Two Elephant Anniversaries

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Two Elephant Anniversaries

By Kim Stallwood on Animals & Society Institute (ASI)

Two anniversaries involving the deaths of elephants 31 years apart occur within two days of each other in September. The first was a lynching; the second a tragic accident. On September 13, 1916, the elephant who became known as Murderous Mary was hung in Erwin, Tennessee. On September 15, 1885, Jumbo, the international superstar, was killed by a train in St. Thomas, Ontario.

Mary became "Murderous Mary" when she killed her keeper and hung for her crime. The only known photograph of her lynching reveals she was an Asian elephant with no tusks.


Very few pictures of Mary's hanging are available

Sensational claims made by Sparks Circus and dubious local press reports published at the time as well as rural folklore vulnerable to exaggeration with each generation's retelling and doubtful recollections made by elderly people who witnessed her hanging when they were children - all conspire to make Mary's story difficult to tell with any accuracy. For example, a Sparks Circus poster claimed Mary was the "largest living land animal on earth" who was "3 inches taller than Jumbo and weighing over 5 tons." It depicts an absurdly large Mary towering over a ringmaster and another elephant. Mary was one of a troop of five female elephants who were all about 15 years old. Sparks was a mid-size circus which toured from town to town along the country's expanding railway network. The keeper Mary killed was Walter "Red" Eldridge, a drifter thought to come from the Midwest. Inspired by the romance of life on the road under the big top, he asked for work and became an elephant keeper with no prior experience, relevant training or qualifications. The next day Mary killed him. She noticed a smashed water melon by the side of the road and went to taste it. Eldridge hit her with the bull hook, a wooden stick with a sharp metal hook on the end still used by elephant handlers today. The show must go on. It could not even stop for an elephant who wanted to savour water melon. She became enraged. She picked up Eldridge with her trunk, threw him to the ground and stamped on his head. People panicked. The crowd began to chant, "Kill the elephant. Let's kill him." She was eventually brought under control and performed as usual in the ring that night. But the circus had a problem. Sensational reports about Mary quickly spread. Towns next on the route banned her. Circus owner Charlie Sparks realized she had to be killed because if he didn't take care of it a lynch mob would. Mary was hung by a 100-ton derrick Clinchfield Railroad crane in the rail yards in Erwin, TN watched by as many as 3,000 people on September 13, 1916. Sparks Circus performed to a sold-out house that night.


Jumbo, after being hit by a train

Jumbo was an international superstar whose rags-to-riches story was written by two larger than life characters: Matthew Scott, his trainer, and Phineas Taylor Barnum, the impresario. Neither Scott nor PT Barnum could have predicted how Jumbo's life ended abruptly late one night. But as in a Hollywood tear-jerker each man reacted differently to loss and the contrast was dramatic: a tragedy for one and an opportunity for the other. But for Jumbo it was a premature death far from where his tragic life began. Jumbo became a valuable commodity who was sold on from hunter to dealer, collector to showman, making money and increasing in financial value with each transaction even after his death.

He was born in Northeast Africa in 1861, captured by hunting tribes and eventually sold and shipped to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. It wanted to be the first zoo in Europe to have an African elephant. It also knew it was in competition with the Zoological Society of London who equally desired one. The Paris zoo later determined they had a surplus population of elephants. It agreed to trade with ZSL. Jumbo, who was exchanged for an Indian rhinoceros, arrived at London zoo in a "filthy and miserable condition" in 1865. The zoo acquired a second baby African elephant, Alice, three months later. Their fate became inseparable. Scott was appointed their keepers.

Jumbo grew to be eleven feet high and became a major attraction giving rides to thousands of adults and children. Nonetheless, Jumbo, who was a wild animal in captivity, and Scott, who was the only person he trusted, were viewed by the zoo as increasingly difficult. Both were seen as unmanageable: Jumbo, who had frequent bouts of uncontrollable violence, and Scott, who behaved as if he was his own boss. In 1882 P. T. Barnum paid about $30,000 to ZSL for Jumbo who was accompanied by Scott. In less than a week after Jumbo's arrival in New York City, Barnum had recouped his initial investment through ticket sales and other ventures associated with Jumbo.

Barnum managed Jumbo and Bartlett as they toured the U.S. performing and exhibiting until September 15, 1885 when a tragic accident occurred in St. Thomas, Ontario. Jumbo was hit and fatally wounded by an unscheduled freight train. Bartlett was distraught. Barnum was shrewd. He quickly arranged for Jumbo to be stuffed, mounted (even larger than he was in real life) and displayed to the fee-paying public with Bartlett by his side. In a spectacle combining the bizarre with the gruesome he even reunited Jumbo and Alice as his grieving widow.

A century later the plight of elephants in circuses continues to make headlines. PETA and Animal Defenders International recently released undercover footage exposing cruel treatment of elephants by respectively Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the U.S. and the Great British Circus in the U.K. Also, the US District Court in Washington, D.C. is scheduled to announce its findings in a trial brought by a number of animal protection organizations against Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and its parent company, Feld Entertainment, on charges that the circus mistreats its Asian elephants in violation of the Endangered Species Act. To learn more order our Policy Paper Elephants in Circuses: Analysis of practice, Policy and Future by G. A. Bradshaw, PhD, which addresses the history, use and treatment of elephants captured or bred for use in US circuses.


Kim W. Stallwood has held leadership positions in animal rights organizations for more than three decades. He was executive editor of the highly regarded Animals’ Agenda magazine. In 2002 he founded the Institute for Animals and Society, an animal rights public policy institute and joined with Ken Shapiro to form the Animals and Society Institute. Stallwood is editor of two anthologies of articles from The Animals’ Agenda (Speaking Out for Animals and An Animal Rights Primer both published by Lantern); authored a chapter, “Utopian Visions and Pragmatic Politics: Challenging the Foundations of Speciesism and Misothery,” in Animal Rights: the Changing Debate, edited by Robert Garner (Macmillan, 1996); and a chapter, “The Animal Rights Movement Must Be Politically Pragmatic,” in Animal Rights Opposing Viewpoints edited by Andrew Harnack (Greenhaven Press, 1996). Stallwood now lives in the UK where he serves as the ASI’s European Director. His blog is Grumpy Vegan.

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