Taken from page 23 of How To Hang An Elephant:
Well, clearly, the good citizens of Kingsport had found themselves a gun that they believed could do the job. Sparks’ dark thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. Who was that–the sheriff? “Come in,” Sparks said nervously.
The door opened and in walked publicist John Heron. He slumped down in the chair opposite Charlie Sparks.
“How’s the unloading going?” Sparks asked.
“OK, I guess.”
“She’s fine, no problem.”
Charlie nearly laughed out loud. “No problem?”
Heron clarified himself. “With her behavior, I mean. Have you figured out what you’re going to do about her yet?”
“No,” Sparks replied. “You’ve heard the rumors, of course?”
“About the lynch mob and the cannon they’re bringing down from Kingsport?”
“And others—they’re buzzing around like flies at the swimming hole.” Sparks thought for a moment, then he said: “You know we’re going to have to do something. In the public interest, I mean.”
Back inside the mansion, Amber and I stare down at the scrapbook. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for, the moment when we can get an account from an older citizen, someone at least a little closer to the time of Mary’s death. The rain continues to pour outside, and Martha Erwin’s wrinkled fingers quickly skim through the pages. From what I can tell, there’s no differentiation between her hand and her wrist, not even a plastic band of fat showing signs of joint movement. I can’t take my eyes off the place where the wrist is supposed to be. Then I see another Mary article, one with faded title “Women Weep At Elephant Hanging,” but before Amber and I can get a good look Erwin flips another page.
I want to ask her if what the book says about Mary’s hanging is true, whether or not there were other options available, and why people didn’t just shoot the poor girl. I, like the author of the book, have heard that Mary’s first attempted execution was by 44,000 volts of electricity from the nearby town of Kingsport, and that after they tried shooting her they decided to hang her. There’s even one obscure account saying that the citizens of Erwin discussed tying ropes to her front and backside and then attaching those ropes to two fast-moving train cars going in opposite directions, ripping her in two. But I try not to be overanxious. I let Martha Erwin do all the talking.
”Oh it was an act of mercy,” she says, leaning forward on the desk, her wristhands resting on the article in front of her.
I can see Amber’s head do a little jerk. I look up from Erwin’s folded hands. “An act of mercy?”
Erwin doesn’t hear me. Her eyes roam over something I can’t see. “Sparks loved that elephant like a child. Wanted to stay in business, and he didn’t want to have to electrocute the poor thing.” She talks as if all of this is right in front of her, as if she can draw it all from her own experience. But this woman can’t possibly be ninety-something.
”He ended up asking my grandfather for his rifle. They wanted to try shooting Mary,” she says, again saying this last statement with all seriousness, as if we aren’t any more capable of knowing the use of a rifle then the phenomenon of rain we encountered on our way to the mansion. “He said no because the rifle’s not really big enough to kill it (I cringe at the word ‘it,’ which seems shocking for some reason—am I starting to take this all too seriously?), and—besides—my grandfather was an Episcopalian.”
I nod, not quite sure how to take this. For the first time I actually do need her to explain the obvious.
”—And Episcopalians don’t believe in killing anybody or anything.”
”So what did they do?” I say, losing sight of what I already know. I’m right there with her, seeing it for the first time, again, drawing from some secret store of memory forgotten by the American consciousness, not yet absorbed by sensationalism or pop culture. I look around the room, trying to regain my bearings. A smiling mannequin poses in the corner, tipping a large feathered hat to an invisible audience.
”Well, I think you know that. They hung her up by a wire. The first time she fell was after twenty minutes of struggling. She suffered deeply—” Erwin’s voice trails off, her eyes roaming over the scene in her mind. I remember the three women at Walgreen’s and the way they had also said those words with reverence.
Erwin places her hands on her face, her mouth contorted in some sort of pain. She shifts to another part of the story, clearly avoiding the obvious. ”Red Eldridge, the trainer, he didn’t know how to handle an elephant. You have to think about it. People in those days didn’t know anything about training elephants, especially in America. Kingsport was having a big parade—a free parade. Mary’s job was to toss a ball to the other elephants in line behind her. She was the star,” Erwin says, moving her hands in front of her face as if she’s presenting us with a glowing orb. “That means she was the leader.” She watches us, making sure that we understand the concept. “Mary was using her trunk to pick up an old watermelon rind somebody had dropped on the side of the road, and Eldridge jabbed her in the side with a training spear. This only made her angry. She picked him up with her trunk and slung him around, and when she put him on the ground he was already half dead. Then she smashed his brains in!”
Erwin’s face is ecstatic. As she says her last words, her eyes light up. This is always the rising action, just before the denouement. Everyone loves this last bit from what I can tell. In almost every account, the writer speaks of Mary as bashing in brains the way a melon might look if somebody stomped on it. But how many people have actually seen brains smashed in?
Then there’s another part. One equally as unnerving as the brain smashing, perhaps even more psychologically disturbing. Erwin returns to the scene of the hanging, her eyes darting quickly from Mary’s hanging body. She tells us of a man who could ‘see’ things although he was blind. I remember reading this in one of the articles. Apparently this old man was really good at discovering the hiding places of wild fowl, and he could predict where each hunter would find his game with disturbing accuracy. People of Erwin came to respect him in this capacity, and he became known as a ‘seeing-man.’ On the day Mary was murdered, he had told the citizens of the town that Mary would strike on the day of her death.
”When she collapsed the first time, the wire was too weak, and she charged at the old blind man. She stomped him. Everyone panicked. Then someone ran up her back and attached a stronger wire. The second time they strung her up, she died without a struggle.”
Amber and I wait for Erwin to continue, but she doesn’t. She stands up beside the desk and closes the scrapbook. Then she tells us of the few visits she’s had from interested young people like ourselves anxious to make a play or a documentary out of the whole story. Apparently we’re not the only ones fascinated by Mary’s tale. We leave, taking a few brochures with us, and we pass by the mannequin tipping her hat to us and go out into the rain.
”You really should’ve parked up here. It’s raining.”
We smile, walking down the gravel road, past the fish hatchery, to our car.
”That was amazing! You know what this means, don’t you?” Amber grabs my elbow, pulling me to her.
”It means nobody in this whole thing is a villain. Erwin didn’t shoot her, Sparks loved her like a child and only did it because he had to stay afloat, and Eldridge wasn’t even trained to handle an elephant properly. There is no vindication. There’s no need for repentance!”
”You’re probably right,” I say, opening the car door. “But who knows anymore. That old lady might have been crazy.”
Amber gets in beside me, switching off the radio dial before it has a chance to blot out conversation. “Maybe,” she says, unsure.
”But there is one thing that’s certain. We have to find Mary’s grave.”
Next week: Part V – The Burial Grounds. Below is a preview.