The Town That Hanged An Elephant Is Now Working To Save Them

May 15, 2019
Originally published on May 15, 2019 8:03 pm

In the tiny town of Erwin, Tenn., history is the elephant in the room.

At the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce, Cathy Huskins remembers one particularly angry tourist "came barreling through the door, and came up to the counter here and slung her hands down. ... And she says, 'I cannot believe that you killed an elephant!' "

Librarian Angie Georgeff is used to the strange phone calls and unannounced visits from world travelers:

"They just want to know, 'Is it true? Is it true? Did it really happen?' " Georgeff says. "Well, it did really happen. You know, there's agreement about that."

Angie Georgeff, director of the Unicoi County Public Library in Erwin, Tenn., has researched the story extensively.
Mike Belleme for NPR

Sometimes Georgeff even points visitors out the library window, down the long vein of railroad tracks, to where it happened — to where the town of Erwin hanged an elephant.

This year, four high school students in nearby Elizabethton made a podcast about all this for NPR's first Student Podcast Challenge — and their 11-minute piece won the high school category.

"Kill the elephant!"

In the fall of 1916, disaster struck when the circus came to East Tennessee.

A menagerie of animals from Sparks Circus paraded through the small town of Kingsport, Tenn., just a few miles from the Virginia border. The show's star attraction, a five-ton Asian elephant named Mary, suddenly stopped. She had noticed a pile of watermelon rinds and veered off course for a snack.

Riding on Mary's back was a new trainer, a man who had been a hotel bellhop just a few days before, and he struck Mary in the head with a large metal hook. In an instant, the elephant wrapped her trunk around the man and threw him into a drink stand. As the story goes, she then stepped on his head in front of a crowd of shocked onlookers.

One man unloaded his pistol into Mary, but the bullets couldn't penetrate her thick hide. The townspeople chanted, "Kill the elephant!" When officials at the circus' upcoming stops made it known that the animal was no longer welcome, Mary's owner relented: Murderous Mary, as she came to be known, had to die. But how? And where?

What happened next has haunted the neighboring town of Erwin for a century. That's because Erwin was home to an enormous rail yard and a 100-ton derrick car with a crane strong enough to hang an elephant.

In this 1916 photo, Mary the elephant hangs from the crane in Erwin, Tenn.
Courtesy of Archives of Appalachia, East Tennessee State University, Thomas G. Burton-Ambrose N. Manning Collection

Elizabethton High juniors John Gouge, Jaxton Holly, Deanna Hull and Caleb Miller interviewed community members, archivists and politicians in Erwin to tell the story of Mary — and of Erwin's quest for redemption.

"Oh! You're the town that hung the elephant!"

A crowd of thousands gathered in the Erwin rail yard to watch Mary's execution, many standing atop idle rail cars or nearby buildings, for fear the elephant would rampage. Though not everyone was happy about the spectacle. One rail worker refused to participate because, he told his friends, he worked the night shift and worried that killing the elephant would haunt him on his night rides.

As the students tell it, a willing few wrapped a chain around Mary's neck. The crane slowly hoisted her a few feet off the ground. But as Mary began to kick, the chain broke, and she hit the ground hard. The elephant was stunned and sat motionless on her hind legs — as one eyewitness would remember — "like a rabbit."

The rail workers quickly got a new chain and hoisted her up once more — this time 10 or 15 feet off the ground. It's not clear how long it took Mary to die, but she dangled from the crane long enough for one onlooker to snap a photograph. A 1916 photo shows Mary hanging lifelessly from the crane. This macabre, visual evidence of the execution traveled far and wide, and it cemented Erwin's reputation — a town that few beyond East Tennessee had ever heard of — as the town that hanged an elephant.

"The stigma of Mary's death has haunted Erwin and its citizens for many years," says Hull, one of the podcast's student narrators. She and her classmates interviewed Jamie Rice, who lives in Erwin and grew up hearing the story of Mary.

"All the generations before me — everyone had a black eye over it," Rice says. "No one really wanted to talk about it. And whenever you did go out into other areas and you would say, 'Oh, I'm from Erwin,' and they would think about it and they would say, 'Erwin, Erwin ... why do I know that name? Oh! You're the town that hung the elephant!' "

But now, Rice leads an organization, RISE Erwin. As the Elizabethton students reported, Rice's group is trying to help the town embrace its history instead of hide from it.

Beginning in 2016, the 100th anniversary of Mary's hanging, Erwin began what it hoped would become an annual ritual: a weeklong series of events to celebrate elephants. That first year, the town paid nearly $9,000 for local artists to paint eight fiberglass elephants. They were displayed all over town and then auctioned off.

Rice says lots of business owners started getting questions from out-of-towners, asking: What is the deal with all these elephants?

"Well, that's their opportunity to say, 'We love elephants!' " Rice told the students.

What Erwin did with the money it raised is another stranger-than-fiction twist in the teens' podcast.

The town of Erwin was the site of the now famous hanging of Mary the elephant in 1916.
Mike Belleme for NPR

"I called them up, just their 1-800 number, and I said, 'My name is Jamie Rice. This is a really weird phone call. I live in Erwin, and we feel really bad about Mary.' "

Rice says she cold-called The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee — a home for elephants retired from zoos and circuses, about a six-hour drive from Erwin.

"And the guy just laughed, and he said, 'We talk about Erwin all the time!' People come to the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, which is right south of Nashville, and they want to talk about Erwin," Rice says. "And so he just laughed and he said, 'We will partner with you. We will help you any way we can.' "

Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley told the students that visitors now ask when Erwin is getting its next herd of elephants. It's become the town's new identity.

The Elizabethton juniors who won NPR's contest all say they didn't know much of Mary's story when they began. Their teachers, Alex Campbell and Tim Wasem, had their whole class work on podcasts.

But the deeper the four teens got, the more engaged they felt — to the point that they were all spending extra time in the computer lab and at home.

"Every town has that one thing that they don't want to talk about," Hull told NPR. "It just so happens that Erwin's is always talked about."

With their podcast, the students hope that Erwin will no longer be known as the town that killed an elephant.

It'll be the town that killed an elephant and is doing everything it can to help the next Mary.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

NPR's education team held a contest this spring for middle and high school students. The challenge - create a podcast about anything. More than 25,000 students answered that challenge. The grand prize winner at the high school level tells the story of a tiny town in east Tennessee. It spent a century haunted by something strange and terrible that happened there. NPR's Cory Turner visited the students and shares their story.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: The school sits in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains, and I needed the students' help pronouncing its name.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Elizabethton.

TURNER: Elizabethton High School - and their story takes place nearby in September 1916. A circus elephant named Mary, five tons with enormous tusks, killed a man, and the locals clamored for her to be killed in return. So she was taken just a few miles away to the railroad town of Erwin, which has spent the past hundred years trying to forget what happened next. Students John Gouge, Jaxton Holly, Deanna Hull and Caleb Miller, all juniors, made the winning podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MURDEROUS MARY AND THE RISE OF ERWIN")

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: When you hear the town of Erwin, Tenn., most people think, oh, that's the town that hung the elephant. What you might not know is Erwin is not at fault.

JOHN GOUGE: We're students from Elizabethton right outside of Erwin. We're here to tell you the story from Erwin's perspective and how the town has grown from this.

DEANNA HULL: We have interviewed politicians, archivists, community members and citizens from Erwin and the surrounding region, and this is their collective story.

TURNER: In fact, the students wove all of these voices together to tell Mary's story, which begins with the Sparks Circus. She was its star attraction. And when the circus came to a nearby town, she was paraded through the town to a park with a pond. The students interviewed Erwin's mayor, Doris Hensley, about what happened next.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MURDEROUS MARY AND THE RISE OF ERWIN")

DORIS HENSLEY: There were some hogs out there eating watermelon rinds. And her trainer, who was new, and he was riding her. And he was trying to get her to stay in line with the parade going down to the ponds. And she kept going over toward the watermelon rinds. He took his stick - they call it the training stick - that he had, and he hit her on the head with it. Well, she got upset with that. And so she took her trunk, and she wrapped it around him and then pulled him off of her back and threw him on the ground, and then stepped on him.

TURNER: Now, in Mary's defense, the so-called trainer wasn't really a trainer at all. He'd been a hotel bellhop just a few days before, and this stick had a metal hook on it. The students also interviewed Erwin local Jamie Rice.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MURDEROUS MARY AND THE RISE OF ERWIN")

JAMIE RICE: And all of the next stops beyond Erwin, all of those mayors and city officials were saying you can't come to our town when you have this murderous animal.

TURNER: So the circus relented and agreed to kill Mary. One man had already tried shooting her, but the bullets were no match for her thick hide. Another Erwin local, Patrick Callahan, told the students...

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MURDEROUS MARY AND THE RISE OF ERWIN")

PATRICK CALLAHAN: And because of the time period it was, they didn't have a gun that was big enough to shoot it. So they decided they wanted to use the railroad to hang it. And since Erwin was the largest rail yard in the area and had the biggest crane that they would take it over there and use their crane to actually hang it with. And supposedly, they brought it to Erwin. They tried to hang it, and the chain broke, so they hung it the second time, which worked. And then, supposedly, it was buried down behind the railroad yard somewhere. But nobody really knows where.

TURNER: There's even a haunting photograph of this giant crane attached to a 100-ton railcar hoisting Mary by her neck about 10 feet off the ground. Again, here's Deanna, one of the students behind the podcast, and Erwin's Jamie Rice.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MURDEROUS MARY AND THE RISE OF ERWIN")

HULL: The stigma of Mary's death has haunted Erwin and its citizens for many years.

RICE: I would say up until my generation, all the generations before me, every one had a black eye over it. Like, no one really wanted to talk about it. And whenever you did go out into other areas and people - you would say, oh, I'm from Erwin, and they would think about it. And they would say, Erwin, Erwin, why do I know that name? Oh, you're the town that hung the elephant.

TURNER: Rice runs a group called RISE Erwin

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MURDEROUS MARY AND THE RISE OF ERWIN")

RICE: So we decided for the 100-year anniversary that we were not going to bury this story anymore. We were not going to pretend it didn't happen. We were going to tell it. But we were going to tell it from our perspective and in a new way. And so, basically, we just decided, you know, we're not going to be ashamed anymore. And so we actually called the elephant sanctuary in Hohenwald Tenn.

TURNER: You heard her right. There is a sanctuary for elephants retired from zoos and circuses about a six-hour drive from Erwin. The podcast is full of these stranger-than-fiction moments.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MURDEROUS MARY AND THE RISE OF ERWIN")

RICE: And I called them up - just their 1-800 number. And I said my name is Jamie Rice. This is a really weird phone call. I live in Erwin. And we feel really bad about Mary. And the guy just laughed, and he said, we talk about Erwin all the time. People come to the elephant sanctuary in Hohenwald, which is right south of Nashville, and they want to talk about Erwin. And so he just laughed, and he said, we will partner with you. We will help you any way we can.

TURNER: So the town of Erwin spent nearly $9,000 to buy eight fiberglass elephants. They were then painted by local artists, displayed all over downtown Erwin and eventually auctioned off. And the money went to the elephant sanctuary. Jamie Rice says lots of business owners started getting questions from out-of-towners asking, what is the deal with all these elephants?

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MURDEROUS MARY AND THE RISE OF ERWIN")

RICE: Well, that's their opportunity to say, we love elephants. We support the elephant sanctuary in Hohenwald, and this is why.

TURNER: Again, Erwin's Mayor Hensley.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MURDEROUS MARY AND THE RISE OF ERWIN")

HENSLEY: So when we get the elephants in, we display them on Main Street. And then we have - we auction them off. It's always like, when are you getting a new herd? They want a new herd of elephants to come into town because they've become part of the town. It's kind of our identity right now is the elephant town.

TURNER: The students who made this podcast - Jaxton, John, Deanna and Caleb - all say they didn't know much of Mary's story when they started. Their teachers, Alex Campbell and Tim Wasem, had their whole class work on different podcasts. In fact, junior John Gouge says he was so awed by the other stories his classmates had put together - not to mention the nearly 6,000 other podcast entries from students all over the country - that he simply didn't believe it when he and his teammates learned they'd won.

GOUGE: I was just in disbelief because they asked for what we were thinking, and I just stood up. I said, I'm kind of surprised right now to be honest.

TURNER: Teacher Alex Campbell says he even brought in Erwin's Mayor Hensley to make the surprise announcement.

ALEX CAMPBELL: We thought...

GOUGE: No chance (ph).

CAMPBELL: Yeah. They're going to run around. They're going to slap each other. There's going to be high fives. They're going to pass out. They're going to throw up. But you got to understand. This group was a very quiet group.

TURNER: Which helps explain why they largely kept their own voices out of the podcast, giving the last word to the people of Erwin. With their winning entry, the teens say they hope Erwin will no longer be known as the town that killed an elephant. It'll be the town that killed an elephant but is now doing everything it can to help the next Mary.

JAXTON HOLLY: Jaxton Holly.

GOUGE: John Gouge.

HULL: Deanna Hull.

CALEB MILLER: Caleb Miller.

TURNER: And Cory Turner, NPR News.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Elizabethton, Tenn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.