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From “Big Mary” to “Murderous Mary”: The town that witnessed the death of the majestic elephant


Article by: Nabamallika Bordoloi, The North-Eastern Chronicle

Visual by: Kunal Kaustav Duwarah

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Mary, the elephant worked for the circus company, Sparks and she used to entertain the whole town with her activities. Everyone enjoyed and loved to watch her but this all came to an end when one day she became a murderer in the eyes of the people and the next day she was hung till death.

The beginning


The sad story took place in a town named Tennessee in the late 19th Century. Charlie Sparks, the owner of Sparks World Famous Shows, was a circus performer from eight years and did different shows in different places featuring clowns, acrobats and animals such as lions, elephants and many more.

One of the elephant names was Mary, and she was bought by Sparks’ father when she was four years old. Charlie and his wife took care of Mary as their child. She earned her nickname “Big Mary” because of her huge body.

Mary was the town’s attraction as she entertained the whole with her activities such as playing musical instruments, standing on her head and catching baseballs. Mary was surely making Sparks’ shows famous for years as the number of spectators increased day by day.

Like any other day, the show was about to be played in the tiny mining town in the Clinch River Valley. In the meantime, a hotel worker named Walter “Red” Elridge was looking for a job and when he noticed that a circus was going to be held, he took the opportunity to find a job there and was hired as an under keeper for the elephant.

His basic work was to feed, water and maintain the elephants. The circus employees trained Elridge on how to take care of the elephants. The employees asked him to handle the elephants gently as recklessness can cause trouble for the under keeper as well as for others.

The incident

The time had come when the circus was about to start and Elridge was assigned to ride on Mary on the show. A bullhook and a piece of watermelon was the culprit of that night of the circus. Elridge sitting at the top of Mary was leading all the elephants to a nearby watering hole. While doing so, Elridge used his bullhook to nudge Mary.

Mary wanted to go near a watermelon rind which was on the other side of the road, seeing Elridge stopped her immediately. He was asked to stop using the bullhook but he went against the orders and continuously hit her with the weapon. Mary was angry and snapped at him. She became violent and grabbed Elridge’s body and threw him into the air.

And finally, Mary slammed his body to the ground and crushed his head which resulted in his death. According to some records, it says that the elephant used her tusk and stuck it inside Elridge’s body and some said that he was flogged on the forehead by the elephant.

The crowd after seeing the whole incident became furious and started chanting,” Kill the elephant.” Many spectators tried to shoot Mary but they failed. The crowd wanted Mary to be killed so that Elridge could get justice. From “Big Mary ” she turned into “Murderous Mary” over one night. The news of the death spread rapidly and the Sparks clan were not allowed to perform until Mary was killed.

The decision

The Spark couple treated Mary as their child and it was a tough decision for them when the crowd demanded the death of Mary. But Spark had to keep in mind their company’s business and therefore after sharing many years of a strong bond between Mary, they had to come to a final decision.

Many people came up with different ideas, some said to crush her between two trains, some said to tie her from front and back to two trains that would be running in opposite directions. After listening to all the options, the owner decided to hang the elephant so that everyone would be satisfied with the death of the elephant.

The execution day!

big mary Mary The North-Eastern Chronicle

The next morning, the Sparks got ready to hang her from a 100-ton crane which was on the railroad tracks and the mob gathered to watch the whole process.

The circus employees tied up the chain around her neck which was attached to a crane. The crane was lifted five feet above the ground, the chain splinted and Mary fell on the ground. She broke her hips and was in extreme pain, she screamed for help. But this was not it, the circus employees once again tied up a second chain around and lifted her to the air, and she was hanged for another thirty minutes.

She screamed as she was going through unbearable pain. After thirty minutes, the veterinarian checked her and declared her dead. The employers lowered Mary and her body was buried in that exact place where she was hung to death.

Opinion of the people

The incident falls under oral history as it was narrated by the people of the town and not found written anywhere.

Many activists say that people using animals to display them for circuses or any entertainment purpose is not acceptable and the blame goes to the people because an elephant will behave like an animal but humans are rational beings and they should know the difference. Moreover, animal protection institutes oppose the use of animals for any entertainment purposes.

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