Execution of the 20th Century - Hanging an Elephant

Getty

WARNING: This story is horrible.

Getty
We apologize. Enjoy this puppy in a hat.

In 1916, Sparks World Famous Shows was struggling to compete against larger circuses, including Barnum & Bailey, and needed something to put them above the rest. While the other circuses had events everyone loved, such as the guy who gets launched out of the cannon and the freak show, Sparks could only compete with some painted dogs, a few terrifying clowns and a few other exhibits that kids yawned at. Oh, and elephants. Elephants are pretty important in this.

Getty

Out of all the elephants Sparks had, Mary was the biggest draw. They claimed she was the biggest elephant on Earth, and was worth over $20,000. On September 11, the circus was in Virginia, and Sparks decided to hire a new elephant trainer. After reviewing the only candidate who showed up, they hired Red Eldridge, a hobo whose last job was as a janitor. After a successful day of training, the circus moved on into Kingsport, Tenn. There, they set up for a circus. But there was one problem: Eldridge was annoyed at Mary and hooked her ear to get her to move. Mary killed the new "trainer" by throwing him against a drink stand and crushing his head, thus proving hooks are no match for a five-ton, slightly pissed off elephant.

Getty

That, of course, was not the publicity stunt. That was real.

As she had killed someone, the elephant was actually put on trial (that also was real -- remember, this is 1916 Tennessee). After being sentenced to death by what we imagine to be the most amusing jury deliberation ever, she was shot. Again. And again. After a dozen or so bullets, she didn't even appear to be hurt. So the town devised some new ways, but deemed electrocution and crushing her between two railroad cars to be too cruel (as compare to, say, repeatedly shooting her in the face).

Then they found an "uncruel" way: hanging her with a giant crane.

Getty
Above: A humane, dignified way to die.

Here's where the publicity stunt comes in.

Sparks was upset at losing his $20,000 elephant but decided to make the best of the situation by promoting the hanging and turning it into a one-time publicity stunt for the faltering circus. On her day of execution, over 2,500 people showed up in Erwin, Tenn. and watched an elephant get hanged. More than once. The chain broke a few times, causing the elephant -- still alive, mind you -- to fall and break her hip and toes before they found a chain to hold her weight. Hey, what a way to say the circus is in town!


Sweet dreams, kids!

The stunt worked, as right after the hanging, people went directly into the circus. Today, the city of Erwin is so ashamed of the stunt that they plaster the hanging scene on everything from T-shirts to murals on town buildings.

Blue Ridge County
You stay classy, Erwin, Tenn.