Murderous Mary and the Darkness in the South

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Today marks the 100th anniversary of the hanging of performing elephant Mary. During a parade in Erwin, Tennessee, Mary’s handler prodded her away from a watermelon rind and struck her on an undiscovered and painfully impacted tooth. Mary, a generally well-tempered animal, threw her handler to the ground in pain and crushed his head. In other similar instances at the time, “rogue” elephants could be renamed and quietly resold to another company. However, sensational news report forced her owner Charlie and his veterinarian wife to follow the protocol of the time and put down their much loved elephant. After failed attempts to shoot her, poison her, and electrocute her (at 44,000 volts she “danced a bit”), the town decided the best way to dispatch of the animal was by hanging her from an oil derrick.

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The hanging was gruesome, made even more so by a first failed attempt that broke her hip, reports of failure to unchain her leg when she was first lifted by the neck, and the circus’s performance (without Mary) preceding the entire spectacle. The town gathered to watch the “moral and instructive” event, and her fall from the derrick sent children screaming. The hanging sits uncomfortably close to the lynchings throughout the country, specifically in the south. Some reports of the hanging conflate her hanging with the burning of a black man on rail ties that occurred in the town. Erwin was (and maybe still is) a “sundown town”, and witnessed a racial cleansing soon after the elephant hanging that included the lynching and immolation of black laborer Tom Devert.

This August, the town held a parade in memory of Mary, to benefit performing elephants. The guilt in the town is palpable and possibly unshakeable, but has spurred an initiative to make the small town of Erwin an unexpected advocate of elephant advocacy. The nearby Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald is the nation’s largest natural-habitat refuge for elephants and has been specifically designed to meet the needs of retired performing elephants. Local newspapers have commented upon the miasma in the town for decades. The restorative initiative appears to be succeeding, if the turnout at the Erwin Elephant festival is any indication.

The East Hill Cemetery in Bristol Tennessee includes a memorial to confederate soldiers immediately next to a much more modest slave cemetery located on a slope into the woods. The juxtaposition is alarming and unremarked upon, though the slave section is marked with a sign including the names of several of those there interred.

The town of Bristol appears to be in decline; abandoned office furniture litters the downtown area and many buildings stood vacant. Our hotel was next to a Nascar course, and also several massage parlors and an office for mattress sanitation services. Both Erwin and Bristol lie on a train line, and both are attempting a bit of a renaissance, Erwin by appealing to animal lovers and the run off population of gentrified Asheville, and Bristol through country music tourism. The landscape is mountainous and dotted with coal mining towns and, of course, it is beautiful. Southern charm ran thin on this trip, but most of the people I encountered in both cities were nice enough, though it should be reported that I am white. (It could also be reported that clerks routinely handed my credit card and bill back to the male in my party.) And so the South, there she is in all her complicated and beautiful grotesquery: may elephants live 1,000 years in your heart.

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