Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Elphant* (for Elephant*)

"Murderous Mary," they called her. Though prior to September 11, 1916, the fateful day she killed an assistant animal trainer (little more than a newly arrived hobo turned janitor) in Kingsport, Tennessee, the five-ton Asian elephant had been a gentle and beloved beast. But when Mary paused the circus parade to investigate a watermelon rind on the side of the road, causing the trainer to inexpertly prod her behind the ear with an "elephant hook," she reacted with unexpected violence. She grabbed him with her trunk, threw him against a drink stand, and then stepped squarely on his head. The shocked onlookers demanded justice, crying, "Kill the elephant! Kill the elephant" The media played a major part in painting Mary as a "murderer"; they actually held a trial and convicted her. The circus owner, who had been with Mary since she was a baby, but whose motto seemed to be "Elephants are an investment," reluctantly bowed to pressure from the angry mob and sanctioned the dispatch. At first they attempted to shoot her, and when that didn't work, they contemplated "electrocuting" her (such as was actually done to an elephant named Topsy on Coney Island in 1903, and filmed by the Edison Corporation). Finally, they decided to hang her from a railroad derrick in the nearby town of Erwin. Whether this was more for the spectacle of the thing or because it was deemed a "humane" death (which it certainly wasn't) is hard to say. Later on it was learned, though, that she had had a badly infected tooth near the site where the untrained trainer had poked her, which surely must have exacerbated her outsize response. I recently saw a production of Elephant's Graveyard, by George Brant, in an odd old Masonic temple in downtown Albany. It treated the sad and peculiar events in Erwin like a morality tale told from the differing perspectives of both circus folk and townspeople. It also brought to mind that Indian parable about the blind men and the elephant, which was so large each man could only perceive a small portion of it (trunk, tail, and so on) and therefore all of them felt and described it differently. At one point, a character in the play invokes the idea of lynchings, a popular activity among Southern whites back then, and wonders why Erwin should be so notorious for the elephant hanging when so many black men had been hung there as well. You can read more about this dismal bit of Americana in the N.Y. Daily News and in the U.K. Daily Mail, which poignantly notes: "That night the circus went ahead as usual, but after the show one of the remaining elephants broke away from the herd and began running towards the railway yard. Since wild elephants are thought to return to the bones of fallen family members for many years, he perhaps went in search of Mary. But he was quickly recaptured and returned to the life of captive misery from which he had escaped..."

There were four instances of today's typo found in OhioLINK, and 147 in WorldCat. These errors should be swiftly eradicated, of course. But a much graver concern to us all is the potential eradication of endangered elephants, whom experts are now predicting could possibly go extinct within the next decade.

(Photograph of Mary hung in Erwin, from Wikimedia Commons.)

Carol Reid

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