Early circuses of the 1900s seldom enjoyed the reputation for being champions of animal welfare; however, one event in the East Tennessee county of Unicoi in the fall of 1916 rises above all of the other stories of bizarreness and tragedy.
On September 11, 1916, a homeless man named Red Eldridge, who landed a job as a transient hotel clerk, was hired as an assistant elephant trainer by the Sparks World Famous Shows circus.
Sadly, Eldridge was killed the following evening while leading the elephant parade, despite the fact that he was not qualified and had no previous experience with elephants.
Riding on the back of Mary the star elephant, Eldridge allegedly prodded her behind the ear with a hook after she reached down to nibble on a watermelon rind.
The elephant then went into a rage, snatched Eldridge with her trunk, threw him against a drink stand and stepped on his head, crushing it.
A contemporary newspaper account, from the Johnson City Staff, said that Mary “collided its trunk vice-like about [Eldridge’s] body, lifted him 10 feet in 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.”
The details of the aftermath are confused in a maze of sensationalist newspaper stories and folklore. Most accounts indicate that she calmed down afterward and did not charge the onlookers, who began chanting “Kill the elephant! Let’s kill it.” Within minutes, local blacksmith Hench Cox tried to kill Mary, firing five rounds with little effect. Meanwhile, the leaders of several nearby towns threatened not to allow the circus to visit if Mary was included. The circus owner, Charlie Sparks, reluctantly decided that the only way to quickly resolve the potentially ruinous situation was to kill the wounded elephant in public. On the following day, a foggy and rainy September 13, 1916, Mary was transported by rail to Unicoi County, Tennessee, where a crowd of over 2,500 people (including most of the town’s children) assembled in the Clinchfield Railroad yard.
The elephant was hanged by the neck from a railcar-mounted industrial derrick between four o’clock and five o’clock that afternoon. The first attempt resulted in a snapped chain, causing Mary to fall and break her hip as dozens of children fled in terror. The severely wounded elephant died during a second attempt and was buried beside the tracks. A veterinarian examined Mary after the hanging and determined that she had a severely infected tooth in the precise spot where Red Eldridge had supposedly prodded her.
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