Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Hanging (Updated) (And Again) (One Last Time)

For Ted:

Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, elephants were all the rage in circuses and zoos. Barnum wasn't the first, but he certainly enlarged the trend; Jumbo was one of his greatest publicity coups, and kept making money for the showman even after his death.

A tragic side note to the captivity of elephants was that, whether due to mistreatment or to temperamental changes caused by their breeding cycles, these elephants (mostly the bulls) occassionally struck out at humans, be they handlers or simply onlookers. Often there was a public outcry following such incidents, and the showmen bowed to public pressure to destroy the animals. However, being showmen, they often staged these as public executions and charged admission.

Most of the elephants were either shot or electrocuted. On one occasion, though, in Erwin, Tennessee, an elephant was lynched. Mary, a performer with Sparks World Famous Shows, killed her handler, a man named Red Eldridge; whether she did it because he was abusive, out of boredom, or out of discomfort from abscessed teeth is unclear. What is clear is that it was done publicly, with a crowd of local witnesses; and Charlie Sparks knew that he would never be allowed to perform locally with a killer elephant in his troupe. Mary had to be put to death.

Guns were tried, but had no effect; electrocution may or may not have been attempted as well. Finally, Mary was hung from a derrick car in the local trainyard. Actually, she was hung twice; the first chain snapped under her weight. Finally she died, and was buried in the train yards.

For more, including a possibly-fake photo of the hanging, check out this article.

Update: Jason Erik Lundberg points out that Jeff Vandermeer wrote a story about this incident called "Mahout." Thanks, Jason!

Updated Once More: Gwenda Bond further points out the Glen David Gold story from McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales entitled "The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter" (excerpted here), which deals with the same event. I should have known this, since I own the volume, but I believe this was one of the stories inside which I gave up on shortly after starting it . . . now, of course, I have to read it. Thank you, Gwenda!

Yet Another Update: Having now read both stories, I have to confess that I don't think either captures the pathos of this event. The Vandermeer is interestingly told--I quickly forgot about the second person telling and read it as if it were first, which is sort of interesting in itself--but added little to the reality. The Gold, I felt, worked too hard to set the entire incident (fictionalized as it was) into a rational mystery-story form; the "did-she-or-did-he" at the end seemed rather beside the point. What's the point? Something about not keeping elephants in captivity, I suspect, but then preaching makes for bad fiction. Thanks, though, for the pointers.

Richard Butner points to the sad tale of Topsy the elephant, the first criminal to be Westinghoused. It's in Wikipedia so you know it's true.

And Barb Gilly, she of the amazing purse-and-wallet line, calls attention to an impending special on aggro elephants to be aired on the National Geographic Channel this Sunday. Sadly, we have no cable and thus will miss it (and do they still call it aired when it's on cable? Probably it should be injected, or inserted, or . . . OK, aired it is). Anyone who cares to report on it will receive my undying gratitude and a faux literary movement in their name. Once you've been Boing-Boinged it's really all downhill from there, isn't it?

(It's nice to have such helpful friends. Of course, there's always the chance that this is an experiment to determine how many times I will update a post . . .)


Blogger Jason Erik Lundberg said...

Jeff VanderMeer actually wrote a short story based on this event, called "Mahout."

2:09 PM  
Blogger gwenda said...

And Glen David Gold wrote "The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter," which is in the first McSweeney's Thrilling Tales antho and deals with this event. There's an excerpt here.

6:18 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Another interesting elephant in history is Topsy, the doomed pachyderm of Coney Island, immortalized in the Two Dollar Guitar song "K. 45."

9:51 PM  
Blogger Barb said...

Just in case you hadn't heard, the National Geographic Channel has a show airing this Sunday at 8 p.m. called "Elephant Rage", described thusly:

Each year, people are kicked, thrown and stomped to death by rampaging elephants. Elephants are gigantic and usually docile herbivores, but authorities say that wild elephant attacks are increasing. Why?

10:56 PM  
Blogger Justine Larbalestier said...

Completely off topic--when did you seppos (USians) start saying "aggro"?

11:01 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Completely off topic--when did you seppos (USians) start saying "aggro"?

I'm afraid I can't be much help on this, since I think I just started using it yesterday morning. It's something I've seen a few times in print but not really heard used in conversation.

I'm very curious about the etymology of "seppos," though.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Barb said...

We can tape the Natl. Geo special for you, Dave. It would be cruel to taunt you with its existence and not help you out.

J- I've long associated "aggro" with California surf/punk/skater speech, so I suppose surfers brought it back from Australia.

10:40 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Barb: you are too kind! I would love that.

11:41 AM  

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