Throughout his life, Charlie Sparks, owner of Sparks World Famous Shows, knew how to please an audience.
was the son of English music hall performers and, by age eight, was performing as part of the highly regarded Jack Harvey Minstrels as a drummer and World Champion Clogger.
father died, he
sang and danced on street corners to support his
Shortly thereafter, Weisman not only adopted Charlie
, but took the unusual step of changing his own last name to Sparks
- perhaps because it was a more "circus sounding" name.
In 1901, when Charlie
was 25, his
father grew weary of touring and bought a hotel near Winston-Salem, North Carolina, adding a fishing lake and a small zoo.
This tragedy left Charlie
in full control of the circus.
knew that, for his
show to thrive, it had to latch onto the vast network of railroads that were spreading across the country at that time.
Sometime after 1903, he
moved the show on the rails, starting with just one rail car, performing horses and ponies, and draft stock.
became a trusted and well-respected figure in the circus world, and was a common sight strolling down the street in his
Stetson hat and cane, a smoldering cigar in his
But Mary was more than just a performer to Charlie Sparks
After Charlie married Addie Mitchell, the circus's head cook and animal doctor, Mary, in essence, became the child that this childless couple never had.
firmly instructed his employees to be kind, gentle and respectful to all his animals, especially his beloved Mary.
To avoid tipping off rival shows, Charlie
routes under his
hat, and rarely advertised in circus trade papers.
Mere days before his
show arrived in town, his
scouts would plaster the area with colorful posters.
On the morning of September 11, 1916, before the circus arrived in the small mining community of St. Paul, Virginia, a local hotel worker named Walter "Red" Eldridge spotted one of these posters.
was about to change the life of the Sparks circus forever.
For the next few days, Eldridge was instructed according to Sparks'
"gentling care" philosophy when it came to the animals.
Hearing the screams, Charlie Sparks
rushed over and put his
arm around Mary's trunk, calming her
then saw the mangled body of Red Eldridge, the magnitude of Mary's actions suddenly apparent.
But what was even more frightening was the chant coming from the crowd.
Anger had burned away the fear in many of the onlookers.
Meanwhile, Charlie Sparks
staff had a gut-wrenching decision to make concerning Mary's fate.
was a smart businessman, and he
knew that, if he
didn't satisfy the public's desire for swift justice, his
show could be financially ruined.
final decision ultimately came down to his
concern for public safety.
"A human's life is something I don't want charged against me," he
later claimed in a 1924 interview.
"If people in the business get hurt, that's our lookout.
But with an outsider - that's different."
With great reluctance, Charlie
decided that Mary had to be put to death publicly.
But then more problems arose for Sparks
The summer of 1916 had brought torrential rains that caused floods and wash outs all over the mountains.
Clinchfield refused to send a derrick car all the way to Kingsport when an emergency might require it south over the Blue Ridge Mountains.
wanted to use a derrick car, he
would have to take his
circus south to Clinchfield's headquarters and repair facilities in Erwin, Tennessee.
Some Erwin citizens and Sparks
performers couldn't bear to watch the execution, and quickly fled the scene.
In an attempt to calm Mary, Charlie
decided to have her walk to the derrick with the other elephants, trunk to tail, like they did most every day.
One of the more persistent and bizarre stories surrounding this event is that, in an attempt to reclaim some of his financial losses, Charlie Sparks
ordered his roustabouts to dig Mary up and cut off her tusks for a touring exhibit.
Another story claims that the Associated Press
asked Charlie Sparks
to dig up Mary and hang her again for a photograph.
these people where soooooooo SICK and I thought Charlie
Despite the pain, she
would probably have been happy to see Charlie
again for comfort and protection.