In September 1916 Sparks World Famous Circus set up in Kingsport, north-east Tennessee. One of the circus’s most popular exhibits was Mary, a five-ton Asian elephant. On September 12th Mary was being watered at a local pond when she turned on a circus employee, Red Eldridge, throwing him to the ground and stomping on his head. As might be expected, Eldridge was killed instantly. His death created a firestorm of public anger, worsened by irresponsible press reporting. Newspaper accounts said that “Murderous Mary” had gored Eldridge to death; in reality, she had no tusks. It was also falsely claimed that “Mary had slain her eighth man”.
Facing a boycott, circus owners agreed to a public lynching in Erwin, the nearest town with a crane sufficient for the task. A Kentucky newspaper described the execution:
“The showmen chose to hang the beast. A derrick car of the Carolina Clinchefield & Ohio Railway was used. Heavy chains were looped about the elephant’s neck and the steam-operated crane lifted the massive form into the air. The animal struggled for quite a while before death finally resulted from strangulation.”
In reality, the first attempt to string Mary up was thwarted by a broken chain. The elephant fell, fractured its pelvis and writhed on the ground in agony while those in charge arranged a second attempt. The sordid spectacle was watched by 3,000 people, including local children who were given time off school to attend. A post-mortem on the elephant’s body revealed a jaw infection that probably triggered her attack on Eldridge.