The year is 1916 and the circus is coming to town. Being a railroad town, Erwin Tennessee is a perfect stop for Sparks World Famous Shows, a 15 rail car traveling circus. Excitement was growing as the tents were set up and the performers were preparing to entertain the crowds that wold come out of the show of a lifetime. But it wasn't just another circus show that they were coming for. The show that was promised was free of charge and would be a first for any circus in the world. On this the 13th day of September the most notorious killer in the history of Tennessee was to be put to death and the crowds were invited to watch.
As the owner Sparks World Famous Shows, Charlie Sparks knew how to please a crowd. Born the of English music hall performers, by the time he was eight years old he was performing with the highly acclaimed Jack Harvey Minstrels as a drummer and World Champion Clogger. After his father died, he sang and danced on street corners to earn money to support his widowed mother.
Charlie's circus career began when, on a stop in Utah, he and his mother met a vaudeville performer named John H. Weisman. Weisman was impressed with young Charlie's performing skills, and befriended both Charlie and his mother. They became so close that, when Charlie's mother became ill with tuberculosis, she asked Weisman to care for Charlie. Shortly thereafter, Weisman adopted Charlie, but took the unusual step of changing his own last name to Sparks - perhaps because it was a more "circus sounding" name. They performed together until1890. In 1901 Charlie was 25 years old and his father had grown tired of traveling and purchased a hotel in Winston-Salem North Carolina. In a strange sort of circus fate, John H. sparks was bitten by a lion in the zoo he had constructed near the hotel which caused an infection and eventually ended his life. Charlie was now in full control of the circus and he knew that for the show to survive he had to take advantage of the network of railroads that were growing across the country. Around 1903 Charlie finally had everything in place to take the show to the rails with one rail car and performing animals.
The star performer of the show was Mary the giant Asian elephant and was billed as the “Largest Living Land Animal on Earth” weighing in at over 5 tons and standing three inches taller than Jumbo, the star of the Barnum and Bailey circus. Mary entertained crowds all over the country by standing on her head, playing musical instruments and throwing a baseball. But none of these skills compared to the enormous size of Mary.
While on a stop in St. Paul Virginia, Red Eldridge a worker at the Riverside Hotel asked the head elephant trainer for a job, he was hired and made under keeper to the elephants. After the show in St. Paul the cars headed south to Kingsport Tennessee were they were to join in the county fair by parading through the streets. What happened after this has been the a topic of debate since September 12th 1916. The most popular version of this story is that Mary was being led to a ditch for watering. When she suddenly stopped and was reaching for a piece watermelon that was on the ground when Eldridge prodded her with a stick to keep her moving. Mary grabbed Eldridge and lifted him into the air and tossed him back to the ground and into a drink stand and by some accounts used her foot to stomp the head of Eldridge. As the crowd screams and begins to panic and run fearing for their lives, Charlie runs over to calm Mary and sees the mangled body of Eldridge on the ground. Demands by the crowd forced Charlie to make a decision about the fate of his most famous performer. A request was made to Clinchfield Railroad to secure the use of their 100 ton derrick to end the life of Mary by hanging. Clinchfield refused to move the derrick to Kingsport due to a heavy rainy season that might require it to be moved farther south to aid in emergency operations. If Charlie wanted to use the derrick he would have to move the animal to the rail yard in Erwin. In the early morning of September 13th in a heavy fog, a chain was placed around the neck of the giant elephant and the order was made to lift Mary from the ground. Some say that the first attempt hang her was failed due to the chain breaking as she was lifted. A larger chain was then used to hoist Mary and hold her until she was dead. As she was lifted into the air, a crew was working using a steam shovel to dig a grave in the rail yard where she would be placed once she was dead. No marker was placed and the exact location of her grave has been lost to time. Many versions of this story have been passed around but one thing is certain, Mary was hung by the neck until dead on a rainy, foggy and chilly morning and forever engraved a place for the small mountain community of Erwin in the history books. By some accounts there was only one person who protested and tried to stop the execution. The man who wanted to put a stop to the hanging of Mary was blind and couldn't even see what was about to take place right in front of him. This man just so happens to be a distant relative of mine who has long since passed and was buried less than five miles from the same rail yard that holds the remains of the largest murderer in Tennessee's history.
(all photos from the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University)
[Blue Ridge][Erwin Tennessee][Clinchfield Railroad]