Topsy The Elephant Publicly Executed in New York City
Topsy was born in Southeast Asia, had a difficult career as a circus elephant, and was imported to the US for the spectacle. She performed at the Forepaugh Circus, which competed with Baileys Circus by PT Barnum. The circus animal spectacle was grueling work for the stars of the show, and the working conditions were disastrous.
Furious, Topsy threw the man to the ground, then crushed him with her enormous weight and then snapped as onlookers, known for their drunken antics, burned the top of her trunk with a lit cigarette. It felt as a result of abuse, but stories of abuse that seem extraordinary today but were somehow acceptable a century ago abound.
After Topsy’s drunken trainer was sacked for kidnapping after he accidentally stabbed her with a pitchfork and tried to break into the local police station with the elephant, Luna Park decided there was no place for her. Caught between the desire for an elephant and the constant search for the next spectacle, the owners of Luna Park announced the imminent execution of the elephant. She had been sold as a liability to the circus to a private park in New York, where she was used to hauling tree trunks and pulling rides, but then no one wanted her anymore.
On the day of his death, hundreds of spectators and members of the press gathered to witness the event. Topsy refused to leave, forcing the owners to park a set of them where they stood. His death was to occur at the end of a carrot laced with cyanide, the electricity of which was transmitted at 6,000 volts from a nearby power plant, just to be sure.
At 2:45 pm, a signal was given to start the electrocution and within minutes he was dead. A short film released by the Edison Manufacturing Company, “Elektrocuted Elephant,” shows 74 seconds of Topsy’s electrical career. There was some confusion about the nature of Tesla’s so-called war currents, but Edison actually did electrical cleaning and disappeared from the film that bore his name. The fact that the electricity company Edison Electric Power Company (EPC), which supplies the power, later added to the confusion over the incident suggested that Edison had killed Topsy to prove to the public that Tesla’s “alternating currents” were deadly dangerous.
On the day Topsy was executed, a film crew from the Edison Film Company, led by director and co-producer William H. Dyer, was also in the press. The film, made after his death, is 74 seconds long and shows only the electric shock.
It was one of many recent short films made by the Edison Manufacturing Company in Coney Island starting in 1897, showing animals, diving horses and footage of the slides in Luna Park. Edison filed the film with the Library of Congress on copyright grounds, but it was never published, although it is still in the New York Public Library’s “Topsy the Elephant Electrocuted” collection.
Although this myth has been repeated, there seems to be no evidence that Edison had anything directly to do with Topsy’s death. A small memorial was erected in his honor in New York City in the early 1990s to mark the centenary of his death, and since then a smaller memorial has been erected in his honor.