There Was Once An Elephant Condemned to Execution by Hanging

Noreen 10

It is unknown whether this is a real or fake image of the hanging. It was submitted to Argosy Magazine shortly after the execution.

“Murderous” Mary was a 5 ton Asian Elephant in the Sparks World Famous Shows Circus. Her downfall began with the hiring of an assistant elephant trainer who had no experience working with elephants and possibly no professional experience even working with animals.  This worker was Red Eldridge, who before getting the gig generally was a drifter and most immediately before being hired as an assistant elephant trainer worked at the Riverside Hotel in St. Paul as a janitor.

Exactly how or why Mary killed Eldridge is somewhat up for debate as the story has progressively become more exaggerated over the years in the retellings.  But there was an eye witness account given shortly after the incident which is probably fairly accurate, at least it doesn’t seem sensationalized, as many of the accounts are.  The eye witness, W.H. Coleman, stated:

There was a big ditch at that time, run up through Center Street, …And they’d sent these boys to ride the elephants… There was, oh, I don’t know now, seven or eight elephants… and they went down to water them and on the way back each boy had a little stick-like, that was a spear or a hook in the end of it… And this big old elephant reach over to get her a watermelon rind, about half a watermelon somebody eat and just laid it down there… The boy give [her] a jerk (grabbed Mary by the ear with the bull hook). He pulled [her] away from ‘em (the watermelon), and [s]he just blowed real big, and when [s]he did, [s]he took him right around the waist… and throwed him against the side of the drink stand and he just knocked the whole side out of it…. when he hit the ground the elephant just walked over and set [her] foot on his head… and blood and brains and stuff just squirted all over the street.

Needless to say, the last thing that probably went through Eldrige’s mind, besides Mary’s foot, was that maybe he should have asked for a little training before taking a job as a handler of a 5 ton animal.

The small crowd of onlookers didn’t take kindly to Mary murdering the man, and quickly formed a mob, which was nonetheless powerless to kill the elephant.  They even tried shooting her, with one man, Hench Cox, emptying his .32-20 gun into her with little effect.  The town Sheriff also emptied his .45 into her, but again, this didn’t really faze the poor elephant, though I’m sure she’d have much preferred not to be shot at.

Now the question was what to do with the elephant. The circus owner, Charlie Sparks, was loath to kill her as he and his wife, Addie, were animal lovers and particularly had a soft spot for Mary. She was his prize elephant- the first one he’d ever owned from back when his traveling show was a small time “horse and wagon” show.  In the 20 years since, she had helped make his circus into a major traveling show. Mary was billed as “The Largest Living Land Animal on Earth”.  She could play 25 different songs on the musical horns and could play baseball (both pitch and hit, supposedly hitting around .400 during her baseball performances over her lifetime).  More to the point, for Sparks, she was worth $20,000 (about $400,000 today), but it seemed likely that many a town would refuse to let his circus come if he had an elephant known to have killed a man in the performance.

As to the present town his traveling show was in, the townspeople called for the execution of poor Mary.  There were no elephant sanctuaries at that time, as there are today for such elephants, so Sparks conceded and decided to have the elephant put to death.

The problem was how to kill a five ton elephant without risking the lives of those trying to kill her.  Shooting was out as there was no gun in the region powerful enough to guarantee to kill the elephant quickly, thus somewhat humanely, and there was some concern that if they simply fired a bunch of guns owned by all the townspeople at her, that Mary might rampage, possibly killing more people.

Another suggestion was electrocution.  Thomas Edison famously executed the elephant Topsy this way (he also frequently executed dogs and cats to demonstrate the dangers of AC electricity during the “War of the Currents”, in an attempt to promote DC electricity).  The problem with this method supposedly was that there was no suitable site in the town where enough electricity would be available to run through the elephant.

They finally came up with the solution of hanging the elephant using an industrial crane meant for lifting rail cars.  On September 13, 1916, a few thousand people gathered to watch the execution.  Mary was led to and chained to the rail.  They then fitted a chain around her neck and began to hoist her up.  The problem was that they forgot to release the chain from her foot.  One eyewitness, Wade Ambrose, stated that he could hear the tendons and ligaments in her foot snapping as they lifted Mary.  Whether that’s true or not, eventually the chain around her neck broke and she fell to the ground, breaking her hip in the process.

Mary then lay there while they attached a thicker chain and this time remembered to remove the one on her foot after a new one was placed around her neck.  They then hoisted her back up and within a few minutes, Mary was dead, though they left her hanging for about a half hour just to be sure.  They dug a hole nearby and hoisted the elephant into it.  Her bones remain there to this day.

Bonus Facts:

  • Another option that was supposedly proposed but considered too cruel as a method of execution for Mary was to chain off her front and back legs to two different engines and pull her apart.  They also considered running two engines at her from opposite sides to crush her in between.  This too was considered too cruel and could possibly damage the engines.
  • Topsy, the elephant Thomas Edison killed, got her death sentence after killing three people, including her very abusive trainer.  She was killed on January 4, 1903, with the whole thing filmed by Edison, which you can view here if you for some odd reason have a hankering to watch an elephant get electrocuted.  Topsy’s execution was originally going to be by hanging, but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals protested this method of execution as too cruel.
  • A much more recent execution, albeit unplanned, happened in 1994 when an allegedly abused elephant named Tyke killed her trainer and mauled her groomer.  Tyke had previously attempted escapes (including three temporarily successful ones) and exhibited violent behavior, but her value to the circus was deemed too great by her owners to give her up to an elephant sanctuary, as should have happened.  On August 20 of 1994, she must have had enough as when she deviated from the show’s program during a performance, her trainer tried to “correct” her with his bull hook, resulting in her killing him, mauling the groomer, and making a run for it.  At first, efforts were made to corral her, but eventually she tried to kill another person, so police opened fire with high powered rifles.  It took 86 direct hits on Tyke to take her down, but she soon died from the bombardment.  About a decade later, the owner of Tyke, John Cuneo Jr. had 16 other circus elephants taken away from him by the federal government over alleged mistreatment of the elephants.
  • An even sadder tale was that of the 6 ton Indian elephant, Ziggy.  Ziggy was purchased by Florenz Ziegfeld (of the Ziegfeld Follies).  He bought the very young elephant from John Ringling as a gift for his 6 year old daughter in 1920.  He soon realized that having an elephant for a pet wasn’t the best idea he ever had and sold the elephant to Singer’s Midget Circus.  Ziggy was then trained to play the harmonica and dance, among other things.  Things went well until Ziggy’s handler got changed when the handler he seemed to really like, Charles Becker, became sick.  Ziggy wouldn’t do what the new handler wanted and eventually ran from him and so he was sold to the Brookfield Zoo.  It was here that Ziggy attempted to kill his new handler, George Lewis, during the elephant’s musth period where his testosterone levels were much higher than normal, and thus he was much more aggressive.  With ninja like moves, Lewis managed to get away after the first blow with the trunk (dodging the elephant’s stampings and even managing to punch the elephant in the eye as Ziggy’s tusks had become temporarily embedded in the ground when he had tried to gore Lewis.) Ziggy was initially going to be executed, but Lewis begged that they not kill the animal.  Instead, they did something much worse to Ziggy; they chained him up all alone in a fairly small indoor enclosure, and left him there for about three decades.  Ziggy was eventually let out of his indoor enclosure after the general public raised $50,000 to build him a new outdoor home.  After that, he could go in and out as he pleased.  Ziggy died of old age on October 27, 1975.

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10 Comments »

  1. Bill December 6, 2012 at 4:54 pm - Reply

    People can be so cruel. Poor elephant…

  2. Dumbo December 6, 2012 at 4:56 pm - Reply

    And this is why I don’t go to circuses that have exotic animals.

  3. My Name December 6, 2012 at 5:26 pm - Reply

    Wow on the Thomas Edison electrocuting cats and dogs.

  4. rick December 6, 2012 at 7:29 pm - Reply

    I agree with Bill. Poor animal. People can be cruel, unfeeling bastards sometimes.

  5. tom December 6, 2012 at 8:45 pm - Reply

    everything is believable because blaming the victim is so prevelant in our country,maybe everywhere? but there is no way a hanging could have been easy,humane etc…i would like to hear what a verthat specializes in large animals would have to say…terrible!

  6. lucy December 10, 2012 at 4:14 am - Reply

    this story makes me sick to the very core

  7. me. February 28, 2013 at 5:45 am - Reply

    Disgusting how we treat life. Thats why i dont eat any meat.

  8. Jake Lakota September 4, 2013 at 5:01 am - Reply

    Never took the kids to a circus and never will. Watching animals perform idiotic “tricks” to me is stupid. I would rather go to an animal park with no visible fencing, at least the animals get a sense of freedom. No to zoos also.

  9. DeAngelo January 19, 2014 at 3:56 pm - Reply

    Considering Elephants have such complex social skills this is messed up. Ziggy’s story makes sense, Elephants will remember a poacher who’s killed their family and target just that person if they see them again. Also Elephants can become alcoholics and have been to known to go on beer raids in villages. They are a very interesting species. I used to love the circus growing up, once I learned about their animal practices I’ve never went again, preferred to zoo.

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