Though the real world is denied her perhaps it feels her presence nonetheless: Do some people stare at peanuts and feel the awe and laughter of unseen audiences? Do others feel the elusive memory of hot savannas, the coughing call of hungry lions? And some unfortunate few, do they feel the bite of links around their necks, the mass of great weight parting their noble spines, blanking the world of the living, passing them onto that other sphere of the dead?
This is all speculation - all fantasy and conjecture. Truthfully, I don't know if she prowls the spectral side of town, have no idea if the residents feel her presence in cotton-candy, big top dreams of circuses, or African visions of the wild. Hypothesis and imagination, sure, but I do know one thing as an absolute certainty - wherever Big Mary resides, whatever she is doing now, as her fabled nature describes, she has never forgotten what the people of Erwin, Tennessee, did to her.
Most obviously, it isn’t something the little town likes to be reminded of. I’ve heard if you go poking around the railway yards, digging in slag pits and under massive piles of old rail ties, the local citizens get rather uncomfortable, almost testy: they don’t want to be known as the town that lynched the elephant.
Still, that’s just what happened - and the bones of Big Mary are there somewhere.
1916 was a big year for hangings, especially in Tennessee. Strange fruit hung from a lot of trees, but none stranger than that other import from Africa.
As a star of the Charlie Sparks World Famous Show Mary's record was - to be fair - not exactly spotless. Some remember 18, others swear just two men had been killed by the African cow elephant. But whatever her past raps may have been, the cold hard fact remains that what was done to Mary was definitely unusual, and no doubt cruel.
Billed as “the largest living animal on earth” - claiming to be even bigger than P.T. Barnum’s Jumbo - Mary was the star of Sparks’ third-rate circus. In brilliant fly bills, she was touted as being able to flawlessly play 25 tunes on musical horns, and even bat .400. Of the other pachyderms in the show, she was the stand-out favorite: a mammoth diva.
Which is why Sparks' decision still makes people scratch their heads: If Mary was so valuable ($20,000, not a small sum in those days) when why was she given Red Eldridge as a handler: man who just days before had been a janitor in the nearby town of St. Paul, Virginia? Even discounting the wisdom of hindsight, it does seem extremely puzzling that Sparks should give control of a known-to-be-unpredictable elephant to a man whose job history could best be described as ‘bum’. A divergent thought springs to mind, a Machiavellian knot of suspicion: A failing circus, a temperamental elephant, and a ‘disposable’ handler: nothing like putting down a 'murderous' elephant for gobs of publicity.
It's without a doubt that Mary had a hand ... er, ‘foot’ - in killing Eldridge. In this case there is no one-armed man, no figure on the grassy knoll: if we have to doubt the incident that took place in the town of Kingsport, Tennessee, it is not whether Mary murdered her handler, but rather the extenuation circumstances that led to it.
The exact turn of events are hazy, and in some cases conflicting, but they all converge and agree on some very firm points. Mary was being led to a pond near where the circus was camped to bathe with the other elephants, Eldridge - as usual - was poking Mary with his elephant stick, trying to get her to toe the line, when Mary struck at her handler. ‘Why’ is one of those cloudy issues: Was Mary in pain from an infected tooth? Did she simply have a bad day? My favorite theory is the most heartrending: that Mary had simply moved towards a discarded watermelon rind.
Keeping in mind the bias of the press towards this incident - even in 1916 people really didn’t want the doubt of lynching a basically innocent pachyderm - one of my favorite accounts is from the Johnson City Staff: “trunk vice-like about his body, lifted him 10 feet into the air, then dashed him with fury to the ground ... and with the full force of her beastly fury is said to have sunk her giant tusks entirely through his body. The animal then trampled the dying form of Eldridge as if seeking a murderous triumph, then with a sudden ... swing of her massive foot hurled his body into the crowd.”
No defense was offered for Mary; no jury of her peers deliberated the evidence, the circumstances; no judge passed sentence on her, seeking justice. Maybe Big Mary was guilty of the crime she’d been accused of, maybe there were explanations, more evidence that needed to be heard - or perhaps it was just a slow week, and the killing of an elephant was just the thing to liven things up a bit.
Her guilt, and her punishment, was taken for granted. Mary had to die, and it was as simple as that. But how do you kill a five ton elephant? It had been done before, and would be done again by guns and even electrically by Thomas Edison, but this was Tennessee, damnit: ‘and in these here parts we don’t take on this new-fangled way of doin’ things. Down here, we need to put a feller down; we just put a rope around his neck and do the job the old-fashioned way.’
Decided in good ol’ boy fashion, Mary was to die for her crime. Sparks, in a gesture of true compassion, didn’t make Big Mary perform the day she was killed but he did guarantee mourners at her execution by making a huge announcement of the event, and offering attendance for the touching fee of zilch.
So Mary was taken to Erwin, and there she was chained by one leg to a rail directly beneath Derrick Car 1400 on September 13, 1916. The crane on the Derrick car was used for lifting locomotives free of their rails so it was thought it could handle the task of lynching Big Mary. 5,000 people crowded the rail yards that day, perhaps munching on the treats Mary had been given when she was the star of the show or, to give an even bigger, bitter taste of irony, maybe some of slack-jawed yokels watched and ate sweet, sweet watermelon as Mary was prepared for death.
Like all really good executions, Mary’s was botched right at the start. A chain was looped around her neck, and from there to the boom of the derrick. The crowd was hushed, or maybe they just chanted “kill her. Whatever, quiet or bedlam, the end of Mary’s life was at hand. The signal was given, and the crane started to work. Slowly, ponderously, the African cow elephant was lifted ... two feet off the ground, probably swinging furiously ... three and then came the sound of breaking bones, snapping ligaments: the roustabouts had failed to unchain one of her legs from the rail.
Unusual? Definitely. Cruel? Her sentence had been to hang, not to be quartered. The chain, much too narrow of the job, snapped. She was smashed down onto creosote darkened ties, oil-fouled gravel. Screaming in pain - for her hip had been broken and one leg had been painfully wrenched - she thrashed around till one carnie, either stricken with conscience or seeing a chance to impress his buddies, climbed poor Mary like a minor, thrashing mountain, and attached another chain.
Then the sentence was successfully carried out: in agony, swinging her great legs, her mighty trunk, perhaps bellowing out a pitiful cry, the 10,000 pounds of Big Mary was hauled literally from this earth.
After she was dead, after the last citizen of Erwin, Tennessee had their fill of seeing her great body slowly swinging beneath the steel arm of Derrick Car 1400, Mary was finally lowered. Her tusks, it was said, were cut from her body. Her grave was then prepared: a massive pit somewhere out along the boxcars and rails, a vault for her gray remains.
Somewhere in the real yards of Erwin, Tennessee the bones of Big Mary rest - a sore point for the little town, a part of its history the residents would rather soon forget. But for Mary, wherever she is now, there is a certainty, an absolute that is definite despite all conjecture and oral history: Big Mary will never, ever forget.