Where in the hell is Erwin, TN?
November 30, 2004 5:44 AM   Subscribe

Erwin, TN. My hometown, small and wholly unremarkable. Unremarkable, of course, except for our history of elephant hanging. In 1916, after Mighty Mary killed one of her handlers, the circus had to put her down. The problem: they couldn't poison her and they couldn't shoot her. The solution: hang her from a railroad crane. The story has become one of local folklore. Any of your hometowns have strange histories worth sharing? (inspired by MoFi)
posted by ruddhist (62 comments total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Double. -- mathowie

How come they couldn't poison or shoot her?
posted by papercake at 5:46 AM on November 30, 2004

Shooting her in the four soft spots on her head would be both difficult and dangerous with the large crowds that would certainly gather around to watch. Mary was too smart to eat food laced with cyanide, and there wasn't enough electricity in that part of Tennessee to electrocute her. Even more gruesome scenarios were brought up and quickly dismissed.

Oh. Read the FPP links.
posted by papercake at 5:49 AM on November 30, 2004

Supposedly she was too smart to eat poison, and they didn't have a gun big enough to pierce her hide.

So they say.
posted by ruddhist at 5:50 AM on November 30, 2004

How come they couldn't blow her up?
posted by Plutor at 5:56 AM on November 30, 2004

See also: Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell.
posted by Succa at 5:59 AM on November 30, 2004

The spire of St Mary's Church, now next to Henry Box School in Witney, West Oxforshire, is said to have been climbed by a monkey many years ago, escaped from the annual festival (and now funfair) Witney Feast. The event is marked by a small stone monkey on high up on the side of the tower. If you weren't looking for it, you'd miss it, but still it is visible from the ground. That's all I can remember, I am afraid. Details on the web appear to be scant. Having trouble finding a picture of the church with the monkey visible.

The red brick building 90° from the church here -- the one with the glass skylight -- is where I used to have music lessons, though.

It's no hanging elephant tale, I'm afraid... (good post)
posted by nthdegx at 6:00 AM on November 30, 2004

The good people of Hartlepool hung a monkey, thinking it was a Frenchman.

Then more recently, they elected one mayor.
posted by johnny novak at 6:02 AM on November 30, 2004

I live in Tennessee and didn't know where the hell Erwin is. Maybe it's because you guys are stuffed up in the mountains. But oh, to have an elephant hanging in my history! ::sigh:: I'm seething with jealousy.
posted by ChrisTN at 6:07 AM on November 30, 2004

Also: slightly entirely off-topic, but Modoc : The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived is a fantastic elephant story.
posted by papercake at 6:07 AM on November 30, 2004

Erwin is my original hometown, too. Never expected to see it mentioned in MeFi. Growing up there in the 60's was a bit like living in Mayberry. I just spent Thanksgiving there with my folks.

You can't say that Erwin is entirely unremarkable, though. It's still the only place in the US where fuel rods for the Navy's nuclear subs and carriers are manufactured.
posted by wadefranklin at 6:09 AM on November 30, 2004

The town of Ripon WI was formed in 1840 as a socialist utopia, then in 1854, was one of 3 other places claiming to be the birthplace of the Republican party.
posted by rough ashlar at 6:27 AM on November 30, 2004

Growing up in NYC we don't have much by way of pachyderm folklore, although there is the annual elephant walk.
posted by jellybuzz at 6:33 AM on November 30, 2004

johnny novak, I am encouraged by your second link. I hadn't heard.
posted by nthdegx at 6:37 AM on November 30, 2004

"pachyderm" is my word of the day.
posted by sour cream at 6:49 AM on November 30, 2004

See also "The Tears of Squonk, And What Happened Thereafter."
posted by iamck at 6:54 AM on November 30, 2004

"Mary didn't perform for the matinee performance the day she died. She was chained outside the circus tent, and folks say she spent the entire performance time swaying nervously."

I have to admit that's a fairly sad story. I'll say it: Poor Mary. Sad story, but good post.
posted by tpl1212 at 6:58 AM on November 30, 2004

No pachyderm folklore in NYC? I beg to differ. What about the 1903 electrocution of Topsy the elephant, famed mass murderess of Coney Island? A memorial to Topsy was unveiled last year at the Coney Island Museum.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 7:02 AM on November 30, 2004

There is a place in my hometown called Elephant Hill where an elephant is buried.

Topsy the Elephant. [there is a video link at the bottom if you want to see Edison's footage].

on preview: Curse you foxy_hedgehog!
posted by sciurus at 7:06 AM on November 30, 2004

Hey, Erwin rocks. I stopped in while I was hiking the Appalachian Trail in 1999 and stayed at a hostel there for three days. I ate at some hip mexican place downtown and had one of the best burritos of my life.
posted by spincyle at 7:17 AM on November 30, 2004

In Erwin, there's a big hill that we used to call Elephant's Back Mountain when we were kids. We thought Murderous Mary was buried there, but I'm sure it's not true.
posted by wadefranklin at 7:19 AM on November 30, 2004

Sad story, indeed.
posted by apis mellifera at 7:21 AM on November 30, 2004

Unfortunately - I'm from Florence, the home of the exploding whale -
posted by buggybuy at 7:38 AM on November 30, 2004

I have to write a song about this. Thanks for the story!
posted by buriednexttoyou at 8:04 AM on November 30, 2004

foxy_hedgehog... that's right, Topsy. My apologies to the memory of the poor beast. Although she was one apparently psychotic proboscidean, wasn't she? (What exactly does a mammal have to do to get her own memorial in this town?)

And of course, NYC will recall another noteworthy elephant story: the 1999 scandal involving soon-to-be Time Man of the Year Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's internationally publicized fight to cut off funding to the Brooklyn Museum of Art for exhibiting a portrait of the Virgin Mary whose breast was splattered with Elephant dung.
posted by jellybuzz at 8:05 AM on November 30, 2004

This reminds me of the time I hung an elephant in my pajamas...
posted by Freon at 8:07 AM on November 30, 2004

And, yes, I'm aware of the proper tense. However, this is one of those times when conjugation would get in the way of a double entendre.
posted by Freon at 8:10 AM on November 30, 2004

When I hiked the AT in '96, it was known as the single most racist town on the whole of the trail. The popular joke among (the rare, few) black hikers was:

Did you hear about the blackout in Erwin?
They got him.

The whole hanging-an-elephant thing didn't help any. It's the hardest damned town to get a hitch in, too. I had to walk 3 miles to get to a KFC.
posted by waldo at 8:23 AM on November 30, 2004

Yes, Waldo, that's a sad but true fact about Erwin, though it is slowly changing. It dates back to a lynching that occurred there around the same time of the elephant hanging. Unicoi County was 100% white for decades. But let me assure you that not all of us from Erwin are racists.
posted by wadefranklin at 8:36 AM on November 30, 2004

perhaps not as morbid... but down the road from my hometown some folks have various ways of dealing with the wild burro situation.
posted by RockyChrysler at 8:42 AM on November 30, 2004

The good people of Hartlepool hung a monkey, thinking it was a Frenchman.

This may the single best sentence I've ever read on MetaFilter.
posted by languagehat at 8:52 AM on November 30, 2004 [1 favorite]

Another interesting Erwin story: the Erwin Nine, nine airmen from the same small town who ended up in the same LuftStalag during WWII. My dad is one of them.
posted by wadefranklin at 8:53 AM on November 30, 2004

Jumbo , an elephant in the Barnum & Bailey Circus, was killed by a train in St. Thomas, Ontario on Sep 17, 1885, a few miles from where I grew up. His monument reads, "The pet of thousands and friend of all. The pillar of a people's hope. The centre of a world's desire."

If the tomb's secrets may not be confessed,
The nature of thy private life unfold,
A heart has throbbed 'neath that leathen breast,
And tears adown that dusky cheek have rolled;
Have children climbed upon that back, and kissed that face?
What was thy name, and station, age and race?

Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been so mild in his great office, that his virtues will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against the deep damnation of his taking-off."

posted by 327.ca at 9:08 AM on November 30, 2004

"The good people of Hartlepool hung a monkey, thinking it was a Frenchman."

This may the single best sentence I've ever read on MetaFilter.

Except that it should be hanged, and not hung.
posted by nthdegx at 9:13 AM on November 30, 2004

I recall that the town I grew up in (Winchester, MA) had a Canada Goose problem (as, I assume, lots of towns do). They were pooping all over the place...and apparently the soccer-moms were all a-flutter because goose poop and soccer cleats lead to slipperiness and accidents...allegedly. I didn't really have a problem with them...but I didn't play soccer.

Various "plans" were tossed around on how to get rid of the geese, including something about dogs chasing them, and something I feel has to be a rumor: killing them and sending the meat to local food pantries.

The solution: a huge expensive-to-rent air cannon. It would make a huge noise and scare them all away.

The outcome: the expensive air cannon made its huge noise and scared the geese away...one-soccer-field-over away. I think the town gave up after that.

I remember drawing a HIGH-larious editorial cartoon for the Winchester Star about it.

Maybe the town should have hung them all.
posted by tpl1212 at 9:32 AM on November 30, 2004

I recall that the town I grew up in (Winchester, MA) had a Canada Goose problem (as, I assume, lots of towns do).

This gratuitous Canada-bashing has to end. Remember, we have your president.
posted by 327.ca at 9:43 AM on November 30, 2004

here is an essay with photosof my hometown.http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://ccpl.lib.co.us/Images/KKKFerrisWheel.JPG&imgrefurl=http://ccpl.lib.co.us/KKK/ not every day you see the klan on a ferris wheel.
posted by hortense at 10:03 AM on November 30, 2004

not every day you see the klan on a ferris wheel.

hortense, that is very, very strange!
posted by 327.ca at 10:13 AM on November 30, 2004

My little town -- Lewes (loo-IS) , Delaware -- claims fame from having been the "First Town" (first european town) in the "First State" of the US of A. In 1631, a Dutch group established a settlement called Swanendael in about the same place as Lewes. Local residents (who had been here much much longer) wiped them out in a fit of prescience in 1631. They came back, of course.

Lewes claims to be near where Captain Kidd buried a chest of gold in 1700. I haven't found it yet, so I don't know...

Lewes also gallantly -- and apparently without any real effort -- repulsed an attack by the British Navy in the War of 1812 with only "a chicken that was killed and a pig whose leg was broken."

Oh. And we're also the birthplace of Punkin' Chunkin'.
posted by mmahaffie at 10:28 AM on November 30, 2004

Except that it should be hanged, and not hung.
posted by nthdegx at 5:13 PM GMT on November 30

except it's perfectly correct particularly as I'm from the north where it is the common form; Hartlepool is in the north where it is the common form and hung works better with monkey. Let the pedantry commence!
posted by johnny novak at 10:39 AM on November 30, 2004

Except that it should be hanged, and not hung

Exhibit 781,414 in my ongoing collection of Reasons Not to Take Prescriptivists Seriously. Confronted with a sentence that would make Churchill weep with envy and Wilde clap his hands in glee, what's their response? Bitching about a supposedly incorrect verb tense. Hung is far more common in actual use than hanged; if it makes you feel superior to use the latter, fine, but there's no linguistic reason for it. To quote The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (far and away the best available usage guide):
The distinction between hanged and hung has been a topic for commentary since Joseph Priestly first broached the subject in 1769. The issue was raised by only a few writers in the 19th century, but 20th-century commentators have taken up the cause wholeheartedly, and almost all books on usage now include some mention of hanged and hung. The primary concern of the critics is that hung should not be used in the "execute" sense, or that such use should at least be avoided in formal writing. Many commentators recognize that hung for hanged is now common in standard English, but more than a few persist in describing it as an error, pure and simple.

Our evidence shows that hung for hanged is certainly not an error. Educated speakers and writers use it commonly and have for many years:

...that if he was hung he would plant flowers on his grave — James Stephens, The Crock of Gold, 1912

The negro murderer was to be hung on a Saturday without pomp — William Faulkner, Sanctuary, 1931

...a 13-year-old evangelist, who hung himself because his mother spanked him for sassing her — Flannery O'Connor, letter, 23 Apr. 1960

Placed in solitary he hung himself — Horace Sutton, Saturday Rev., 1 Mar. 1980...

The distinction between hanged and hung is not an especially useful one... It is, however, a simple one and certainly easy to remember. Therein lies its popularity. If you make a point of observing the distinction in your writing, you will not thereby become a better writer, but you will spare yourself the annoyance of being corrected for having done something that is not wrong.
That last sentence is a masterpiece in its own right.
posted by languagehat at 11:15 AM on November 30, 2004

hoisted by his own petard?
posted by johnny novak at 11:28 AM on November 30, 2004

This gratuitous Canada-bashing has to end...
posted by 327.ca at 9:43 AM PST on November 30

But..but...i didn't mind the geese! I'll trade president for geese any day.
posted by tpl1212 at 11:32 AM on November 30, 2004

Meeting Delilah
posted by homunculus at 12:19 PM on November 30, 2004

I live in Johnson City, just a few minutes drive from Erwin, and it's strange to see how much the town loves its dead elephant story. About every ~2 years there's a big article in the local paper retelling the story, and a big splash photo of The Hanging Elephant Antiques. It's all kind of sick. Of course, they should milk the story, since I can't come up with anything off the top of my head that really supports the Erwin economy.

Erwin isn't all that strange of a place when you compare it to some of the smaller towns farther back into the mountains. There's lots of times I've stumbled into little mountain communities and have really, really feared for my safety.
posted by PantsOfSCIENCE at 12:19 PM on November 30, 2004

This gratuitous Canada-bashing has to end. Remember, we have your president.

Keep him. We'll trade you.

I'd rather have President Martin.
posted by Vidiot at 12:33 PM on November 30, 2004

Let's see. I grew up in Kent, Ohio.

Nope. Can't think of anything.
posted by NedKoppel at 12:47 PM on November 30, 2004

Not far from either Erwin or Johnson City is lovely Asheville, replete with haunted mansions, secret Masonic ritual chambers under our downtown obelisk, and is also the seeming epicenter of a neo-atlantean upswell of migrating new agers and visionaries. I love this town.

Mmahaffie: Yeah, i looked for that gold too back in the day. All I ever found were hermit crabs and a faux-Rolex. But when you're 12, that's a big deal.
posted by moonbird at 1:16 PM on November 30, 2004

Woo! Another occasion when languagehat can't merely agree to disagree but has to throw in a cuntish comment for absolutely no reason!

" if it makes you feel superior to use the latter, fine, but there's no linguistic reason for it."

Unnecessary. Almost as unnecessary as the rest of your paragraph in fact, which is, largely, bollocks. May as well get straight to the quotations (as if, somehow, citations of incorrect use are proof that the use is somehow correct).

You can persist with your point of view, but if you could, once and for all, drop the childish insults while you are doing it, it would make me very happy, and make your point all the more effective.
posted by nthdegx at 2:31 PM on November 30, 2004

The good people of Hartlepool hung a monkey, thinking it was a Frenchman.

Oh my god, that's the funniest link I've read in weeks.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:48 PM on November 30, 2004

I ate at some hip mexican place downtown and had one of the best burritos of my life.

The Erwin Burrito Company. I probably knew the guy who made it for you.
posted by ruddhist at 3:12 PM on November 30, 2004

nthdegx: You can persist with your point of view, but if you could, once and for all, drop the childish insults while you are doing it, it would make me very happy, even if it didn't make your point any more effective.

And if you think my paragraph (which one?) is "bollocks" and the citations are "of incorrect use," you don't understand a single thing about language. Which doesn't surprise me.

Ooh! More insults... here on MetaFilter! Waah!
posted by languagehat at 3:44 PM on November 30, 2004

This reminds me of another surreal elephant death story involving LSD, the CIA, and Tusko, "the pride of the Oklahoma City Zoo."
posted by introcosm at 6:48 PM on November 30, 2004

The city I used to live in had a rat abatement program in '96. Hundreds if not thousands of innocent rats were poisoned in the sewers. The local paper buried the story.
posted by Devils Slide at 10:25 PM on November 30, 2004

What's surreal is seeing one's own name in the title of this thread, and it has nothing to do with me. Considering the subject matter, it's also rather disturbing.
posted by e-man at 10:32 PM on November 30, 2004

I come from Winsted, CT. So does Ralph Nader, which is why was going to locate his American Museum of Tort Law there.

There's an elephant hanging joke in there somewhere....
posted by IshmaelGraves at 10:48 PM on November 30, 2004

Languagehat, it just seems that you can't make a point without adopting a superior tone and making unfounded accusations about the person you're addressing -- it's ridiculous. The reason I call your opening paragraph "bollocks" is that, once you scrape away the Ad Hominem fallacies, it doesn't, in fact, say anything. I am not a prescrptivist, and coming to that conclusion because I have a certain view about one particular view is absolutely ridiculous. There are other cases where we'd probably agree.

Where I have a problem is when the dilution of the meaning of the word comes to encompass ideas for which we have adequate words already, e.g. hanged becoming hung, and irony becoming coincidence. Hanged, as we know, means having been put to death by suspension of a rope around the neck.

You might like Merriam-Webster because it supports your view. Perhaps I like OED because it supports mine, which gives the following definitions only, for hung:

1a. Suspended, attached so as to hang down, etc.

1b. Of meat: Suspended in the air to be cured by drying

2a. Furnished or decorated with hanging things.

2b. Having pendent organs.

3a. Of a jury: unable to agree.

3b. Of an elected body: in which no political party has an overall majority.

4. slang. Suffering from excess of liquor (or drugs)
posted by nthdegx at 2:41 AM on December 1, 2004

Although perhaps we should both acknowledge that we do speak different languages.
posted by nthdegx at 2:43 AM on December 1, 2004

nthdegx, I'm not attacking you personally, I'm attacking your ideas of how language works and what "correct" means, which (as far as I can determine them) are false and harmful. If you are not a prescriptivist, how can you be claiming that some set of definitions written in the 19th century sets limits as to how an English word can be used? Language is what people say; dictionaries are an inevitably belated and incomplete attempt to keep up with a constantly changing language, and to the extent they attempt to prescribe what people "should" say (an attempt that fortunately most dictionaries no longer make), they too are false and harmful. There are two perfectly sensible meanings for "good English": what most native speakers say and/or recognize as acceptable, and what is striking and effective (this latter, in this literate culture, usually applied to writing, but equally valid for speech). To shanghai the concept and apply it to a bunch of silly rules usually invented by pedants in the 18th or 19th century is anti-scientific and elitist and it pisses me off. When confronted by honest ignorance, I express myself more mildly; when my interlocutor throws around phrases like "absolutely ridiculous," I respond in kind. I'm sorry if you were offended, but the fact is that you're wrong on this matter—hung has been used in this sense for many centuries and was never "incorrect"—and no amount of rhetoric or quoting of outdated reference works will change it.

(I am also disappointed because I thought you were linking to a freely available online OED, even if only the first or second edition, such as Pretty_Generic used to link to before he ruined it by posting it on the front page. But your link just goes to a login page. Ah well.)
posted by languagehat at 7:24 AM on December 1, 2004

I am lucky enough to have access to the full online OED through school. I provided the link purely for those that *might* also have access, and my assessment was that it was better than no link at all. I did not give their full definitions, only their introductions, but I promise you no mention was made of execution.

One point I think that is worth highlighting is that perhaps, and I don't know this for sure, hung is acceptable use in the United States in reference to execution. In Britain I assure you this is simply not the case. I am all for embracing the evolution of English, but it *does* honestly bug me when the language becomes less useful out of laziness. It is worth maintaining words with very specific meanings rather than let them slip into more general use and becoming a pointless synonym. In some cases this may be an inexorable trend, in other cases it may be one solitary misinformed person. Those are the two extremes, and in between are any number of shades of grey. I am nearer the prescriptivist end than you -- fine -- I fully respect your point of view, but I do resent the idea that I have no grasp of language for simply having a differing opinion.

My question would be this. If some poor fool spells because "bbbecause", is this correct English simply because it is in use? I am sure (or at least I hope) that you would say it is not. Of course, this is a case of reductio ad absurdum; but to me at least it illustrates that the solitary argument that a dictionary should purely reflect common use is not enough. For starters common use is difficult to define, and secondly, it submits to a less useful language for those not willing to put up a fight. I don't know as much about the English language as I would like -- I'm all for its evolution -- and I'm all for free expression. I do not resist the progression toward American English as standard English. However, in some instances, I am for maintaining traditional meaning when it preserves diversity, breadth of vocabulary, and specific meaning.

Thanks for taking the time to respond again, languagehat.

I've always liked Paul Brian's (of Washington State) list of common errors in English, in which he includes the issue of hanged/hung.
posted by nthdegx at 7:48 AM on December 1, 2004

Well, OK, if you're going to be civil (a very un-MeFi way to behave)...

If people in the UK overwhelmingly say hanged in that meaning (without being coerced by a teacher's ruler or the memory of one), then I agree that it's the correct form in the UK. In America, people tend to use hung for all meanings, and hanged sounds formal and "learned," so I'm guilty of generalizing from that. I thank you for expanding my knowledge, and I apologize for coming off as supercilious.

As for misspellings, as you are aware that's a different matter: in theory we could spell however we wanted (as they did in Shakespeare's day), but these days we have accepted a set of "correct" spellings listed in dictionaries, and for a bunch of reasons it makes sense to use them (though it doesn't make sense to look down on people who haven't learned them, and I often have occasion to point out that many fine writers have been lousy spellers). But spelling has nothing to do with language in the sense I mean it.

Oh, and I too like Paul Brian's list of common errors; he's more prescriptive than I am, but he's got common sense and isn't wedded to shibboleths.

Thanks for keeping this derail a pleasant one!
posted by languagehat at 12:32 PM on December 1, 2004

It has nothing to do with any U.K./U.S. usage, as the link which I posted above makes clear.

It is good old fashioned 19th century, north/south, British snobbery.
posted by johnny novak at 12:56 AM on December 2, 2004

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