January 5, 2010

The Tangled Tale of Topsy the Elephant

Yesterday marked the 97th anniversary of the electrocution of Topsy the elephant.

For those of you not familiar with Topsy's sad story...

Topsy was a domesticated elephant who, as a baby, was popular with children, but got into trouble later in life. Reports say that she, "killed two men in Texas and a third in Brooklyn borough after he had fed her a lighted cigaret."

Topsy was part of a circus at Coney Island's Luna Park and her owners decided that she should be put to sleep and that they could take advantage of the opportunity. They announced that she would be executed for murder and invited people to come see the spectacle.

The original plan seems to have been to hang Topsy, but either the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals objected, or Topsy wouldn't walk out onto the gallows, or both, so a new plan was required.

At the time, Thomas Edison was busy trying to get people to adopt his Direct Current (DC) as the standard for electricity by electrocuting animals using the rival Alternating Current (AC) advocated by Nicola Tesla and Westinghouse. Topsy's case must have seemed the perfect opportunity for Edison and he proposed execution by electrocution.

On January 4, 1903, Topsy was wired up, fed some poisoned carrots (just in case) and then had 6,600 volts of AC passed through her. Within seconds, as the Atlanta Constitution reported, "Topsy, the man-killer, was no more," but she became a national celebrity.

As many as 1,500 people witnessed the event and newspapers around the country reported it.
Baby Elephant Topsy Killed
The Atlanta Constitution

Poison and Electricity for New York Elephant
San Francisco Chronicle

Rogue Elephant Is Electrocuted
Chicago Tribune

To help with his campaign, Edison filmed the event and showed the film to audiences around the country. Today, Edison's movie is available on YouTube:

You can learn more about Topsy on Wikipedia, from this article at Wired, or from this interesting webpage about Coney Island's Luna Park. Those with a darker sense of humor may enjoy the blog Topsy: the Electrocuted Elephant.

1 comment:

gavinheck said...

As someone who lead the 100 year tribute in 2003, you are off by a bit, but I appreciate the effort.

J Gavin Heck
Winner, Best dead for 100 years elephant, Village Voice 2003