Topsy the elephant performing. (Photo from LIFE)
Coney Island has been entertaining and delighting visitors since the 1880s. Among some of the amusements in the early years were domesticated elephants. One of the most famous Coney Island elephants was the six-ton, 10-foot-high Indian elephant by the name of Topsy. Topsy’s fame is not necessarily due to his rouge circus life, but rather, her execution in 1903.
Topsy the elephant’s owners decided that she was too much of a liability and a safety issue since she had killed three trainers within three years. In the years following her death, many have defended the elephant’s violent behaviors and stated they were due to the poor treatment she was given (as well as the treatment many early circus animals were received). One of the trainers Topsy killed was J. Fielding Blunt. Blunt, who was considered drunk at the time, tried to feed the animal a lit cigarette before she smashed him to death.
Initially, Topsy was going to be hanged but the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals opposed this idea. Electrocution became the decided upon form of execution because it was believed to be more humane. The person who suggested the elephant be electrocuted? Thomas Edison.
At that time, Edison was involved in a very public rivalry with George Westinghouse to prove that his direct current electrical system was superior to any of Westinghouse’s alternating current. Smithsonian.com compared the Edison and Westinghouse rivalry to that of Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs.
Westinghouse (left) and Edison (right)
Edison agreed to handle Topsy’s execution mainly because he wanted the publicity that would come with it. Edison used Topsy’s execution as a stunt to discourage the use of AC by showing that it was far more dangerous than his DC. The day of the execution was a cloudy January morning, with a crowd of over a thousand people. The New York Times called the entire event “a rather inglorious affair.” Topsy was fed cyanide-laced carrots to make the execution easier. Electrodes covered her body and she was fitted with copper-lined sandals before an AC current of 6,000 volts killed her quickly and quietly. Topsy was 28 years old.
Edison and his company used many animals in their electrocution experiments but Topsy was the largest. Wired.com summed up Edison’s experimentation with AC currents in the following way: “In the end, though, all Edison had to show for his efforts was a string of dead animals, including the unfortunate Topsy, and a current that quickly fell out of favor as AC demonstrated its superiority in less lethal ways to become the standard.”
In 1944, a fire surged through Luna Park (the part of Coney Island where Topsy spent her last years). The fire was called “Topsy’s Revenge.”
The Coney Island Museum honored Topsy with her own memorial sculpture on July 20, 2003.
Edison filmed Topsy’s execution and released the footage in late 1903. It is called Electrocuting an Elephant and can be found on YouTube. [Note: The video may be unsettling to some.]
Tom Vanderbilt, “City Lore; They Didn’t Forget,” New York Times, July 13, 2003.
“New York Honours Electrocuted Elephant,” BBC News, July 21, 2003.
Tony Long, “Jan. 4, 1903: Edison Fries an Elephant to Prove His Point,” wired.com, January 4, 2008.
Gilbert King, “Edison vs. Westinghouse: A Shocking Rivalry,” Smithsonian.com, October 11, 2011.