Still Literary Contest Judge's Selection: Rachel Rosolina
Rachel Rosolina’s essays have appeared in Slab and The Broken Plate. She graduated from West Virginia University in 2009 with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction and now works as a copy editor in Bloomington, Indiana. This is her first time living outside Appalachia, and she has found it to be quite flat.
The Hanging Elephant
“Five thousand gathered in the gloom
To see her hoisted on the boom”
~ The Ballad of Murderous Mary
Near the intersection of Love Street and Main Avenue, sits a consignment store with swinging children and green grass painted on the windows. For years it was an antique shop called The Hanging Elephant. Back then, the windows were lined with brass vases and white pottery cats. Etched onto each pane was the single, oval image remaining of Mary’s hanging. Papaw says the photograph came out blurry because of a late afternoon rainstorm. I passed the store often—on the way to Girl Scouts or church—but I never thought about that image of Mary hanging from the railroad car. It belonged to a story that Erwin was infamous for, yet no one talked about.
I am home in Northeast Tennessee visiting my family for the first time in months. On my way into town, I stop by Papaw’s to say hi. He hears my car pull up his gravel driveway and is at the door, waiting, as I walk down the broken sidewalk to his porch.
“Well, well. What’re you doing here?” He’s looking thin, but much healthier since his heart attack two years ago.
“Hey there. Mind if I visit for a bit?” It’s good to see him.
“Of course not, come on in.” He pats me hard on the back as I pass through the doorway. “Sit down a spell.”
The pine mantle above Papaw’s unused fireplace is covered in family photos and railroad memorabilia. On the far left are family trees Mom designed in AutoCAD and shaded with colored pencil; next is the framed Olan Mills collage of us four grandchildren. Papaw’s wooden bow, saved from his childhood, hangs against the brick above the mantle. A small, unused cd player sits on the end, closest to the kitchen; Papaw doesn’t know how to turn it on. Toward the middle is a brick shaped like a house that Mamaw painted before she got sick. Framed and centered is a large painting, taken from a photograph, of my great uncles riding Clinchfield Engine No. 1 around a green mountain railroad curve, their conductor caps tilted in a playful way. Noisy engine and caboose trinkets Papaw has received as gifts over the years fill in the gaps.
“You’ve got a lot of railroad stuff in here Papaw, you should open a museum.” I join him on the couch, moving a newspaper to the leather footstool.
“I suppose so. How much you think I should charge? I could supplement my retirement.” He grins. “Did you know that in nineteen and thirty-five everyone on the railroad had to pay out three and a half percent of each paycheck into the retirement fund? Down at the Credit Union, they accuse me of breaking them up since I’ve been retired going on twenty-five years.” Leaning his head back, he laughs.
The CSX railroad is still one of the town’s biggest employers, but there hasn’t been a passenger train running in the area since the early fifties. Coal-laden cars still rumble through Erwin daily, though, stopping impatient traffic. Papaw can remember the heyday of the railroad; when he began working in 1947, men who had started in 1901 hadn’t yet retired. The train depot, empty for a long time, was renovated and turned into the Unicoi County Public Library a few years back. These days, high school graduates crave places outside the little bubble of Erwin and the railroad.
Because it is such a small community, tucked away in the mountains of Appalachia, change has come slow and residents are often resistant to it. Outsiders are treated with caution. Despite the fact that I have familial ties that go back generations, I never went to school in Unicoi County or lived there, so I tend to fall in the outsiders category more often than not—unless I have my mother or Papaw with me to prove my roots.
I grew up on the other side of Unaka Mountain, just north of Unicoi County, but my mother was born in Erwin. She and my grandparents lived in a small house at the end of South Main Avenue, just across from where the baseball fields are now. The red clay diamonds used to be their family garden. The four-red light stretch of South Main is where most of the downtown stores are: the two-screen movie theater, Erwin National Bank, Keesecker Appliance and Furniture, and at least two drug stores. My family has attended First Christian Church of Erwin for decades. My brother took karate lessons from soft-spoken Tony Baker next door to Baker’s Tannery and Leather Shop for more than ten years, my Girl Scout meetings were held at the Methodist church on Elm Street, and Papaw still sits at the counter of Clinchfield Drugs for coffee and news every morning.
The ancient mountains surrounding Erwin both shelter and isolate. When driving east on Interstate 26, the rolling hills covered in tulip poplar, maple, and pine glow when the light is just right. Locals call it “the valley beautiful.” But Erwin has the reputation of being close-minded when it comes to politics and race. The Hispanic population of Erwin has grown in the past ten years due to migrant workers hired seasonally on the local farms; there are several tiendas selling Mexican spices and crafts. African Americans are still a rarity. According to Papaw, in the early 1900s there were a fair number of African Americans in the area as a result of the railroad. In 1912, though—four years before the incident with Mary the elephant—a white girl went missing. Her body was spotted when an African American man waded across the Nolichucky River toward an island carrying her. Though many people today think he was trying to save her, the first men on the scene didn’t hesitate in their assumptions. All African Americans in the area were given twenty-four hours to leave town. The boxcars were packed.
These days, Erwin isn’t known for much, a lot of history has been forgotten or hidden, and most people have never heard of the town. Mary the elephant, however, grew into a bit of history that most Erwinites would be glad to erase. There is no definitive version of the story, but, regardless of which is told, Erwin is known as the town that hanged Charlie Sparks’s world famous circus elephant.
Sitting with Papaw on his couch, I’m hoping to hear some stories. Though he talks a lot about the fourteen months he spent in the Pacific on the USS McCoy-Reynolds during World War II, the Clinchfield Railroad was his career. Curious, and a little nervous about his reaction, I ask the taboo question.
“I was wondering what you remembered about Mary the elephant and the railroad.” I fidget beside him, crossing and uncrossing my legs. The pile of newspapers next to the floor lamp looks like it is about to topple.
“Oh, no one really talks about her anymore.” His hands, lying in his lap, are black and blue from the blood thinner coursing through his veins. “No one likes to talk about her.”
I nod, disappointed, and try to think of some smooth segue back into a normal chat.
“But, if you sit right here a minute, I’ll go get my railroad scrapbook.” He pushes himself up and off the plaid couch that Mamaw picked out before she passed away more than thirteen years ago.
As he walks around the corner and up the three stairs to his bedroom, I follow, wanting to make sure he doesn’t overexert himself. His bedroom is neat and spare, the bed is made and is covered in a quilt Mamaw sewed; on his nightstand sits a tissue box and an old beige rotary telephone. After moving a small cardboard box from the top shelf of his closet, Papaw pulls out a thick, three-ring binder and lays it on the bed. It is bursting with papers and the cover, decorated in 90s-era geometric neon lines, is dusty. I touch the corner, not knowing what to expect.
“Well, here she is!” He is excited that I am interested, willing to listen.
“This is great, Papaw, how long have you been keeping this?”
“Oh, years and years. Let’s take it into the living room where the light is better. Can’t hardly see back here.” He runs a hand through his pure white hair, and I follow him through the house back to the couch, carrying the binder.
Tugging his University of Tennessee football sweatshirt down, Papaw opens the scrapbook across his lap. The life-alert necklace that Mom and Dad bought for him after his heart attack bulges beneath the sweatshirt. He is good about wearing it every day, better than I thought he would be.
“Eh, law. I’d forgotten some of this stuff was in here.”
The pages, covered in protective plastic sheets, are filled with old postcards, black and white photos of various engines and boxcars, railroad roster lists, and newspaper articles. “See this list here?” He taps the page he’s turned to with his index finger. “This shows that I was on top of the seniority list. By this point—what year is this, oh, nineteen and eighty-three—I’d been there the longest, so I had my choice of shift and location. I made sure I got seven to three, five days a week, down here at the Erwin yards. When I first started, they had me all the way up in the Kingsport yards. That’s, what, forty miles or so north?”
I nod, smiling. “How long did you work at the railroad?”
“Well, let’s see. Thirty-seven years and five months. I was a brakeman and a conductor on the yards.” He points to a photo of a younger version of himself and a man in plaid pants I recognize as A.R. Morgan from church. My cousin Josh, about age four, hides behind Papaw’s legs. “A.R. didn’t believe me when I told him I was retiring the first of June, then he decided to retire that very same day.” He laughs as he turns a few more stiff pages. “Oh, and here is an old income tax form, one of the first. Let’s see, says it’s from nineteen and thirteen. What’s that say?” He points to some fine print under the title, and tilts his head back so he can see through the bottom half of his bifocals. “‘Twenty to one thousand dollars failure to return to IRS by March first.’ Well, what do you know.” He looks up at me as he turns the page and I grin. “Now, this is what you were wanting. See this here? It isn’t that old, maybe a few years, but it tells all about the elephant.”
As he pulls the photocopied article from its plastic sheathing, I remember what Mom told me when I asked her about Mary.
“You’ve got to be careful because everyone has a different story. Even the newspapers.” Aside from getting the facts right, I think she worried I would bring up an uncomfortable topic. I’d already noticed that the main points between articles were generally the same, but the details changed from teller to teller, depending on what the author’s parents or grandparents had passed down. I knew from growing up in the area that the story was both a sore spot and perverse point of pride.
“Stick with family,” she had said.
“Well, what about you?” I watched the contours of her face and saw a memory come floating back.
“When I was a girl, and we lived down on South Main, my friends and I would dig holes around the railroad—where Mary was supposed to be buried—to see if we could find any elephant bones. Can you imagine? Elephant bones in the middle of Erwin.”
“Does that look like it will be of some help?” Papaw asks.
I nod. “Yes, very much so. Thanks a lot.”
The article from the Bristol Herald Courier is titled “Erwin resists its claim to fame: 1916 elephant hanging still haunts town.” Papaw’s copy has the date cut off. Taking up the top portion of the middle two columns is a familiar image. Mom has a newspaper article from Chicago, with that same photo, framed. It must have gotten packed during the renovations of our house because I haven’t seen it in years. I remember the paper was yellowed behind the glass, but the huge creature could still be seen clearly, legs dangling, high above the sepia railroad tracks. It was as if Mary was performing part of a circus act, floating in the air with ease. September 13, 1916. A Wednesday.
The Sparks World Famous Show—a railcar circus—spent September of 1916 touring Appalachia, moving through Kentucky and Virginia before making its way down the tracks to the northeast corner of Tennessee. Charlie Sparks, the owner of the circus, called it his “100% Sunday School Show,” clean enough for all ages to enjoy. He had many acts lined up to wow the crowd, including the Conners Troupe on the tight wire, trained ponies, Captain Tiebor's seals, and a Wild West concert. But the headliner for the show was Mary, a massive Asian elephant. Most people in the area had never seen such an exotic animal before. The newspaper from nearby Johnson City ran an ad claiming Mary was “the largest living land animal on earth.” The posters for the show said Mary weighed over five tons and was a full three inches taller than P.T. Barnum’s elephant, Jumbo.
Charlie Sparks had grown up around performers. By the time he turned eight, he was the drummer for the Jack Harvey Minstrels and had earned the title of World Champion Clogger. After Charlie’s father passed away, he used his talent for singing and dancing on street corners, doing well enough to support himself and his mother. Before too long, Charlie and his mother met John Weisman, a vaudeville performer traveling with a circus. They became close friends. When Charlie’s mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis, she made John promise to care for Charlie. He agreed. After she passed, John adopted Charlie, going so far as to take the boy’s last name, as it sounded more circusy. Charlie lived the circus life with his adopted father until 1901, when John decided he’d had enough of the constant traveling and settled down in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He left the circus to Charlie, who decided to make use of the railroads criss-crossing the country and converted the show into a railcar circus.
I have no idea what Charlie actually looked like. I have been unable to locate a copy of the circus posters or any other picture. I imagine him a roundish man on the short side with a slightly receding hair line, just enough to notice. His dark hair is combed straight back and he meticulously maintains a huge handlebar mustache that is always shiny and smooth. During shows he wears a full three-piece suit that includes a brilliant red vest and a black coat with tails. His gold pocket watch is his prized possession, the only object of his father’s that his mother kept.
Mary the elephant was Charlie’s star. Because John bought Mary when she was only four years old, she’d grown up around their makeshift family, right in the circus. Charlie treated her like a close pet, or even a child. Mary was the first wild animal Sparks’ circus had taken in, and by 1916, she had been with them for more than twenty years. Mary’s celebrated performance included twenty-five tunes on musical horns and a batting average of .400. She drew crowds.
“Wish I could have seen her perform,” Papaw says, clearing his throat, “She was a pretty famous elephant as elephants go. Though I don’t know, it’s all hearsay nowadays.” I nod, not wanting to interrupt his memories, and follow his finger down the first column of text.
While the Sparks World Famous Show was in St. Paul, Virginia, a small town in the southwestern corner of the state, Walter “Red” Eldridge approached Charlie about a possible job. He had been working in the Riverside Hotel in St. Paul, but had no family there to tie him down. He wanted to travel. Despite his lack of experience, Red—nicknamed for his flaming hair—was hired as an elephant handler. He was assigned tasks like watering the elephants and preparing them for parades and shows. Charlie Sparks spent a good deal of time showing Red how to handle Mary with a patient and gentle hand, as he had always done.
Red left St. Paul and traveled south with the circus to Kingsport, Tennessee, for his first full day of work. Sullivan County was holding its annual county fair on September 12th and Kingsport was decked out, ready for a celebration. Circuses did not come around often; the mountains proved a formidable barrier. The muddy streets were crowded with wagons and excited families on foot. One of the main events was the parade, featuring “Mighty Mary” and her fellow elephants from Sparks’ World Famous Show linked tail to trunk. Hundreds of people lined the streets in anticipation.
Accounts vary, whispered among locals at Erwin’s Clinchfield Drugs counter or the laundromat, but the most widely known is that Red, new to the job, was leading Mary along Center Street toward a watering hole. Mary stopped when she saw a watermelon rind in a ditch. She reached out her long, sensitive trunk for the dirty red fruit. Forgetting the tender-care approach Sparks insisted on, Red prodded hard with his bull hook to bring her back into line. Without warning, Mary turned on Red; she curled her trunk tight around the man’s frame, lifting him into the air, and then flung him into a concession stand on the side of the road. Red was sprawled on the ground, motionless. And then Mary stepped on his head, crushing it like a melon.
“Eh, law, I suppose that feller had a pretty rough first day.” Papaw laughs at his own joke, eyes squinting.
People screamed, people ran. In the chaos, the stunned crowd began to chant, “Kill the elephant! Kill the elephant!” A local blacksmith tried to take the matter into his own hands. Before Charlie could stop him, he shot at Mary, but the bullets bounced off her thick hide. Charlie, trying to spare his beloved Mary, did his best to calm the raucous crowd. He talked them out of killing her right then, but knew he would have to face the situation before too long. The crowd dispersed and the circus went on as usual that evening. Mary was allowed to perform her normal routine and she did so just as she always had.
“You know,” Papaw says, “I’ve heard it said that the elephant had an abscessed tooth and when the feller hit her with the stick she just couldn’t take the pain. But most think her teeth were just fine. Who knows.”
After the show finished, some sources say Sullivan County officials arrested Mary, staking her next to the county jail, since she would not fit inside. Charlie spent the evening deliberating about what to do. News of Red’s death spread around the region quickly; the morning papers covered the story, adding in fabricated accounts of other brutal killings Mary had committed. The elephant that had once been known as “Mighty Mary” was now dubbed “Murderous Mary.” When Johnson City and Rogersville, the Tennessee towns next on the circus’s rail route, heard of the incident, they refused to allow the show to continue with Mary. A rumor began that angry Kingsport citizens were planning to borrow a Civil War cannon to kill Charlie’s elephant.
Charlie realized there was no way to save or spare Mary, so he focused on finding a humane way to take her life. Her hide was too thick for bullets, as the afternoon had proven, so the possibility of electrocution was brought up. In 1903, Thomas Edison had electrocuted Topsy, a rogue elephant in the Forepaugh Circus on Coney Island. Initially, Topsy was to be hanged, but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals protested. Instead, Topsy was fed carrots laced with potassium cyanide just before 6600 volts of electricity were sent through her body. She was dead in seconds. Edison later released a film of the execution called Electrocuting an Elephant. Unfortunately for Charlie Sparks, the region did not have a large enough source of electricity, and he knew Mary was too smart to eat poisoned food.
Charlie understood that if he didn’t cooperate, he might be financially ruined. He resolved the only feasible, and quick, way to put Mary down was to hang her. Being the entertainer he was, he decided to take the execution a step further and make it a public spectacle; it would take place just after the matinee performance. Hanging would also avoid any injury to the crowd. Now Charlie was faced with the task of finding something strong enough, and tall enough, to hang an elephant. There was no equipment in Kingsport that could handle Mary’s five tons, so a plan was hatched to travel southeast to the railroad boomtown of Erwin, the home of Clinchfield Railroad’s repair facility and the area’s only derrick car, a 100-ton railroad crane. Because of the torrential downpours earlier that summer, a lot of track over the mountain in North Carolina had been washed out and railroad officials refused to send the derrick car forty miles north when it might be needed in an emergency. The circus would have to come to them.
The next morning, September 13th, Mary was transported by rail to Erwin for one last performance. The Sparks World Famous Show drew a crowd that rainy afternoon, despite the fact that Mary wasn’t under the Big Top. Her part would come later. Between the matinee and evening shows, Mary was paraded down Love Street in the rain. Charlie Sparks decided that to keep Mary calm, the rest of the elephants should join her, walking trunk to tail as they always did. Charlie hoped Mary wouldn’t suspect anything out of the ordinary. They crossed Main Avenue, right past the corner shop where The Hanging Elephant Antique Store would be, and were led down to the Clinchfield Railroad yard behind my church.
All of Erwin, more than 2500 people, showed up for the hanging, which Charlie decided was no additional charge. The crowd watched in wonder, and perhaps shock, as a seven-eighths inch chain was looped around Mary’s solid neck. The derrick operator was signaled to lift. He pushed the handle forward and the chain tightened, slowly raising Mary’s enormous feet off the ground. Mary struggled against the machine, thrashing her thick legs.
When Mary was five feet off the ground, something went wrong. Several witnesses claim those in charge forgot to release the chain from Mary’s ankle, others say the chain around her neck just wasn’t strong enough. There were cracks and pops and ripping sounds as Mary anguished in the air. And then, in a loud rush, Mary fell, sending a tremor through the wet ground. The chain around her neck had broken. The crowd scattered backwards, afraid Mary, angry and confused, would try to escape or possibly even attack. But Mary sat quietly, unmoving, in pain. The drop to the iron track had broken her hip. One of the circus workers climbed Mary as if she were a slick boulder and placed a new, thicker chain around her neck. As she was hoisted over the heads of the spectators for a second time, Mary—broken and wet—resisted less. The chain held strong and in a few minutes, Mary’s fitful body calmed and she died.
The crowd, with nothing left to see, wandered back home in the rain. According to some witnesses, as Mary’s fellow elephants were led away without their leader, they trumpeted, calling for her to join them. It took several shows for them to get used to working without Mary. Mary’s body was taken down from the derrick car and buried in a makeshift grave along the railroad tracks. No one remembers quite where. No stone was placed to mark the site. Charlie Sparks’ World Famous Show went on to perform in Johnson City the next night and then in Rogersville as planned, before traveling out of the region for good.
As Papaw and I skim the article together on his couch, he sometimes reads a sentence or two aloud. “See this here? When the elephant stopped to nibble on a watermelon rind, Eldridge hit her head with a stick. Suddenly Mary lifted him with her trunk and threw him into the side of a wooden stand. That’s the version I always heard.”
I follow his plump, tired finger with my eyes. The article mentions several times how much Erwin would like to forget about Mary. Hilda Padgett of the Unicoi Historical Society is quoted as saying, “It made people from Erwin look like a bunch of bloodthirsty rednecks.” But Ruth Pieper, a local who has argued with City Hall for years to recognize the story of Mary and acknowledge its place in the town’s history, says, “[City Leaders] want to keep it quiet, but it’s part of our history. And if it’s told correctly, people will understand and won’t blame Erwin anymore.”
“People here have argued about this since it happened, ninety-two years ago. I’d be careful asking what they thought of it all, they’d probably get angry.” Papaw touches the grainy gray photo of Mary, stationary in the air.
“Yeah.” I smile at him, wrinkling my nose. “That’s why I asked you. I figured you wouldn’t get so mad.”
He grins. “Eh, law. I suppose that was smart.”
Most people, even in neighboring towns, have never heard of Murderous Mary. The single photograph of the incident, the same image etched on the windows of The Hanging Elephant Antiques and faded to sepia in my mother’s Chicago newspaper article, was apparently submitted, not long after Mary’s death, to the magazine Argosy. The staff at Argosy rejected the photograph, calling it a phony. Only Erwin knows what really happened that day, and the days leading up.
I’ve learned that knowledge of the hanging induces an aggressive pride; people claim the story as their own, asserting, “I’m from there,” when overhearing any discussion of the incident, correcting the speaker with the version they learned from their family. And yet, when asked directly about Mary, many people will just shrug, not wanting to talk about it—especially to outsiders. Mary is their hushed secret.
I sometimes wonder whether Charlie Sparks ever came back to Erwin to find the unmarked grave of his beloved elephant in the railroad yards. Did he regret taking his show through Tennessee? Did he know Mary had an insolent streak in her, or was he just as surprised as the crowd? Was he angry at the railroad in Erwin for agreeing to kill Mary, or was he resigned to lose his oldest pet for the sake of a paycheck? It seems history—and legend—have painted Mary to be a novelty, an exotic animal that meant the world to one man and death to another. To Erwin, she was just a favor.
I tell Papaw I’d better get going, and begin to stand up.
“I’ll get you a photocopy of this here article and mail it to you. And let me know if you want any more information about that elephant. There’s no one left that was there, but I’ll see what I can find.” He struggles to his feet to see me off; I watch, ready to catch him should he fall.