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

Address:
219 S. Main Ave., Erwin, TN
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Photo-Op PilloryPhoto-Op Pillory, Jonesborough, TN - 11 mi.
Junaluska and the Arch of FriendshipJunaluska and the Arch of Friendship, Johnson City, TN - 13 mi.
Born in a Boneyard: First Lady Eliza JohnsonBorn in a Boneyard: First Lady Eliza Johnson, Telford, TN - 11 mi.
In the region:
Mountain Man Statue, Boone, NC - 42 mi.

More Quirky Attractions in Tennessee

Stories, reports and tips on tourist attractions and odd sights in Tennessee.

Explore Thousands of Unique Roadside Landmarks!

Strange and amusing destinations in the US and Canada are our specialty. Start here.
Use RoadsideAmerica.com's Attraction Maps to plan your next road trip.

My Sights

My Sights on Roadside America

Create Your Own Bizarre Road Trips! ...Try My Sights

Mobile Apps

Roadside America app: iPhone, iPad Roadside America app for iPhone, iPad. On-route maps, 1,000s of photos, special research targets! ...More

Roadside Presidents app: iPhone, iPad Roadside Presidents app for iPhone, iPad. POTUS landmarks, oddities. ...More

Tennessee Latest Tips and Stories

Latest Visitor Tips

Sight of the Week

Sight of the Week

The Paper House, Rockport, Massachusetts (Sep 13-19, 2021)

SotW Archive

USA and Canada Tips and Stories

More Sightings

RoadsideAmerica.com Hotel & Motel Finder

Special rates for hotels.

Book Now