How Erwin, Tenn., Is Reinventing Its Legacy Of Killing Mary The Elephant A team of high school students in Tennessee researched the century-old story of "Murderous Mary" and found a town eager for redemption. Their podcast is a winner in NPR's Student Podcast Challenge.

The Town That Hanged An Elephant Is Now Working To Save Them

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NPR's education team held a contest this spring for middle and high school students. The challenge - create a podcast about anything. More than 25,000 students answered that challenge. The grand prize winner at the high school level tells the story of a tiny town in east Tennessee. It spent a century haunted by something strange and terrible that happened there. NPR's Cory Turner visited the students and shares their story.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: The school sits in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains, and I needed the students' help pronouncing its name.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Elizabethton.

TURNER: Elizabethton High School - and their story takes place nearby in September 1916. A circus elephant named Mary, five tons with enormous tusks, killed a man, and the locals clamored for her to be killed in return. So she was taken just a few miles away to the railroad town of Erwin, which has spent the past hundred years trying to forget what happened next. Students John Gouge, Jaxton Holly, Deanna Hull and Caleb Miller, all juniors, made the winning podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MURDEROUS MARY AND THE RISE OF ERWIN")

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: When you hear the town of Erwin, Tenn., most people think, oh, that's the town that hung the elephant. What you might not know is Erwin is not at fault.

JOHN GOUGE: We're students from Elizabethton right outside of Erwin. We're here to tell you the story from Erwin's perspective and how the town has grown from this.

DEANNA HULL: We have interviewed politicians, archivists, community members and citizens from Erwin and the surrounding region, and this is their collective story.

TURNER: In fact, the students wove all of these voices together to tell Mary's story, which begins with the Sparks Circus. She was its star attraction. And when the circus came to a nearby town, she was paraded through the town to a park with a pond. The students interviewed Erwin's mayor, Doris Hensley, about what happened next.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MURDEROUS MARY AND THE RISE OF ERWIN")

DORIS HENSLEY: There were some hogs out there eating watermelon rinds. And her trainer, who was new, and he was riding her. And he was trying to get her to stay in line with the parade going down to the ponds. And she kept going over toward the watermelon rinds. He took his stick - they call it the training stick - that he had, and he hit her on the head with it. Well, she got upset with that. And so she took her trunk, and she wrapped it around him and then pulled him off of her back and threw him on the ground, and then stepped on him.

TURNER: Now, in Mary's defense, the so-called trainer wasn't really a trainer at all. He'd been a hotel bellhop just a few days before, and this stick had a metal hook on it. The students also interviewed Erwin local Jamie Rice.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MURDEROUS MARY AND THE RISE OF ERWIN")

JAMIE RICE: And all of the next stops beyond Erwin, all of those mayors and city officials were saying you can't come to our town when you have this murderous animal.

TURNER: So the circus relented and agreed to kill Mary. One man had already tried shooting her, but the bullets were no match for her thick hide. Another Erwin local, Patrick Callahan, told the students...

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MURDEROUS MARY AND THE RISE OF ERWIN")

PATRICK CALLAHAN: And because of the time period it was, they didn't have a gun that was big enough to shoot it. So they decided they wanted to use the railroad to hang it. And since Erwin was the largest rail yard in the area and had the biggest crane that they would take it over there and use their crane to actually hang it with. And supposedly, they brought it to Erwin. They tried to hang it, and the chain broke, so they hung it the second time, which worked. And then, supposedly, it was buried down behind the railroad yard somewhere. But nobody really knows where.

TURNER: There's even a haunting photograph of this giant crane attached to a 100-ton railcar hoisting Mary by her neck about 10 feet off the ground. Again, here's Deanna, one of the students behind the podcast, and Erwin's Jamie Rice.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MURDEROUS MARY AND THE RISE OF ERWIN")

HULL: The stigma of Mary's death has haunted Erwin and its citizens for many years.

RICE: I would say up until my generation, all the generations before me, every one had a black eye over it. Like, no one really wanted to talk about it. And whenever you did go out into other areas and people - you would say, oh, I'm from Erwin, and they would think about it. And they would say, Erwin, Erwin, why do I know that name? Oh, you're the town that hung the elephant.

TURNER: Rice runs a group called RISE Erwin

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MURDEROUS MARY AND THE RISE OF ERWIN")

RICE: So we decided for the 100-year anniversary that we were not going to bury this story anymore. We were not going to pretend it didn't happen. We were going to tell it. But we were going to tell it from our perspective and in a new way. And so, basically, we just decided, you know, we're not going to be ashamed anymore. And so we actually called the elephant sanctuary in Hohenwald Tenn.

TURNER: You heard her right. There is a sanctuary for elephants retired from zoos and circuses about a six-hour drive from Erwin. The podcast is full of these stranger-than-fiction moments.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MURDEROUS MARY AND THE RISE OF ERWIN")

RICE: And I called them up - just their 1-800 number. And I said my name is Jamie Rice. This is a really weird phone call. I live in Erwin. And we feel really bad about Mary. And the guy just laughed, and he said, we talk about Erwin all the time. People come to the elephant sanctuary in Hohenwald, which is right south of Nashville, and they want to talk about Erwin. And so he just laughed, and he said, we will partner with you. We will help you any way we can.

TURNER: So the town of Erwin spent nearly $9,000 to buy eight fiberglass elephants. They were then painted by local artists, displayed all over downtown Erwin and eventually auctioned off. And the money went to the elephant sanctuary. Jamie Rice says lots of business owners started getting questions from out-of-towners asking, what is the deal with all these elephants?

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MURDEROUS MARY AND THE RISE OF ERWIN")

RICE: Well, that's their opportunity to say, we love elephants. We support the elephant sanctuary in Hohenwald, and this is why.

TURNER: Again, Erwin's Mayor Hensley.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MURDEROUS MARY AND THE RISE OF ERWIN")

HENSLEY: So when we get the elephants in, we display them on Main Street. And then we have - we auction them off. It's always like, when are you getting a new herd? They want a new herd of elephants to come into town because they've become part of the town. It's kind of our identity right now is the elephant town.

TURNER: The students who made this podcast - Jaxton, John, Deanna and Caleb - all say they didn't know much of Mary's story when they started. Their teachers, Alex Campbell and Tim Wasem, had their whole class work on different podcasts. In fact, junior John Gouge says he was so awed by the other stories his classmates had put together - not to mention the nearly 6,000 other podcast entries from students all over the country - that he simply didn't believe it when he and his teammates learned they'd won.

GOUGE: I was just in disbelief because they asked for what we were thinking, and I just stood up. I said, I'm kind of surprised right now to be honest.

TURNER: Teacher Alex Campbell says he even brought in Erwin's Mayor Hensley to make the surprise announcement.

ALEX CAMPBELL: We thought...

GOUGE: No chance (ph).

CAMPBELL: Yeah. They're going to run around. They're going to slap each other. There's going to be high fives. They're going to pass out. They're going to throw up. But you got to understand. This group was a very quiet group.

TURNER: Which helps explain why they largely kept their own voices out of the podcast, giving the last word to the people of Erwin. With their winning entry, the teens say they hope Erwin will no longer be known as the town that killed an elephant. It'll be the town that killed an elephant but is now doing everything it can to help the next Mary.

JAXTON HOLLY: Jaxton Holly.

GOUGE: John Gouge.

HULL: Deanna Hull.

CALEB MILLER: Caleb Miller.

TURNER: And Cory Turner, NPR News.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Elizabethton, Tenn.

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