Elephants are incredibly remarkable creatures. In the wild, elephants can live up to 60-70 years, and a male elephant is considered an adult when it stops growing at around 30-40 years old.
Studies have been performed that have shown us that elephants can distinguish languages and become more relaxed when they hear the voice of a young woman or man. The voices of adult males were observed to cause them to become agitated.
Elephants are also one of the very few species of animals to experience grief like humans do. As we do, elephants bury their dead, cry, and will pay tribute to the remains by visiting the burial site for a few days during natural migrating cycles for years.
Unfortunately, these amazing animals have been exploited by humans for entertainment, most notoriously in the traveling circuses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One circus elephant that suffered greatly at the hands of humans was Topsy.
Topsy was executed publicly in the most brutal way. Electrocution.
Topsy the Elephant
Topsy the Elephant was a female Asian elephant who was executed by electrocution for public audiences to watch. Thomas Edison is often tied to the cruel murder of Topsy, the elephant, because among the press invited to watch Topsy’s execution was the Edison Manufacturing movie company which filmed the events of that day.
The Edison Manufacturing movie company’s film Electrocuting an Elephant shows the senselessly cruel death of an animal who was forced to entertain humans rather than live life in nature as she deserved. Edison himself was often accused of electrocuting Topsy, although strictly he was just there to record the event.
Topsy was born in the wilds of southeast Asia around 1875. Elephant traders captured the baby shortly after her birth to sell to the highest bidders. The man who bought Topsy was Adam Forepaugh, the owner of the Forepaugh Circus.
Forepaugh had the elephant traders smuggle the baby elephant into the United States because he intended to advertise Topsy as “the first elephant born in America.” At this time in history, circuses were incredibly popular, and Forepaugh was in direct competition with the world-famous Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The two circuses tried to one-up each other for which circus had the largest number and the largest sized elephants. If the fact that Forepaugh had a baby elephant smuggled into the US to be in a circus wasn’t bad enough, the name Topsy comes from the name of a young slave girl in the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Forepaugh told the press in 1877 that his circus had “the only baby elephant born on American soil” and expected the customers to roll in. Except, the elephant traders who sold Topsy to Forepaugh also sold elephants to P. T. Barnum and told him that Forepaugh’s new baby elephant was from them. As any good business rival would do, Barnum publicly exposed Forepaugh’s lie, but it didn’t hinder his rival’s business.
Topsy’s Terrible Reputation
As Topsy spent her life in the circus, she began to gain a reputation for being a “bad“ elephant. In her maturity, Topsy was a 10ft (3.0m) high and 20ft (6.1m) long elephant weighing between 3.6 and 5.4 metric tonnes (5.95 US tons). She was a big girl and a wild animal.
She was also dangerous. Topsy killed a spectator in Brooklyn, New York, on May 27, 1902. The victim was James Fielding Blount, who may have been drunk at the time of the incident. Blount is believed to have wandered into the area where the elephants were tied up and decided to “tease” the elephants.
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He offered them whiskey, threw sand into the elephant’s eyes, and burnt the tip of Topsy’s trunk with a lit cigar. The tip of an elephant’s trunk is so sensitive to touch that they can feel pressure differences “as light as 0.25mm (0.01in) in depth, which is equivalent to a light brush against the skin.” Topsy threw Blount to the ground in response to the abuse and then crushed him to death.
Newspaper articles from the time mention how Topsy had a reputation as a killer and had killed 12-13 men. Reports stated that in 1900 she killed two circus employees while on tour in Texas; however, a journalist in 2013 who wrote a book about Topsy could not find any records of any persons being attacked by an elephant in Texas.
In the summer of 1902, while being unloaded from her train car in New York, a spectator decided to “tickle” Topsy behind the ear. She lifted the spectator with her trunk and threw him onto the ground. Fortunately, one of the elephant handlers was able to stop Topsy from harming the spectator further.
Topsy had been in the circus her whole life; circus trainers back then were known for subjecting animals to horrendous abuse. It is believed that Topsy’s reactions to people “tickling” her were her natural panic response to what she perceived as danger or potential abuse. After this second attack, Forepaugh decided to sell Topsy.
Topsy was purchased in June 1902 by Paul Boyton, the then-owner of the Sea Lion Park at Coney Island. One of Topsy’s previous handlers from Forepaugh’s circus came to work with Topsy at the park on Coney Island.
By the end of 1902, Boyton left the amusement park business and leased Sea Lion Park to Elmer Dundy and Frederick Thompson, who redeveloped the park into Luna Park. Topsy was made to help carry wood to build a new ride, and in October of 1902, her handler stabbed Topsy with a pitchfork while trying to force her to pull a ride.
When the police came to speak to the handler, he let Topsy loose, and she took off running into the streets. The handler, William Alt, got drunk in December 1902, rode Topsy down the streets of Coney Island, and attempted to steer Topsy into the local police station. Alt was fired after that incident. Without a handler to manage Topsy, the park owners wanted to get rid of her.
No other zoo or circus would take her. Dundy and Thompson tried to give Topsy away for free, and nobody wanted her. So, in a gruesome twist it was announced that she would be killed.
Dundy and Thompson told the press that they would publicly hang Topsy in two or three days, and spectators could buy tickets to see the execution. While the president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals intervened and told the two men they could not charge admission for people to watch Topsy die, and they couldn’t hang her.
Instead, it was decided that on January 4, 1903, Topsy would be “strangled with large ropes tied to a steam-powered winch, and to prevent a botched death, she would be given poison and shocked with electricity. Alt was brought back to lead Topsy to her death, and he refused to walk her across a bridge to the death stage, so the executioner came to Topsy.
Content Warning: Animal Abuse
A copper-lined boot connected to alternating electrical currents was put on Topsy’s right front foot and back left foot. Topsy was given carrots laced with potassium cyanide, and just before 3 pm, Topsy was hit with 6,600 volts of electricity for ten seconds.
When she collapsed, the steam-powered nooses attached to her neck were tightened for another ten minutes before she was pronounced dead. They had killed her.
It has long been rumored that Thomas Edison killed Topsy in what was known as “The War of the Currents”. The War of the Currents was a debate between electricians about whether alternating currents (AC) or direct currents (DC) were the safest and most effective for producing electricity.
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Thomas Edison was pro-DC, and a man named George Westinghouse was pro-AC. DC currents work well at short ranges, but it was found that the AC can be sent over miles of power lines and was the best choice. Edison lost The War of the Currents but launched a smear campaign against Westinghouse instead. Edison would allegedly give public demonstrations of the dangers of AC currents by using them to kill stray animals on the street.
However this was all a false narrative. When Topsy died, The War of the Currents had been over for a decade, and Edison was no longer in the electricity business. In 1892, he lost control of his company when it merged with General Electric.
Edison sold his stock in GE to explore refining iron ore. The film company, Edison Manufacturing film company which filmed the execution of Topsy, was a privately owned company that was not associated with Edison’s original company Edison Illuminating Company. Edison wasn’t even at Coney Park the day Topsy was killed. The Edison film company produced over 1,200 short films without direction from Edison himself.
The Edison film company shot a 74-second-long film of the execution of Topsy, and the footage was added to kinetoscopes, an early device used to view a film. The film, known as Electrocuting an Elephant, wasn’t popular.
Still, the Edison company sent the film to the Library of Congress in the form of “paper print” (a photo-record of each frame of the film) for copyright reasons. That submission likely saved the film because the types of film negatives used at the time were notoriously unstable and would rot or spontaneously combust. Proper archival storage methods for nitrocellulose film had not been established in 1903, and all other forms of Topsy’s execution were destroyed by time.
In 2003, artist Gavin Heck led a competition to choose a memorial piece to install at Coney Island to mark the 100th anniversary of Topsy’s death. The winning piece was exhibited at the Coney Island USA museum, and patrons could view Electrocuting an Elephant with a hand-cranked mutoscope surrounded by large hanging chains while standing on a copper plate.
The footage from Topsy’s execution has been used repeatedly in films, music, video games, and TV shows. For example, the 2013 episode of Bob’s Burgers called “Topsy” featured the erroneous “Edison killed an elephant to prove a point” story.
While the story of Topsy’s execution and the capture of her last moments have been preserved in film, the issue at the root of the story is often ignored. It isn’t as flashy as “Edison electrocuted an elephant”. What is not mentioned enough in the many articles about Topsy that have been written for well over a century is that what happened to Topsy was unnecessarily cruel and a reflection of the circus industry at the turn of the century.
Circus animals were horribly abused, starved, beaten, and visitors to the circuses would also mess with the animals. Topsy had been in captivity in a circus and then an animal park for her entire life. She was believed to be either 27 or 28 years old at the time of her death and never knew true freedom or what it was like to be the wild animal she was and deserved to be.
You can watch the full video of Executing an Elephant online by searching the title, or by clicking the embedded Youtube link in this article. However, please be warned that the footage is disturbing and may be upsetting to some viewers. Viewer discretion is strongly advised.
Top Image: Topsy at the moment of electrocution: the full video is available, but viewer discretion is advised. Source: Unknown Author / Public Domain.