Topsy, Elephant Electrocuted by her captors, Not Thomas Edison

Topsy the elephant, perhaps an innocent pawn in a bigger game. 

Topsy in a June 16, 1902 St. Paul Globe illustrations for a story about the elephant killing spectator Jesse Blount. The martingale harness was intended to partially restrain the elephant.

Topsy was an elephant born around 1875 in Southeast Asia. She was soon captured and secretly smuggled into the US by Adam Forepaugh who would advertise the baby as the first elephant born in America. She performed with the performing herd of the Forepaugh Circus for the majority of her life, with her last years spent at Coney Island's Luna Park. She led a typical life for a circus elephant in the late 19th and early - 20th century, consisting of sustained mistreatment, abuse, and neglect of these animals. 

1899 poster for the combined Forepaugh & Sells Brothers Circus featuring acrobats' "Terrific flights over ponderous elephants"

The Killing of James Fielding Blount

She had a reputation for rampaging and lashing back at those who tried to hurt or corral her. Topsy seemed to be fed up with all the mishandling and abuse and finally had it when a circus follower, James Fielding Blount entered where the elephants were kept and began harassing them one by one. Accounts on the incident vary as to what actually happened but the most common story seems that on May 27, 1902, a possibly drunk Blount after bothering the other elephants in the menagerie threw sand in Topsy's face and then burned her trunk with a lit cigar. She promptly dropped Blount and stomped on him killing him instantly. Afterwards, probably because of her still being in shock, Topsy became more aggressive towards the other keepers who had stuck her with pitchforks, unbelievably to get her to calm down. 

Newspaper of the day seem to have exaggerated accounts of Topsy's man-killing past with some accounts saying she had killed up to 12 men. Two other accounts of Topsy killing Forepaugh & Sells Brothers employees have recently been refuted with no records of anyone being killed by an elephant at that time. Still the publicity of a man-killing elephant was great for the circus drawing large crowds to see her. Then one day in June 1902 while unloading Topsy from a train in Kingston, New York, a spectator named Louis Dodero used a stick to poke Topsy behind the ear. She quickly seized Dodero around the waist, throwing him down but was stopped by her handlers before any further damage could be done. Finally the Forepaugh & Sell Brothers Circus decided she was a liability and decided to sell Topsy later that same month to Paul Boyton.

Topsy's last days in Coney Island's Sea Lion Park (Later renamed Luna Park)

Captain Paul Boyton was the owner of Coney Island's Sea Lion Park and added Topsy to the menagerie of animals there. Her former handler, William "Whitey" Alt also came along to work at the park and continue working with her. She was used in the park as publicity, moving timbers and characterized by the media as "penance" for her rampaging ways. Whitey was actually worst, because later that year in December 1902 after poking Topsy with a pitchfork to get her to pull an amusement ride, he was approached by an officer in which he then set her free in the streets. He rode Topsy down the streets of Coney Island and tried to ride Topsy into the local police station. Topsy tried to batter her way in through the station door leading officers to take refuge in the cells. A drunk Whitey was arrested and then immediately fired after the incident. 

Things got worst for Topsy, without Whitey there to control her, the new owners of Luna Park, Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy claimed they no longer could handle her. After many attempts to get rid of her, with no other zoo or circus volunteering to take her, on December 13, 1902, Luna Park press agent Charles Murray released a statement that Topsy was to be put to death by electrocution. Then later announced there was to be a public hanging of Topsy who at this point, was fully mature with a height of 10 feet, 20 feet long and weighing 4 to 6 tons. Reports stated the park was gonna charge a 25 cent a head admission to see the spectacle. 

Upon hearing of this, John Peter Haines the then President of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, stepped in and forbade the hanging of Topsy as a "needless cruel means of killing (Topsy)" and the owners could not charge admission to such an event. After much deliberation both the ASPCA and the owners of Luna Park agreed to strangle Topsy by rigging the Electric Tower with large ropes, while also agreeing to use poison and electrocution as well. 

Date of execution of Topsy announced.

Topsy's demise was finally set for Sunday, January 4, 1903 with 100 press photographers and an estimated 1500 spectators as well as agents from the ASPCA to inspect the proceedings. The spot where the poor elephant was to be euthanized was chosen while the local power company, Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Brooklyn spent the night before stringing up power lines from the Coney Island electrical substation nine blocks to the park redirecting alternating current from a larger plant in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. 


Photo of Topsy, standing in the middle of press photographers and on-lookers, refusing to cross the bridge over the lagoon to the spot where she was supposed to be killed. She eventually had to be wired up where she stood.

Topsy's Death by Electrocution

Carl Goliath, an expert on elephants led Topsy out of her pen to the unfinished Luna Park. Topsy refused to cross the bridge over the lagoon to meet her demise all while Goliath prodded her and tried bribing her with carrots and apples. Even former trainer William "Whitey" Alt was summoned and bribed with $25 to lead Topsy across the bridge but he refused stating he would, "not for $1,000". Alt did not even show up to see her be killed. Everyone eventually gave up and figured if she wouldn't walk to her death then they would have to bring death to her. The steam engine powered winch, ropes, and electrical lines were all re-rigged where Topsy stood. Copper-lined sandals, which she was instructed to raise her feet in order for them to put them on her, were placed on her right fore foot and left hind foot so that the charge would flow through her body. One reporter even remarked, 'Not so vicious', pointing out how easy it was to get her to do things. Press agent Charles Murray fed her carrots laced with 460 grams of potassium cyanide and then backed away. At 2:45pm the signal was given to by chief electrician Sharkey to signal an electrician to tell a superintendent at Coney Island station by telephone nine blocks away to close a switch while Luna Park chief electrician Hugh Thomas closed another switch at the park, sending 6,600 volts from Bay Ridge across Topsy's back for 10 seconds. Topsy then topples to the ground while the steam powered winch tightened the two nooses placed around her neck for a period of 10 minutes. Topsy was determined to be dead by electric shock at 2:47pm by veterinarians hired by Thompson and Dundy. Despite Topsy's dangerous reputation she remained completely docile throughout the entire incident. At least one account of the fiasco stated, she died "without a trumpet or a groan".


A press photograph of the electrocution of Topsy with the unfinished "Electric Tower" in the background.



An Elephant Electrocuted, but was it the work of Thomas Edison?

Although the public execution was filmed by the Edison Manufacturing film company, who made 1200 short films during that period, Thomas Edison was not involved. Due to a merger with General Electric in 1892, Edison had been forced out of the company selling all his stock to finance an iron ore refining venture. The War of Currents as it was called was 10 years before the killing of Topsy. Several examples that may have started the confusion include a Wired magazine article titled, "Edison Fries an Elephant to Prove His Point" in 2008 and an episode of the animated comedy series Bob's Burgers titled "Topsy" in 2013. Newspaper sources describing the event as being carried out by "electricians of the Edison Company" and the fact that the film of the event credited on screen to "Thomas A. Edison" may have indelibly linked Thomas Edison with Topsy's death.

Topsy was commemorated in 1999 in the Coney Island Mermaid Parade in a float made by artist Gavin Heck. Later, Heck and a local arts group held a competition and chose New Orleans artist Lee Deigaard as the winner exhibiting his art of Topsy at the Coney Island USA museum. 

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