Notable and Famous Elephant Deaths in History

Optional audio transcript

               When you think of elephants, you see a group of massive, gray creatures roaming the African desert, frolicking in water holes, stampeding poachers, and generally just being busy with life. These stories do not show that freedom. There are many elephant deaths out there that have been unnecessary and, sometimes, downright cruel.

You may have heard of a few of them, like the elephant dying from electrocution by Thomas Edison. I dug for stories on the deaths of elephants after realizing that I knew two separate stories of elephant deaths by humans.

Topsy, the most famous of the elephant deaths

               First, we will get the most known out of the way. Topsy the circus elephant died from a science experiment, a show of electricity. Now, Edison had electrocuted animals before, says Rutgers. These animals include dogs, baby cows, and a horse. Human electrocutions seemed inhumane, so animals seemed the next best thing.

topsy elephant deaths
Topsy from Wikipedia

The elephant had killed before, much like the other elephants before on this list. Handlers died by her foot, and she was on the chopping block before this occurrence. She was to die by electrocution and on January 4, 1903, Topsy was sent to the slab of sparks to die. It only took 10 seconds. It was deemed the most humane way to go for an elephant.

Big Mary

               The next elephant was not so lucky. Big Mary was another circus elephant who killed between 2-18 men; the actual number is unknown. What is known is that in Kingsport, Tennessee, Mary had killed a handler. It is rumored that she was not taken care of well and suffered abuse, finally getting angry and committing murder. There was a frenzy of people calling for the death of Mary. The owner of the circus, Charlie Sparks, made the decision to put the elephant down.

In Erwin Tennessee, a rail was placed to conduct a hanging of the giant. Mary was hoisted up on the rail by a crane. The first go-around, the chain around her neck snapped and she fell, breaking bones. On the second, she was successfully hanged and was declared dead around an hour later, according to Rare Historical Photos. She died on September 13, 1916.


A recent death of an elephant was in 1994 happened when Tyke, another circus elephant was in the circus ring. She had injured her handler and was pushing him around the stage. Tyke did end up killing him. She ran through Honolulu, Hawaii, injuring a circus promoter or her groomer, stories share separate titles, in the process. While on her chase, she was shot 87 times by police and died on August 20, 1994.

Tyke was born in Mozambique in 1973, taken from her home and shipped to the United States, becoming property of the Hawthorn Corporation. She did not train well and was fearful of her time in the circus, as told in a 1994 interview of Tyke’s old trainer by the Los Angeles Times. This runs the question as to why they would keep her in the circus district if she was not suitable for the job?

Old Bet

The last elephant on this list is Old Bet, who was considered a part of the first traveling circus in the United States and one of the first elephants to land there as well. She was first used as a plow, to encase massive amounts of land, much more than a horse or an ox. She was never mentioned to be a bad elephant nor an ornery one.

old bet elephant deaths
Old Bet from Roadside America

In Alfred, Maine, Old Bet was shot to death by a man named Daniel Davis for reasons only guessed. These reasons range from a distaste for elephants to jealousy to misplaced finances for sideshows. Old Bet died on July 26, 1816.

But why, I ask, why put elephant deaths in my head?

Now, you may ask, why showcase these tragic deaths of circus elephants? Why make a blog post about it? Well, you must see those wild animals, even in the best care, are what they are: wild. There are so many topics on circus performing and animal abuse before regulations were set into place, and even then, we still see abuse today. Furthermore, the idea of allowing wild or exotic animals into the entertainment field, knowing their temperament, is one that should be on everyone’s mind. Regulations are better now and many countries, like the U.K., have banned certain animals from performing.

In the future years, the circus industry should take a step back and realize that these animals do not belong on the stage if their nature has not allowed it in the past.  Additionally, deaths like this could have been avoided with more knowledge, training and resources given to those handling wild animals.

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