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A dark chapter in circus history

Published September 08. 2012 09:02AM

There was a buzz of excitement in Mauch Chunk when the Sparks World Famous circus arrived in town on Sept. 6, 1912.

A noon parade, which one Mauch Chunk Daily Times reporter said "was a good advertisement for the afternoon performance," featured three bands and a calliope, as well as a herd of elephants and camels, plenty of clowns and "some of the prettiest and most refined looking lady riders ever seen here."

Citizens who accompanied the wagons to the show grounds were amazed to see the workers erect six large tents in less than an hour. Noting "an entire absence of bulldog methods and profanity," the writer determined that "there appeared to be a better class of working men around the show."

While setting up, one circus worker was heard to politely ask a group of intruding spectators to "please get out of the way."

In an early advertisement, circus owner Charles Sparks said his circus took pride in having a classy work environment.

"The exhibitions founded and operated by men of brains and financial standing, and who desire to establish and maintains reputation with the public of fair treatment, honorable business methods and of giving clean, high class entertainment free from all objectionable features, giving the greatest amount of possible for the price of admission charged. Shows of this class are usually long-lived and always return to the patrons under the same name and title, having nothing to fear from previous visits," it stated.

The circus offered to pay $1,000 to any one "showing proof that the show tolerates, harbors or carries any form of graft, gambling devices, game of chance or any other scheme whereby the public is cheated in any manner whatsoever."

The Sparks' circus was also well-known for its animal show.

"The exhibition of trained wild animals with the Sparks shows is unequaled by any of its competitors in this country and the thrilled performances by this big group of forest bred animals is a striking example of man's great mastery over the brute creation," one advertisement stated.

Among the most celebrated performers were the "baseball elephants.'

"Their equals are nowhere on earth," one writer said of the prized beasts.

One of the biggest headliners in the Sparks Circus was "Big Mary," a five-ton Asian elephant. When the circus rolled into Mauch Chunk on Sept. 6 in 1912, a writer noted how citizens "gazed with awe at Big Mary."

While Sparks obviously built his small circus into "one of the greatest amusement concerns in the world," it was not without one notable controversy that led to one of the darkest chapter in circus history. Four years after its triumphant visit to Mauch Chunk, Sparks found itself embroiled in an animal rights incident.

The episode began on Sept. 11, 1916 during a stop in Tennessee. Red Eldridge, hired as an assistant elephant trainer by Sparks, was killed while taking Big Mary to a pond in Kingsport, Tenn.

There were different accounts of the death. One "witness" claimed that Eldridge had prodded Big Mary behind the ear with a hook after she reached down to nibble on a watermelon. The enraged elephant then snatched Eldridge with her trunk, threw him against a drink stand and stomped on his body.

A newspaper account, from the Johnson City Staff was more graphic in describing the grisly death. It said that after being lifted 10 feet in the air, Eldridge was slammed to the ground. After sinking her giant tusks entirely through the body, Big Mary then "trampled the dying form of Eldridge as if seeking a murderous triumph, then with a sudden ... swing of her massive foot hurled his body into the crowd."

Most accounts indicate that the elephant calmed down after the attack and didn't charge the onlookers, even though many thirsted for retribution, chanting, "Kill the elephant!"

A local blacksmith answered the call to exact revenge on the beast, and tried to shoot the elephant. The bullets, however, had little effect.

Word of the trainer's death quickly spread through the region and some town officials from several nearby communities threatened not to allow the circus to visit if Mary was included. Charles Sparks, decided that the only way to diffuse the hostile crowd and preserve his business was to have a public execution of the elephant.

After being transported by rail to Erwin, Tenn., the animal was hanged by the neck from a rail car-mounted industrial crane. A crowd of over 2,500 people, including many children, was horrified at the public spectacle. Some outraged critics considered this one of the most severe acts of circus animal abuse during the early 20th century.

The season of 1928 was the last year the show was operated by Sparks. Following the season, it was sold to H.B. Gentry, who was an agent for the American Circus Corporation. In 1929, the Sparks show, along with the other American Circus Corporation properties, were sold to John Ringling.

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