Elephants Never Forget
Memories. Bad ones, plagued the small town of Erwin, Tennessee for more than a hundred years. But this is a story of redemption, how history can be tinged with fable, and how one small town has turned tragedy into hope.
In 1916, a heinous act of animal abuse was committed when a circus animal was mistreated and then hung in the town. The event haunted Erwin ever since.
Animal abuse was rampant in the traveling circuses that crossed the USA at the turn of the century when a mistreated elephant and a bellhop turned ‘trainer’ came together in Kingsport, Tennessee. Her name was Mary and she was declared a danger to humanity when her attempt to eat some discarded watermelon rinds resulted in cruel and brutal treatment from her so called ‘trainer.’ Well, Mary ended up throwing the man off her back and killing him, then deflecting a barrage of bullets that did not penetrate her skin. Quickly dubbed “Murderous Mary” there was a public outcry to put her to death, and towns along the circus’ future route feared her arrival.
Erwin was a railroad town. Even today you see signs of their railroad history in the names of places like the Whistle Stop Deli and the Steel Rails Coffee House. The library is housed in the renovated station. Erwin is still a hub where many train lines cross.
No one in Erwin came up with the plan, but it was decided to hang Mary and Erwin was the closest major railroad yard with a 100-ton derrick car and crane. Poor Mary was taken to Erwin, and with much difficulty, hung. She was reportedly buried near the tracks, but no one is sure exactly where. Ever since that day the awful deed has tormented the town and its residents. Details lost, replaced by only the memory of a town that hung an elephant.
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Mary’s death, town leaders decided to embrace the past, tell the story from their perspective, and accomplish something positive for animal rights. Specifically, for the protection of elephants. Many don’t know that a few hours away, just south of Nashville, is the home of The Elephant Sanctuary, a 2,700-acre preserve for elephants retired from zoos and circuses. It is a true licensed and accredited sanctuary, no public allowed. The best way to see the elephants is through live-streaming EleCams on the property.
The town began a campaign to raise money for the Sanctuary and to educate the public about elephants and history. A ‘trunk project’ was created to raise awareness and create dialogue in the community. Regional artists were brought in to paint fiberglass elephants auctioned as a fundraiser during the first week-long event. It was such a success, people demanded to know when the next “herd” would be available to purchase. Today several of the colorful statues liven the downtown community and local merchants have been turned into storytellers, explaining Mary’s sad story, Erwin’s unfortunate place in history, and how important it is to protect and save elephants in the wild.
As one nearby resident said, “We’re telling a new elephant story now.”
NPR Podcast – Four high school juniors from nearby Elizabethton High, put together an 11-minute podcast about Erwin and Mary for NPR’s first student Podcast Challenge. They won the high school category and their story about redemption, Murderous Mary & the Rise of Erwin, is worth a listen.
If you love elephants – I urge you to visit the website of The Elephant Sanctuary. You won’t be sorry. It’s impressive and I think not very well known. It opened in 1995 and has housed 28 elephants through the years, with 11 currently in residence. Their Mission Statement captures their purpose nicely: The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee exists to provide captive elephants with individualized care, the companionship of a herd, and the opportunity to live out their lives in a safe haven dedicated to their well-being, and to raise public awareness of the complex needs of elephants in captivity, and the crisis facing elephants in the wild.