Hanging the Elephant
(Also: Final 2017 Halloween Bingo Read)
Well, I’m glad that this year’s Halloween Bingo ended on a high note for me — in terms of writing, that is, even if not topically.
She Walks These Hills is one of Sharyn McCrumb’s Ballad novels, set in the Roan Mountain / Cherokee National Forest part of the Appalachian Mountains — I’m guessing that the town of Hamelin, TN, featured in the novel is based on Hampton, TN. (There actually is a Hamelin, TN, too, but it’s in a different part of the state, whereas the location of Hampton fits the book’s geographical references perfectly.) The novel is named for the legend of one Katie Wyler, a pioneer girl who in 1779 was abducted by a group of Shawnee, but managed to flee from her captors and walk all the way back home, covering a distance of several hundred miles; only to be killed once she had reached what she believed to be safety — and whose spirit is believed to still be haunting the area. While the novel’s Katie Wyler is fictitious, McCrumb based her legend on the story of several actual pioneer women who suffered a similar fate (minus being killed upon their return home); most notably, Mary Drapler Ingles.
That being said, while Katie’s story provides the novel’s background, the actual plot weaves together the stories of several contemporary (well, 1990s) protagonists:
* Hiram “Harm” Sorley, a 60+ year old escapee from a Mountain City prison where he’d been serving a de-facto life sentence without the possibility of parole for killing an affluent neighbor some 25 years previously, and who is (rightly) believed to be trying to return to his hometown of Hamelin, TN — never mind that he’s suffering from Korsakoff’s Syndrome, i.e., the memory loss condition where, though you do recall events of your remote past, your short term memory is only able to record things for very brief periods (think of the movie Mememto);
* Hamelin Deputy Sheriff Martha Avery, promoted from dispatcher to her current position (on a probationary basis) as a result of a staffing shortage, who, after volunteering for her current job in an attempt to better herself, unexpectedly finds her relationship with the town’s other deputy sheriff (Joe LeDonne) on the rocks — all the while wondering why she seems to be the only person in the office who is taking Harm Sorley’s escape seriously and considering him a potential threat;
* History PhD student and teaching assistant Jeremy Cobb, who has made Katie Wyler’s story his pet research project and part of his PhD thesis, and who — though a city kid and a bookworm who hasn’t even gone hiking, let alone camped out in the woods a single time in his life before — decides there is only one way to “get close” to Katie; namely, by hiking part of the rough, lonesome wilderness trail she must have been traveling some 200 years ago (yeah, well, talk about a recipe for disaster right there);
* Henry “Hank the Yank” Kretzer, a local country & folk music DJ (originally from Connecticut, hence his nickname), who covers the Harm Sorley story on the radio and becomes interested enough to try and track down the circumstances that ended up in Harm’s life sentence to begin with;
* and Harm’s wife and daughter, Rita and Charlotte, who after Harm’s conviction went on to live a life very different from the hillbilly / “white trash” life they had been sharing with him, and whom Rita’s new middle class husband Euell had shut off from Harm entirely, enjoining them to consider his being locked up in prison forever the same thing as him being dead.
And, in addition to these and other people’s stories, which dramatically converge once Harm does actually make it back to the Hamelin area, this is also the story of this particular corner of the Appalachians, whose vast forests, valleys and mountainsides very much make the area’s nature and geography a character of its own, and provide for a magnificent backdrop — and the age-old tale of history repeating itself in that the interests of the defenceless are sacrificed, sometimes very publicly, on the altar of money, power, corruption, and greed: as epitomized by the (real!) story of Mary the elephant, a circus elephant who in 1916 in Erwing, TN, was hanged by a local mob, after she had acted out against and killed a handler who had severely hurt her … and after the circus owner had realized that as a result she had become a liability instead of the asset she had been so far, and the only way he could generate one last large wad of money out of her was by putting her on display for her public execution.
(Sensitivity warning: You may want to think twice about following the above link or the one in the below first footnote, or researching the story online, if you find it hard to look at images or read descriptions of animals being mistreated. You may also want to skip reading the following quote from the novel.)
“Now the circus was in a pickle. They had to choose between sacrificing an eight-thousand-dollar elephant — that was Rolls-Royce money in 1916, folks — or missing play dates in Johnson City and Rogersville. And the newspaper had fired folks up so that they were screaming for her blood. It doesn’t appear that anybody considered Mary’s feelings in the matter. Was she a victim of abuse under a cruel and inexperienced trainer? Did she consider her actions self-defense? […]
Those are nineties questions, neighbors. Nobody asked them in 1916. The circus owner reasoned that he couldn’t afford to lose money from missing show dates, and after the notoriety occasioned by Eldridge’s [the handler’s] death, he didn’t think he could get any other show to buy her. Apparently, he decided that the only way to profit from the experience would be to reap some free publicity by staging a spectacular public execution.
That’s where Erwin comes in. I mean, how are you going to kill an elephant? Poison? How many pounds would it take? Electrocution? I wouldn’t want to be around if you miscalculated the lethal dosage and pissed her off. But Erwin, population in 1916 two thousand, was the site of the repair shops for the Clinchfield Railroad. It offered the circus owner a solution. Why not hang the beast on a one-hundred-ton railroad derrick? That’s the equipment they used to lift railroad cars. A five-ton animal would pose no problem at all for such a contraption. […]
The circus people put a chain around her neck and hoisted her right up off the ground. It took them two tries,* but they finally succeeded in killing a rare and intelligent creature, that maybe had no business being enslaved in a sideshow anyhow. Maybe she even preferred a quick death to a life of servitude. I don’t claim to be an expert on the opinions of elephants.”
Hank concludes the story of Mary the elephant:
“I do know this: sometimes the law seems more concerned with shutting up mobs who are too dumb to be reasoned with than they are with dispensing justice. Maybe you’re wondering what all this has to do with one old man who took an ax to his prosperous neighbor a quarter of a century ago. It’s just a feeling I have, folks. Something tells me that Harm was just as much a pawn as Mary was. I think there’s another side to both stories, and while we’re never going to hear the truth in Mary’s case, I’m still hoping that it can be uncovered for Harm Sorley.”**
She Walks These Hills was published in 1994, but given recent political events both in Washington, D.C. and, inter alia, in places like the coal mining areas of West Virginia (which aren’t actually so terribly far away from the area where this story is set), large parts of it still read shockingly relevant 23 years later — now more than ever, in fact.
* The first of these tries resulted in her crashing to the ground from a great height and breaking her hip bones, which made her go mad with pain. (Sensitivity warning: The newspaper article linked here provides further detail on the hanging procedure.)
** Contents spoiler warning: Don’t read the below paragraph if you haven’t read the book and don’t want to read anything related to its conclusion.
Turns out that while Harm Sorley’s action wasn’t self-defense, he certainly was severely provoked — it’s at the very least debatable whether his act would genuinely have qualified as first degree murder; and if he had had the money to afford a better lawyer, he almost certainly would have gotten off with a lighter sentence. Then again, if he’d had the money (and sophistication) to hire a better lawyer, he’d likely have resorted to different means altogether … if that rich neighbor whom he ended up killing had dared to do what he did to him and his family in the first place.