Topsy (elephant)

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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 (circa 1875 – January 4, 1903) was a female Asian elephant killed at a Coney Island, New York amusement park by electrocution in January 1903.


Forepaugh Circus[edit]

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

Topsy was born in the wild around 1875 in Southeast Asia and was captured soon after by elephant traders. Adam Forepaugh, owner of the Forepaugh Circus had the elephant secretly smuggled into the United States with plans that he would advertise the baby as the first elephant born in America. At the time Forepaugh Circus was in competition with the Barnum & Bailey Circus over who had the most and biggest elephants. The name "Topsy" came from a slave girl character in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Forepaugh announced to the press in February of 1877 that his circus now boasted "the only baby elephant ever born on American soil". The elephant trader who sold Topsy to Forepaugh also sold elephants to P.T. Barnum and tipped Barnum off about the deception. Barnum exposed the hoax publicly and Forepaugh stopped making the claim Topsy was born in America, only advertising that she was the first elephant born outside a tropical zone.

At maturity, Topsy was 10 ft high, 20 ft long, and weighed 6 tons. Over the years, Topsy gained a reputations as a "bad" or even "murderer" elephant. In 1902 another event brought her again to prominence; the killing of a spectator James Fielding Blount in Brooklyn, New York at what was now the Forepaugh & Sells Brothers' Circus. Accounts vary as to what happened but the common story is that on the morning of May 27, 1902, a possibly drunk Blount wandered into the menagerie tent where all the elephants were tied in a line and began teasing them in turn, offering them a bottle of whiskey. He reportedly threw sand in Topsy's face and then burnt the extremely sensitive tip of her trunk with a lit cigar.[1] Topsy threw Blount to the ground with her trunk and then crushed him with her head, knees, or foot. Newspaper reports on Blount's death contained what seem to be exaggerated accounts of Topsy's man killing past, with claims that she killed up to 12 men, but with more common accounts that, during the 1900 season, she had killed two Forepaugh & Sells Brothers' Circus workers, one in Paris, Texas and one in Waco, Texas. Historian Michael Daly, in his 2013 book on Topsy, could find no record of anyone being killed by an elephant in Waco, and a handler attacked by Topsy in Paris suffered injuries but there is no record of him dying.[2] The publicity generated by Topsy's man killing brought very large crowds to the circus to see the elephant. In June 1902 during the unloading of Topsy from a train in Kingston, New York, a spectator named Louis Dodero used a stick in his hand to "tickle" Topsy behind the ear. Topsy seized Dodero around the waist with her trunk, hoisted him high in the air and threw him back down before being stopped by a handler.[2] Because of this attack the owners of Forepaugh & Sell Circus decided to sell Topsy.[3]

Sea Lion and Luna Park[edit]

Topsy was sold in June 1902 to Paul Boyton, owner of Coney Island's Sea Lion Park, and added to the menagerie of animals on display there. The elephant's handler from Forepaugh, William "Whitey" Alt,[4] came along with Topsy to work at the park. A bad summer season and competition with the nearby Steeplechase Park made Boyton decide to get out of the amusement park business. At the end of the year he leased Sea Lion Park to Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy who proceeded to redevelop it into a much larger attraction and renamed it Luna Park.[5] Topsy was used in publicity, moving timbers and even the fanciful airship Luna, part of the amusement ride A Trip to the Moon, from Steeplechase to Luna Park, characterized in the media as "penance" for her rampaging ways.[6]

During the moving of the Luna in October 1902, handler William Alt was involved in an incident where he stabbed Topsy with a pitchfork trying to get her to pull the amusement ride. When confronted by a police officer, Alt turned Topsy loose from her work harness to run free in the streets, leading to Alt's arrest. The occurrence was attributed to the handler's drinking. In December 1902 a drunk Alt rode Topsy down the town streets of Coney Island and walked into, or tried to ride Topsy into the local police station. Accounts say Topsy tried to batter her way through the station door and "she set up a terrific trumpeting", leading the officers to take refuge in the cells. The handler was fired after the incident.


Topsy, standing in the middle of press photographers and on-lookers, refusing to cross the bridge over the lagoon to her execution site. She eventually had to be wired up where she stood.

Without Alt to handle Topsy, the owners of Luna Park, Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy, tried to get rid of the elephant but they could not even give her away and no other circus or zoo would take her. They finally decided to euthanize the elephant.[7] Their plans were to conduct a public execution of the elephant, set for January 1903, and collect a twenty-five cents a head admission to see the spectacle. They also had press agent Charles Murray arrange media coverage and post banners all around an execution platform advertising the park's grand re-opening in May 1903. Public executions of elephants were not an uncommon occurrence, with the animals being hung from cranes, strangled by ropes tied to other elephants, poisoned, and shot.[8] There had even been an electrocution of an elephant named Jumbo II two years earlier in Buffalo, New York, but the execution was botched, as the electricity seemed to show no effect. Initially Topsy was supposed to be hanged, but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) protested against the idea and Thompson and Dundy announced they would use the more "humane" method of electrocution.

The date of Topsy's execution was January 4, 1903. The press attention the event had received brought out a squad of special agents from the ASPCA to inspect the execution. The agents would not allow the owners of Luna Park to collect money from spectators, although some were still allowed to watch.[2] The details of the electrocution were handled by the park electricians and technicians from the local "Edison" plant, actually a privately owned power company no longer associated with the defunct Edison Electric Light Company, who strung power lines nine blocks to the park to carry alternating current they planed to redirect from a much larger plant in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The park owners, probably worried about the bad press of another "botched" elephant execution, decided to poison and strangle Topsy as well as electrocute her.[2]

Electrocuting an Elephant, a 1903 film of the execution of Topsy shot by the Edison Manufacturing Co.

Topsy was led out of her pen into the unfinished Luna Park. The site chosen for the raised execution platform was on the edge of the lagoon for the old Shoot the Chute ride which was to separate the 1500 spectators and 100 press photographers from the execution. Newspaper accounts of the events noted that Topsy refused to cross the bridge over the lagoon even when bribed with carrots and apples.[9] The owners of Luna Park then tried to get William Alt, who would not watch the execution, to lead Topsy across the bridge, but he declined an offer of $25 to coax her to her death[2] saying he would “not for $1000”.[2] They finally gave up trying to get Topsy across the bridge and decided to "bring death to her", restring the wires used to carry the current for the execution to the spot where the elephant stood.[10] The electricians attached copper lined sandals connected to AC lines to Topsy's right fore foot and left hind foot so the charge would flow through the elephant's body.[11] Just before the electrocution, Topsy was fed carrots laced with 460 grams of potassium cyanide by press agent Charles Murray. An electrician on a telephone then told his counterpart at the plant nine blocks away to close a switch and Luna Park chief electrician Hugh Thomas closed another one at the park, sending 6,600-volts of current from Bay Ridge through Topsy's body for 10 seconds, toppling her to the ground. According to at least one contemporary account, she died "without a trumpet or a groan".[12] After she fell a noose placed around her neck was tightened for 10 minutes to make sure she was dead.

The event was filmed by the Edison Manufacturing Company and was seen later that year by audiences throughout the United States under the title Electrocuting an Elephant.[11]

In popular culture[edit]

From 1897 on Edison Manufacturing Company had shot many short "actuality" films at Coney Island including rides, bathing scenes, diving horses, and even a film of elephants in 1903 "Shooting the Chutes at Luna Park".[13] Electrocuting an Elephant does not seem to have been as popular as these other films and could not even be viewed at Luna Park because the attraction did not have coin operated kinetoscopes needed to view it.[2] The film and Topsy's story fell into relative obscurity in the intervening years, showing up as an out of context clip in the 1979 film Mr. Mike's Mondo Video.[14] In 1991 documentary maker Ric Burns made the film Coney Island which included a segment recounting the death of Topsy, including clips from the film Electrocuting an Elephant.

In 1999 Topsy was commemorated in the Coney Island Mermaid Parade in a parade float by artist Gavin Heck. In 2003 Heck and a local arts group held a competition to select a memorial arts piece to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Topsy's death. The chosen a piece, created by New Orleans artist Lee Deigaard and exhibited at the Coney Island USA museum, allowed the public to view Electrocuting an Elephant on a hand cranked mutoscope while surrounded by hanging chains and standing on a copper plate.[15]

In recent years portions of Electrocuting an Elephant have also appeared in movies, music videos, TV shows, and video games. The theme of Topsy's electrocution also appears in songs, poems, and is included in the plot-line of several novels.

Association with Thomas Edison[edit]

Thomas Alva Edison around 1903, often associated with the death of Topsy.

In popular culture Topsy is portrayed as the elephant that was electrocuted in a public demonstration organized by Thomas Edison during the War of Currents to show the dangers of alternating current. Examples of this view include a 2008 Wired magazine article titled Edison Fries an Elephant to Prove His Point[16] and a 2013 episode of the animated comedy series Bob's Burgers titled Topsy. The inventor had electrocuted many animals 15 years earlier during the War of Currents, trying to demonstrate the dangers of alternating current but the events surrounding Topsy actually took place 10 years after the end of the "War". At the time of Topsy's death Edison had been forced into a minority role in power transmission and the electric company that still bore his name had long since converted from direct current to alternating current as part of the conglomerate General Electric.[17][2] Edison himself was not present at Luna Park and it is unclear as to the input he had in the execution or even its filming since the Edison Manufacturing film company made 1200 short films during that period with little guidance from Edison as to what they filmed.[18] Historian Michael Daly, in his 2013 book on Topsy, surmises how Edison would have been pleased that a proper method of positioning of the copper plates was used and that the elephant was killed by the large Westinghouse AC generator at Bay Ridge, but he shows no actual contact or communication between the owners of Luna Park and Edison over Topsy.[2]

Two things that may have indelibly linked Thomas Edison with Topsy's death were the primary newspaper sources describing the execution being carried out by "electricians of the Edison Company” (leading to an eventual confusing of the unrelated power company with the man), and the fact that the film of the event (like many Edison films from that period) was credited on screen to "Thomas A. Edison" [2][19]

See also[edit]

Other circus elephant executions/deaths
  • Chunee - circus elephant shot to death in 1826
  • Mary (elephant) - circus elephant executed by hanging in 1916
  • Tyke (elephant) - circus elephant who escaped in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1994 (shot to death by police)


  1. ^ "Book Review: "Topsy"". The Wall Street Journal. August 2, 2013. Retrieved September 15, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Daly, Michael (2013). Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked-tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison, page 282. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 0802119042. 
  3. ^ Samuel Hawley, TOPSY THE CIRCUS ELEPHANT, (research collected for the novel "Bad Elephant Far Stream")
  4. ^ Verious accounts from the period name him as "Frederic Ault", "William Alt", "William Alf" (per:Michael Daly and Samuel Hawley)
  5. ^ Samuel Hawley, TOPSY THE CIRCUS ELEPHANT, (research collected for the novel "Bad Elephant Far Stream")
  6. ^ Samuel Hawley, TOPSY THE CIRCUS ELEPHANT, (research collected for the novel "Bad Elephant Far Stream")
  7. ^ Samuel Hawley, TOPSY THE CIRCUS ELEPHANT, (research collected for the novel "Bad Elephant Far Stream")
  8. ^ Samuel Hawley, TOPSY THE CIRCUS ELEPHANT, (research collected for the novel "Bad Elephant Far Stream")
  9. ^ "TOPSY, THE ROGUE ELEPHANT, WAS ELECTROCUTED, POISONED AND HANGED St. Louis Republic, January 11, 1903, pge 24
  10. ^ "TOPSY, THE ROGUE ELEPHANT, WAS ELECTROCUTED, POISONED AND HANGED St. Louis Republic, January 11, 1903, pge 24
  11. ^ a b McNichol, Tom (2006). AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War, page 316. USA: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0-7879-8267-9. 
  12. ^ "Bad elephant killed. Topsy meets quick and painless death at Coney Island," The Commercial Advertiser, New York, Jan. 5, 1903. Retrieved October 27, 2006.
  13. ^ - Coney Island - Movie List
  14. ^ - Topsy the Elephant
  15. ^ TOM VANDERBILT, CITY LORE; They Didn't Forget, The New York Times, published: July 13, 2003
  16. ^ - Tony Long, Jan. 4, 1903: Edison Fries an Elephant to Prove His Point, January 4, 2008
  17. ^, The Edison Papers, Myth Buster-Topsy the Elephant
  18. ^, The Edison Papers, Myth Buster-Topsy the Elephant
  19. ^, The Edison Papers, Myth Buster-Topsy the Elephant

External links[edit]

Contemporary newspaper accounts