — Sept. 13, 1916 — Murderous Mary was hanged from a rail car in Erwin.
The story goes that Charlie Sparks had a circus troupe that traveled by railroad.
A 1964 article for the Circus Historical Society noted that the Sparks Circus was “the primary ‘Sunday School Show’ in the land” — meaning that it maintained a clean reputation, presumably with no half-naked dancing girls and such.
Hilda Padgett, of Erwin, recounts for the Tennessee GenWeb Project that the Sparks circus bought Mary in 1896 when she was 4 years old, which would make her 20 years when she was executed.
As Padgett tells the story, Sparks’ circus train traveled by Clinchfield Railroad from St. Paul, Va., to Kingsport for a performance. “Between shows the elephants were driven to a watering hole,” Padgett writes. “On the way back to the tent, Mary went for a piece of watermelon beside the road. Red (Eldridge, an “underkeeper”) prodded her sensitive ear with a bull hook and she became enraged. She grabbed Red with her trunk and threw (him) against a drink stand. Then she stepped on his head until it was flat.”
An enraged crowd wanted the animal killed and Padgett writes that a blacksmith tried to shoot Mary, but “the guns that day were not powerful enough.”
Mary was “arrested” by local authorities, but she wouldn’t fit inside the Sullivan County jail, so they staked her outside.
Padgett writes that officials told the Johnson City Staff “steps would be taken to see that the elephant did not come into contact with the people of Johnson City.”
The decision was made to destroy Mary, but they weren’t quite sure how to kill a 3½-ton elephant.
Shooting her was in the head was deemed too risky. “She was too smart to eat food laced with cyanide,” Padgett writes, and while a 38-year-old circus elephant named Topsy was electrocuted in New York — an execution reported to have been overseen and filmed by Thomas Edison, no less — Upper East Tennessee didn’t have enough power to do the deed.
That would have to wait until Tennessee Valley Authority was created.
Other forms of execution under consideration, according to Padgett, were crushing Mary between two Clinchfield engines, or hanging her by a derrick owned by the rail company.
Hanging the beast won out.
Charlie Sparks decided to take Mary to Erwin for the execution, which didn’t go easy, and she left this world sometime after 5 p.m. Sept. 13.
It’s said that an elephant never forgets.
Most folks in Erwin probably wish the world would.
Buzz Trexler is managing editor. You can email him at (firstname.lastname@example.org) and follow him on Twitter, @EditorBuzz.