The Giant Life and Tragic Death of Mary, the Infamous Baseball-Playing Circus Elephant

The Giant Life and Tragic Death of Mary, the Infamous Baseball-Playing Circus Elephant

Elephants are better than people. They’re incredibly intelligent — on a par with dolphins, which whatever anyone says are smarter than at least 30 percent of the people you know. Elephants are also capable of empathy and have complex social and emotional lives. They have extraordinary memories, can work together to solve problems, are capable of using tools and are thought to have a sense of self. And yet, we treat them like shit, seeing them as big grey clowns there for our amusement, giant dumb blobs we jab with sticks to make them dance. 

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One of the grimmest, grossest, most shameful moments in our mistreatment of these incredible creatures came in 1916, courtesy of the Sparks World Famous Circus. Charles Sparks’ circus was one of many traveling around the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century. It traveled the country in 10 locomotive cars — for comparison, at the time, Barnum & Bailey’s circus was using 84 — and featured everything from equestrian acrobatics to minstrel shows to, of course, performing elephants. 

One of them was a 21-year-old female Asian elephant named Mary, who specialized in both music and baseball. The circus’ publicity claimed she could play 25 tunes on a horn, keep time on the drums and both pitch and bat baseballs — she boasted a .400 batting average. (This is, of course, better than any professional baseball player has ever managed, but it seems safe to say that an elephant playing baseball in a circus wasn’t doing so under the strict jurisdiction of Major League Baseball.) She was also, it was claimed, “the largest land animal on Earth,” three inches taller than Jumbo, the pride of Barnum & Bailey’s blockbuster operation.

While the circus ran pretty deep, it would generally hire a selection of casual laborers in every town — a few pairs of hands to help out here and there, aiding in getting tents up and signs out, cleaning things that needed it and generally turning a train full of stuff into a fully functioning circus. Drifters, itinerants — anyone who was willing to do what they were told in exchange for a few bucks.

One such character was Walter “Red” Eldridge, recruited in St. Paul, Virginia on the afternoon of September 11, 1916. He was assigned the job of elephant handler for the next morning’s parade, a fairly bonkers assignment for someone who had very possibly never seen an elephant in the flesh before.

The parade began on the 12th, and not long later, Eldridge had been killed. Exactly how he was killed is unclear due to differing witness reports, but Mary the elephant was very heavily (pun unavoidable) involved. One eyewitness claimed that Eldridge was riding Mary to a pond to get a drink, and jabbed her hard with a stick when she reached for a watermelon rind on the floor. Mary grabbed him around the waist with her trunk and threw him into the side of a drink stand, then stamped on his head, “and blood and brains and stuff just squirted all over the street.”

Another version reported in the local newspaper has Mary picking up Eldridge, smashing him against the ground before sinking her tusks through him, trampling him and kicking his body into a crowd of shocked onlookers. (Given that Mary was a female Asian elephant, and therefore didn’t have tusks, this seems to have been exaggerated.) Yet another had Mary walloping him in the head with her trunk seemingly out of the blue as he gathered food for her.

Whatever happened, Mary killed Eldridge. Some people immediately began demanding she be killed, too, even firing guns at her. There was talk of getting hold of a Civil War cannon to blow her head off. The higher-ups at the circus knew they couldn’t keep her — traveling circuses were under a lot of scrutiny anyway, due to a reputation for ripping people off, and continuing to display a killer elephant would be the last straw for various towns considering banning them outright.

While some townspeople wanted to keep shooting the elephant until she died, other ideas were floated as well. Electrocution was ruled out for practical reasons, and two suggestions that used trains to kill her — one involving them heading in opposite directions to rip Mary apart; one involving them heading toward one another and crushing her between them — were dismissed on the grounds of being not just monstrous, but surreally so. Instead, the decision was made that after the show the following morning, Mary would be hanged from a derrick car — basically a crane mounted on a railway carriage. 

Mary wasn’t involved in the show on the 13th in Erwin, Tennessee, but the crowd was assured they’d still get to see her. What’s more, they’d get to see her be hanged to death, for free, that very day. She was transported to the nearby Clinchfield Yards and first chained to the railway line itself — to stop her from escaping — before being secured to the crane’s boom by a chain around her neck. When the boom was raised to hang her, she was still tied to the railway line — an eyewitness among the 2,500-strong crowd reported hearing “bones and ligaments cracking in her foot.” The chain around her ankle was released, and they continued to raise her up, only for the chain supporting her to snap beneath her 10,000-pound mass. She dropped, her hip breaking in the process. 

The crowd fled in fear she would stampede, but she just lay there in needless agony. A new, stronger chain was secured around her neck, and she was once again hanged, remaining there for half an hour as the grave dug for her by the side of the railway line was finished. The circus logbook has a short, three-word note next to the entry for that day: “Mary was killed.” They performed the next day in Johnson City.

Every bit of this was avoidable. It was a century ago, but still — even leaving aside the animal welfare side of things, could someone, at some fucking point, not have considered there were better ways to treat your star attraction than to let a random guy with a stick jab at it? 

The Sparks Circus incident is far from the only occasion where abused elephants ended up hurting people and were punished for it. In 1903 in Brooklyn, a visitor to the Forepaugh & Sells Brothers’ Circus deliberately burned the tip of Topsy the elephant’s trunk with a cigar. Topsy stamped him dead and was later publicly electrocuted. In 1941, a non-fatal attack on his trainer by an elephant named Ziggy led to him being chained to a wall for 30 years. In 1963 in Michigan, an elephant named Rajje escaped from a shopping mall circus and destroyed a sporting goods store before being shot. In 1994 in Hawaii, an elephant named Tyke killed her trainer and was shot 86 times by police. At the time Mary was hanged, it wasn’t unknown for circuses to surreptitiously rename and sell on elephants that had killed people (generally less publicly than Mary). 

Needless to say, wild animals shouldn’t be in circuses. They’re almost universally treated appallingly, kept in shitty cramped conditions when not on stage and used more like equipment than living creatures. More largely (again, pun unavoidable), it’s almost like mistreating a giant, powerful creature is a bad idea or something. Elephants, famously, never forget — maybe we can take a leaf out of their book and stop acting surprised every time a wild animal has had enough of our shit. 

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