Topsy (elephant)

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

Topsy (circa 1867 – January 4, 1903) was a female Asian elephant killed at a Coney Island, New York park by electrocution on January 4, 1903.


Topsy was born in the wild around 1867 in Southeast Asia and captured around 1875. She was smuggled into the United States to serve in the Forepaugh Circus, then 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". At maturity, Topsy was 10 ft high and 20 ft long. She was sold in June 1902, along with trainer William "Whitey" Alf, to Paul Boyton, owner of Coney Island's Sea Lion Park. The park was bought out that same year by Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy who redeveloped it into a much larger attraction and renamed it Luna Park.[1] Topsy was on display moving timbers and even a building during construction and also as part of herd of free roaming elephants.

Over the years, Topsy gained a reputations as a "bad" or even "murderer" elephant. During the unloading of Topsy from a train while traveling with the Forepaugh Circus, trainer 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 down again before being stopped by another trainer.[2] Topsy eventually killed three of her handlers including James Fielding Blount, who burnt the extremely sensitive tip of her trunk with a lit cigar.[3]


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

At Luna Park in October 1902 trainer William Alf was involved in an incident where he stabbed Topsy with pitchfork, an occurrence attributed to the trainer's drinking. In December 1902 a drunk Alf rode Topsy down the town streets, leading to the trainers firing. Without Alf to handle Topsy the owners of the park decided to euthanize the elephant.[4] Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy decided to conduct a public execution of the elephant. Public execution of elephants were not an uncommon occurrence with the animals being hung from cranes, strangled by ropes tied to other elephants, poisoned, and even shot.[5] Initially Topsy was supposed to be hanged, but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) protested against the idea. Thompson and Dundy decided to use a more "humane" method, electrocution.

On hearing of the park's plans, inventor Thomas Edison offered the services of his technicians to setup and conduct the actual electrocution.[6] Thompson and Dundy planned to collect twenty-five cents a head, but the event had received enough press attention that a squad of special agents from the ASPCA arrived.[2] They announced they would not allow the elephant’s death to be made into a public spectacle and the event no longer collected money, but spectators were still allowed to watch.[2] Topsy trainer William Alf was upset over the impending execution despite the many times he had abused the elepant, and he declined an offer of $25 to coax her to death.[2] He said he would “not for $1000”.[2]

Topsy's execution took place at Luna Park on January 4, 1903. Before the electrocution, Topsy was fed carrots laced with 460 grams of potassium cyanide before the current from a 6,600-volt AC source was sent through her body, toppling her to the ground. According to at least one contemporary account, she died "without a trumpet or a groan".[7] Topsy was age 36 at the time of execution. The event was witnessed by an estimated 1,500 people and a film of the event shot by Edison's movie company, Electrocuting an Elephant, was seen later that year by audiences throughout the United States.[8]

On July 20, 2003, a memorial for Topsy was erected at the Coney Island Museum.[9]

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)


External links[edit]