Today (or at least when you read this) is September 13, which in addition to being my birthday is also the ninety-seventh anniversary of the death of ‘Murderous Mary’, a circus elephant that killed her trainer. It’s not a terribly uncommon event in itself; during the nineteenth century and early twentieth, many elephants were kept in travelling circuses and both the conditions and the trainers were equally unpleasant, so it’s little wonder that some elephants snapped and started stomping on the occasional person here and there.
An elephant called Chunee became very aggressive during the last few years of his life (probably brought on by musth, a periodic surge in testosterone and other hormones) and he ran amok, killing his keeper in 1826. He was condemned to death and shot with 152 musket balls, but even then he needed to be stabbed with a harpoon before he finally died. Another rogue elephant was Topsy who, in 1903, was executed for killing three men in as many years, including her abusive trainer who tried to feed her cigarettes. The method of execution chosen was electrocution, which was already being used on people at the time. Thomas Edison, the man who revolutionised the use of electricity, filmed the event as 6,600 volts coursed through Topsy’s body, killing her instantly.
But Mary’s death is perhaps the most famous one of all. On September 12, 1916, just one day after he had been hired, elephant trainer Red Eldridge was killed by Mary after he prodded her behind the ear with a hook in the town of Kingsport, Tennessee. But, as it turns out, a small hook is no match for an angry four and a half tonne elephant, for she picked Eldridge up with her trunk, tossed him into a nearby drink stand and stood on his head, crushing it.
Outrage began to spread throughout Kingsport. People claimed Mary the elephant was a ‘monster’. The leaders of several nearby towns threatened not to allow the circus to visit if Mary was included in it so Charlie Sparks, the circus owner, decided that the only way to resolve the situation was to kill Mary in public. Electrocution and death by being crushed between two railroad cars was deemed ‘too cruel’, so she condemned to death by hanging.
A day later, Mary was transported to the town of Erwin and hung by the neck from an industrial crane, as over two thousand people watched. The first attempt failed and the chain snapped, causing Mary to fall and break her hips. The second attempt proved more successful and the severely wounded elephant finally died.
Today, the people of Erwin view ‘Murderous Mary’ as a cautionary tale, a shameful period in their history that has long since passed. But that hasn’t stopped a few shops – the Hanging Elephant Antiques Shop, for example – selling t-shirts emblazoned with a pachyderm hanging from a crane.