Photo (likely touched up) of Big Mary hanging from the crane.

Big Mary the Elephant

Field review by the editors.

Erwin, Tennessee

Died 1916

Pet Cemetery.

How do you kill something as big as an elephant? This was the problem that vexed the people of Kingsport, Tennessee, when they had to bump off Big Mary, a pachyderm that went bad.

Big Mary was part of a circus that was touring eastern Tennessee. While in Kingsport, one of her trainers made the mistake of poking her with a stick. She immediately stomped him to death (Tradition has it that the trainer was a bad man and that Big Mary held a grudge).

What to do? The circus felt that having a "killer elephant" would be bad for business. It made fiscal sense to get rid of Big Mary -- and to do it publicly, so that word would get around.

The problem was, no one in Kingsport had a gun big enough to do the job.

Then someone remembered the neighboring town of Erwin, which had a railroad yard with a crane that could lift locomotive boilers. Would Erwin do Kingsport a big favor and hang Big Mary? Erwin thought it over for a day or two, then said, sure, no problem.

Word got around fast. Over 5,000 spectators showed up to watch the elephant hanging. Big Mary was positioned beneath the crane and then yanked aloft by a chain around her neck -- which promptly broke and sent her plummeting to the concrete, knocking her unconscious. A daring spectator, not wanting to disappoint the crowd, dashed forward and reattached the chain. Big Mary was hoisted again, and this time justice was done.

Big Mary was buried in a big pit in front of the railroad shop doors. Erwin, which has had time to reflect on this, does not want the grave marked. It would rather not be known as The Town That Hanged The Elephant, and the Chamber of Commerce is very particular about assigning blame. "We killed the elephant, we do not deny it," they told us. "But it was not our fault."

On Highway 23, the Unicoi County Heritage Museum displays newspaper clippings from the period and sells a book that tells the Big Mary story: The Day They Hung the Elephant by Charles Edwin Price. "It is true. It did occur," said the curator. "But, quite frankly, the town is not real proud of it."

In 2016 Erwin hosted an "Elephant Revival Festival" to raise money for a nearby Elephant Sanctuary, hoping to atone for the town's past sins.

Also see: Elephant Burial Ground | Roadside Pet Cemetery

Big Mary the Elephant

219 S. Main Ave., Erwin, TN
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