In the early 1900s, Northeast Tennessee was one of the fastest growing regions in the country. The booming coal and railroad industries had, in only a matter of decades, transformed this quiet mountain region into a string of picturesque boomtowns. But in 1916, the story of Murderous Mary would become legendary in the minds of Northeast Tennesseans for decades to come. It wasn’t because she was a cold, calculated killer. Quite the opposite; she’d had no prior run-ins with the law. It wasn’t because she was especially vicious. Her crime was purely reactionary, attributable to the fact that she simply didn’t know her own strength. So why the “legend” status? Simple. Mary was a five-ton Asian elephant. And the object of her affection? A watermelon. It all started in September of 1916, when the Sparks Brothers Circus rolled into Kingsport for a pair of performances. In those days, it was common for the circus promoter to hold a parade through town a day prior to the show to drum up excitement. And for Charlie Sparks, September 12 was just another day on the job. In the years prior, Sparks had grown quite dependent on Mary. She was his cash cow, his main attraction. She was billed as “the largest living land animal on Earth,” three inches bigger than P.T. Barnum’s famous Jumbo. She could “play 25 tunes on the musical horns without missing a note.” She was the pitcher in the circus baseball-game routine. And her .400 batting average “astonished millions in New York.” But she was unpredictable. And her unpredictability would ultimately lead to the demise of Red Eldridge, a journeyman with less than a week of elephant-handling experience. Just one day earlier, Eldridge (who was working as a janitor in St. Paul, Virginia) had signed on with Sparks’ circus, and was promptly charged with being Mary’s care-taker. And on the evening before the tents opened, Red took Mary to a nearby pond to splash and drink with the other elephants in the circus.
Now, stories of what happened next differ. But the most widely accepted account is this: Mary, while walking to the pond, caught sight of a watermelon rind on the side of the road. When she leaned down to nibble at it, Red prodded her behind the ear with a handler’s hook. Mary flew into a rage, grabbed Red around the waist, and threw him into a road-side drink stand, crushing it. Then, as dozens of onlookers watched, she stepped on his head, crushing it. Immediately, bystanders began chanting to “kill the elephant!” And within minutes, a local blacksmith fired two dozen rounds at the animal, with all the effectiveness of BBs against a brick wall. With pandemonium ensuing in the streets, Charlie Sparks resolved that the only way to amend the situation was to publicly execute Mary. Unfortunately, Kingsport had no cranes large enough to hang the elephant, so she was loaded onto a boxcar and transported to Erwin, a booming railroad town in Unicoi County.The next morning, 2,500 people (including most of the town’s children) gathered in the Clinchfield Railroad yard. On the first attempt to hang the elephant, the chain snapped, causing Mary to fall and break her hips as children fled in terror. But the second attempt was successful, and Mary was buried beside the rail yard.
Since then, Mary’s story has appeared numerous times in popular culture, including two plays, countless articles, and even a Chuck Brodsky song. And almost 100 years after her death, the story of Murderous Mary remains etched in the lore of Northeast Tennessee.