Dr. David Shevin photograph

THE HANGING OF MURDERING MARY

January, 2006

On December 15, the DAYTON DAILY NEWS carried a fascinating tale of doggie indictment in the regional section. It concerned a petition filed in Southeastern Ohio by Wayne Francis Green. He had been charged and convicted two years earlier for possession and trafficking in marihuana when fifty pounds of the crop were seized at his business. Green’s suit charges the sheriff’s department in illegal search and seizure at the raid. Among the defendants in Green’s suit is Andi, the sheriff’s German shepherd, who was present at the raid.

According to the newspaper dispatch, Andi was first informed that he is being sued. Then, “[w]ith a paw print, the dog ‘signed’ the paper indicating that he had been formally served with the complaint.” While Green in representing himself in this suit, it is unclear whether Andi will be taking the witness stand.

Woof, I thought to myself when I read this. American jurisprudence has not had a history of fair treatment of nonhumans in the judicial process. Proof is in the case of Martha the elephant that was hanged in Erwin, Tennessee in September 13, 1916, at the age of 30. Mary’s story is one worth the recounting. This was only a day after the crime for which she was convicted: the murder of elephant wrangler Red Eldridge.

Here is how the Elgin crisis unfolded. Mary was a very bright and talented elephant, a true star of the Sparks Brothers Circus. The circus, billed as a “moral, entertaining, and instructive” adventure, featured powdered dogs, clowns, humans posing as statuary, the-man-who-walks-upon-his-head and five elephants. Mary, a gifted and unusually large elephant performer could play 25 tunes on the musical horns without missing a note. (In a later generation, she would certainly have been billed as “Ella Fantsgerald”.) She was a pitcher in the circus’s baseball act, and her .400 batting average “astonished millions in New York”. She clearly ruled the small herd of elephants.

She arrived by rail with the show. In fact, Elgin was booming railroad town, home of the Clinchfield, Cincinnati and Ohio repair yards.

It was there in Elgin that Eldridge signed on with the Sparks Brothers Circus as an elephant handler. Little did he know that he was about to wrangle with the elephant-of-death. Eyewitnesses whose reports are archived at East Tennessee State University are unanimous in identifying the murderess. As to the questions of motive and circumstance, there is widespread disagreement.

Having had more than my own share of dental work over the years, I favor the explanation that Mary was cranky because of two badly abscessed teeth. The infections were discovered in the pachyderm’s post-mortem. One account does state that Mary went hot when Eldridge tapped her with his elephant stick.

Another version maintains that Eldridge, assigned to ride Mary to the pond where the other elephants were watering, tried to pull Mary away from the half-eaten watermelon that interested her. A nineteen-year-old witness recorded testimony that Mary “blowed up real big” when tugged, then wrapped her trunk around the unfortunate Red. She then “throwed him against the side of the drink stand and … knocked the whole side out of it.” He continued to describe that the elephant walked over to the prostrate body and stepped on the man’s head until “blood and brains and stuff just squirted all over the street”.

Two differing versions appeared in the Johnson City papers. The STAFF reported that Mary used her trunk to lift Eldridge into the air, flung him to the ground, and trampled him. Not yet done with the rampage, she was reported to have lifted the body a second time to fling it into a crowd of onlookers. The competing PRESS-CHRONICLE tells a different tale. Their dispatch is that Eldridge, approaching to feed the critter, surprised the animal from behind, and she rewarded him a “fatal blow on his head”.

There was clearly no debate over issues such as premeditation or crimes of passion. Sparks, the owner, turned on his employee, and a death sentence was issued without benefit of judge or jury-of-her-peers.

Without benefit of an elephant gun, the attempt at execution by gunfire failed. Bullets from Hench Cox’s 32-20 only glanced off the animal’s hide, and while Sheriff Gallahan’s .45 “knocked chips off her hide a little”, the effort only nonplussed gifted Mary. Then the good citizens of Tennessee took her to nearby Kingsport, where an attempt at electrocution failed. A jolt of 44,000 volts got a reaction from the elephant cow. She “danced a little bit’, claimed railroader Mont Lilly.

At the next day’s matinee, Mary was not called upon to perform. It was announced at the show she would be hanged in the Clinchfield railroad yard that afternoon. Over 2500 people gathered to watch the execution. The other circus elephants were paraded in, trunk-to-tail, to witness the execution. It was common wisdom that Mary’s punishment needed to serve as a warning and as a lesson to the other elephants. The hanging was not to be done drop-style. Rather, once her leg was chained to a rail tie, she was to be lifted by crane and a chain around the neck until strangled.

The first attempt at hanging failed, understandably enough. A 7/8” chain is not sturdy enough for the hanging of a 10,000 pound elephant. The poor animal suffered a broken hip as she fell to the ground, but managed to sit up. The crowd ran for cover. One of the circus roustabouts managed to overcome his fear, and secured Mary’s neck with a heavier chain. A winch was put in motion, and Murderous Mary’s execution was completed. She was left hanging for a half hour before her steam-shovel burial. Grave robbers later made off with the tusks.

Tennessee historian Joan Vannorsdall Schroeder has documented both the accounts and mythology of the elephant hanging. Her report shows an even more chilling aspect of vengeance justice. She cited a 1971 article from the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin reporting that “some local residents recall ‘two Negro keepers’ being hung alongside Mary”. In an age rife with lynchings, this may well have occurred.

Today, in Southwest Ohio, we have Andi the shepherd charged with illegal search and seizure. As this is a violation of the Fourth Amendment in the Constitution, the case has potential federal implications. Already, because he is guaranteed the process of trial, Andi is assured a fuller hearing than the unfortunate elephant Mary received in 1916. But as for Andi, will he receive justice in our system? Will his righteous bark be heard?

My own feeling is that a federal supreme court at the ready to hear Anna Nicole Smith’s estate claim case should be equally anxious to hear Andi’s side of his story.

By David Shevin

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