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The hanging of Mary the elephant: TN town wrestles with legacy of circus animal's death

Mary was killed in 1916 after she grabbed, slammed, and stomped her handler.

John North, Katie Inman

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Published: 2:02 PM EDT March 27, 2023
Updated: 6:44 PM EDT March 28, 2023

Buried near a creek on the west side of the wide Erwin railyard is a circus elephant.

Many have tried to find her. Many are the myths about her.

An Asian elephant of 20-some years, Mary performed for Sparks World Famous Shows to audiences from Warsaw, N.C., to Bangor, Maine, to Velva, N.D., and all points in between. It wasn't the Greatest Show on Earth, but it always drew a crowd when the train pulled into town.

Billed with showbiz hyperbole as "The Largest Living Land Animal on Earth," Mary proved a star attraction for Sparks until she killed a man in Kingsport, Tennessee. He made her mad, so she snatched him off her back with her trunk, flung him to the ground and stomped on his head.

It was curtains for the elephant. Sparks couldn’t keep a murderous Mary.

On the afternoon of Sept. 13, 1916, a Clinchfield Railroad man hoisted her up on a chain from a 100-ton wrecking derrick in the Erwin rail yard and hanged her. Thousands watched.

When witnesses were satisfied she'd died, they rolled her body down the far west side of the yard, dropped her in a freshly dug pit and covered her up.

Dead more than 100 years, Mary remains a fascination today. Her story has been featured on National Public Radio, in documentaries, a play, the tabloid National Enquirer, newspapers in Europe, and in Ripley's Believe It Or Not.

Credit: Sparks World Famous Shows
The Sparks Circus proudly boasted of Mary's role in the company.

WBIR sought permission last month from rail yard owner CSX to look for Mary's burial site. No, came the answer. It's private property, a CSX spokeswoman at headquarters in Jacksonville, Florida, replied.

"It's a misunderstood tragedy," said Martha Erwin, curator of the Unicoi County Heritage Museum and adjoining Clinchfield Railroad Museum. 

Erwin's great-uncle witnessed the 1916 hanging and wrote about it in a report that appeared days later in a Knoxville newspaper.

"This is a subject that's hard to talk about because we were never allowed to speak on it," Erwin said.

Erwinites answer questions politely about their town's macabre moment in history.

Yes, the elephant died here, they say. But we're not the ones that killed her.

The story really started in Kingsport, they say. That's where they should have done the hanging.

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