Topsy (elephant)

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Topsy the elephant.png
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.
SpeciesAsian elephant
DiedJanuary 4, 1903(1903-01-04) (aged 27–28)
Luna Park, Coney Island, New York City
Cause of deathelectrocution
Nation fromUnited States
OccupationCircus performer
EmployerForepaugh Circus
Years active1875–1903
WeightBetween 4 and 6 tons
Height7.5 ft (229 cm)

Topsy (circa 1875 – January 4, 1903) was a female Asian elephant who was electrocuted at Coney Island, New York, in January 1903. Born in Southeast Asia around 1875, Topsy was secretly brought into the United States soon thereafter and added to the herd of performing elephants at the Forepaugh Circus, who fraudulently advertised her as the first elephant born in America. During her 25 years at Forepaugh, Topsy gained a reputation as a "bad" elephant and, after killing a spectator in 1902, was sold to Coney Island's Sea Lion Park. When Sea Lion was leased out at the end of the 1902 season and replaced by Luna Park, Topsy was involved in several well-publicized incidents, attributed to the actions of either her drunken handler or the park's new publicity-hungry owners, Frederic Thompson and Elmer "Skip" Dundy.

Their end-of-the-year plans to hang Topsy at the park in a public spectacle and charge admission were prevented by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The event was instead limited to invited guests and press only and Thompson and Dundy agreed to use a more sure method of strangling the elephant with large ropes tied to a steam-powered winch with both poison and electrocution planned for good measure. On January 4, 1903, in front of a small crowd of invited reporters and guests, Topsy was fed carrots laced with 460 grams of potassium cyanide, electrocuted and strangled, the electrocution being what killed Topsy in the end. Among the invited press that day was a crew from the Edison Manufacturing movie company who filmed the event. Their film of the electrocution part was released to be viewed in coin-operated kinetoscopes under the title Electrocuting an Elephant. It is probably the first filmed death of an animal in history.[1]

The story of Topsy fell into obscurity for the next 70 years but has become more prominent in popular culture, partly due to the fact that the film of the event still exists. In popular culture Thompson and Dundy's killing of Topsy has switched attribution, with claims it was an anti-alternating current demonstration organized by Thomas A. Edison during the war of the currents. Edison was never at Luna Park and the electrocution of Topsy took place ten years after the war of currents.[2][3]


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 largest elephants. The name "Topsy" came from a slave girl character in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Forepaugh announced to the press in February 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 claiming that Topsy was born in America, only advertising that she was the first elephant born outside a tropical zone.

At maturity, Topsy was 10 ft (3.0 m) high and 20 ft (6.1 m) long, with claims she weighed between 4 and 6 short tons (3.6 and 5.4 long tons; 3.6 and 5.4 metric tons). Over the years, Topsy gained a reputation as a "bad" elephant. In 1902, another event brought her again to prominence: the killing of spectator James Fielding Blount[4] in Brooklyn, New York, at what was then 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.[5] 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. Journalist Michael Daly, in his 2013 book on Topsy, could find no record of anyone being killed by an elephant in Waco; and a handler named Mortimer Loudett of Albany, NY attacked by Topsy in Paris, TX suffered injuries but there is no record of him dying.[1] 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 Dondero used a stick in his hand to "tickle" Topsy behind the ear. Topsy seized Dondero around the waist with her trunk, hoisted him high in the air and threw him back down before being stopped by a handler.[1] Because of this attack, the owners of Forepaugh & Sell Circus decided to sell Topsy.[6]

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,[7] 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.[6] 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, 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 the spot where she was supposed to be killed. 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, claimed they could no longer handle the elephant and tried to get rid of her, but they could not even give her away and no other circus or zoo would take her. On December 13, 1902, Luna Park press agent Charles Murray released a statement to the newspapers that Topsy would be put to death within a few days by electrocution. At least one local paper noted that the steady drone of events and reports regarding Topsy from the park had the hallmarks of a publicity campaign designed to get the new park continually mentioned in the papers.[1][8] On January 1, 1903, Thompson and Dundy announced plans to conduct a public hanging of the elephant,[9] set for January 3 or 4, and collect a twenty-five cents a head admission to see the spectacle.[10] The site they chose was an island in the middle of the lagoon for the old Shoot the Chute ride where they were building the centerpiece of their new park, the 200-foot Electric Tower (the structure had reached a height of 75 feet at the time of the killing). Press agent Murray arranged media coverage and posted banners around the park and on all four sides of the makeshift gallows advertising, "OPENING MAY 2ND 1903 LUNA PARK $1,000,000 EXPOSITION, THE HEART OF CONEY ISLAND".

On hearing Thompson and Dundy's plans, the President of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, John Peter Haines, stepped in and forbade hanging as a "needlessly cruel means of killing [Topsy]" and also told Thompson and Dundy they could not conduct a public spectacle and charge admission. Thompson and Dundy discussed alternatives with Haines, going over methods used in previous attempts to euthanize elephants including poisoning, but that, as well as a 1901 attempt to electrocute an elephant named Jumbo II two years earlier in Buffalo, New York, were botched.[11] After much negotiation, which included Thompson and Dundy trying to give the elephant to the ASPCA, a method of strangling the elephant with large ropes tied to a steam-powered winch was agreed upon. They also agreed they would use poisoning and electricity as well.[10]

The date of Topsy's demise was finally set for Sunday, January 4, 1903. The press attention the event had received brought out an estimated 1500 spectators and 100 press photographers as well as agents from the ASPCA to inspect the proceedings. Thompson and Dundy allowed 100 spectators into the park although more climbed through the park fence. Many more were on the balconies and roofs of nearby buildings, which were charging admission to see the event.[10] The Electric Tower had been re-rigged with large ropes set up to strangle the elephant, which were inspected by the ASPCA agents to make sure they conformed to what had been agreed. The details of the electrocution part of the execution were handled by workers from the local power company, Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Brooklyn, under the supervision of chief electrician P. D. Sharkey.[12] They spent the night before[12] stringing power lines from the Coney Island electrical substation nine blocks to the park to carry alternating current they planned to redirect from a much larger plant in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. At Bay Ridge the staff was told to "get an engine ready and clear a feeder and bus to Coney Island Station".[13]

A press photograph of the electrocution of Topsy with the unfinished "Electric Tower" in the background.

Topsy was led out of her pen into the unfinished Luna Park by Carl Goliath, an expert on elephants who formerly worked for animal showman Carl Hagenbeck. Newspaper accounts of the events noted that Topsy refused to cross the bridge over the lagoon, ignoring prodding by Goliath and even bribes of carrots and apples.[14] The owners of Luna Park then tried to get William Alt, who would not watch the killing, to lead Topsy across the bridge, but he declined an offer of $25 to coax her to her death[1] saying he would “not for $1000”.[1] They finally gave up trying to get Topsy across the bridge and decided to "bring death to her".[14] The steam engine, ropes, and the electrical lines were re-rigged to the spot where Topsy stood. 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.[15] With chief electrician Sharkey making sure everyone was clear, Topsy was fed carrots laced with 460 grams of potassium cyanide by press agent Charles Murray who then backed away. At 2:45pm Sharkey gave a signal and an electrician on a telephone told the superintendent at Coney Island station nine blocks away to close a switch and Luna Park chief electrician Hugh Thomas closed another one at the park, sending 6,600 volts from Bay Ridge across 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".[16] After Topsy fell, the steam-powered winch tightened two nooses placed around her neck for 10 minutes. At 2:47, Topsy was pronounced dead.[17] An ASPCA official and two veterinarians employed by Thompson and Dundy determined that the electric shock had killed Topsy. During the killing the superintendent of the Coney Island station, Joseph Johansen, became "mixed up in the apparatus" when he threw the switch sending power to the park and was nearly electrocuted. He was knocked out and left with small burns from the power traveling from his right arm to his left leg.[18]

Electrocuting an Elephant[edit]

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

Among the press the day Topsy was killed was a film crew from the Edison film company, possibly directed by Edwin S. Porter or Jacob Blair Smith.[19] The crew shot a 74-second film of Topsy's electrocution. Within a few weeks, it was added to the films viewable in Edison kinetoscopes under the title Electrocuting an Elephant.[15] This was one of many short "actuality" films shot by the Edison Manufacturing Company from 1897 at Coney Island, depicting rides, bathing scenes, diving horses, and elephants.[20] The Edison company submitted the film to the Library of Congress as a "paper print" (a photographic record of each frame of the film) for copyright purposes.[21] The submission may have saved the film for posterity, since most films and negatives of this period decayed or were destroyed over time.[citation needed]

Media and culture[edit]

Electrocuting an Elephant does not seem to have been as popular as other Edison films, and could not be viewed at Luna Park because the attraction did not have the necessary coin-operated kinetoscopes.[1] The film and Topsy's story fell into relative obscurity in the intervening years, and appeared as an out-of-context clip in the 1979 film Mr. Mike's Mondo Video.[22] 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 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.[23]

In later years, portions of Electrocuting an Elephant have appeared in movies, music videos, TV shows, and video games. The theme of Topsy's electrocution also appears in songs, in the plot-line of several novels, and in poems such as U.S. poet laureate W. S. Merwin's "The Chain to Her Leg".[24]

Association with Thomas Edison[edit]

Thomas Alva Edison, often misassociated with the death of Topsy, pictured in around 1903

In popular culture, Topsy is often portrayed as being electrocuted in a public demonstration organized by Thomas Edison during the war of the 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"[25] and a 2013 episode of the animated comedy series Bob's Burgers titled "Topsy". The events surrounding Topsy took place ten years after the end of the "War".[2][26] At the time of Topsy's death, Edison was no longer involved in the electric lighting business. He had been forced out of control of his company by its 1892 merger into General Electric and sold all his stock in GE during the 1890s to finance an iron ore refining venture.[27] The Brooklyn company that still bore his name mentioned in newspaper reports was a privately owned power company no longer associated with his earlier Edison Illuminating Company.[1][28] Edison himself was not present at Luna Park, and it is unclear as to the input he had in Topsy's death 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.[28] Journalist Michael Daly, in his 2013 book on Topsy, surmises that Edison would have been pleased by the proper positioning of the copper plates and that the elephant was killed by the large Westinghouse AC generators at Bay Ridge, but he shows no actual contact or communication between the owners of Luna Park and Edison over Topsy.[1]

Two things that may have indelibly linked Thomas Edison with Topsy's death were the primary newspaper sources describing it as 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".[1][28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 978-0802119049.
  2. ^ a b "Later, some historians would suggest that Edison electrocuted Topsy as part of the War of Currents. But that war had long since been lost and the execution itself and perhaps even the method were arranged by Thompson and Dundy."'- Daly, Michael (2013). Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked-tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison, page 282
  3. ^ "Edison was not present. The electricians who electrocuted Topsy were connected with the "Edison Company." This likely refers to New York Edison, the predecessor to ConEd. Edison had not been part of the company for many years.", "While an Edison motion picture camera crew did film the event it is very unlikely that Edison himself was involved even in determining whether a film should be made. Edison did not run his motion picture business himself. Contrary to popular myth, the electrocution of Topsy had nothing to do with the battle between AC and DC, which ended with the formation of GE in 1892." -, The Edison Papers, Myth Buster-Topsy the Elephant
  4. ^ originally from Fort Wayne, Indiana and described as a circus follower, maybe trying to get employment at Forepaugh
  5. ^ "Book Review: "Topsy"". The Wall Street Journal. August 2, 2013. Retrieved September 15, 2013.
  6. ^ a b c Samuel Hawley, TOPSY THE CIRCUS ELEPHANT, (research collected for the novel "Bad Elephant Far Stream")
  7. ^ Various accounts from the period name him as "Frederic Ault", "William Alt", "William Alf" (per:Michael Daly and Samuel Hawley)
  8. ^ "TOPS" AND THE PRESS AGENT, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle from Brooklyn, New York December 13, 1902, page 5
  9. ^ The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 5, 1903 · page 8
  10. ^ a b c BAD ELEPHANT DIES BY SHOCK, Electricity Kills Topsy at Coney Island, New York Press, January 5, 1903 (at
  11. ^ The poisonings either left the animals in agony or showed little effect and the electricity seemed to show no effect.
  12. ^ a b Topsy, an Elephant, Executed at Coney Island, New York Herald, January 5, 1903 (at
  13. ^ Brooklyn Bulletin - Volumes 9-10 - National Electric Light Association. Brooklyn Company Section - 1916, page 18
  14. ^ a b "TOPSY, THE ROGUE ELEPHANT, WAS ELECTROCUTED, POISONED AND HANGED St. Louis Republic, January 11, 1903, pge 24
  15. ^ a b McNichol, Tom (2006). AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War. USA: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0-7879-8267-9.
  16. ^ "Bad elephant killed. Topsy meets quick and painless death at Coney Island," The Commercial Advertiser, New York, Jan. 5, 1903. Retrieved October 27, 2006.
  17. ^ Nikolas C. Heynen, Maria Kaika, Erik Swyngedouw, In the Nature of Cities: Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism, Taylor & Francis - 2006, page 76
  18. ^ The Sun (New York), Jan 5, 1903, page 1
  19. ^, Electrocuting an Elephant, Also known as Electrocution of an Elephant in the USA (1903), American B&W : 70 feet, directed by Edwin S. Porter and/or Jacob Blair Smith
  20. ^ - Coney Island - Movie List
  21. ^ Actualities - Celluloid Skyline
  22. ^ - Topsy the Elephant
  23. ^ TOM VANDERBILT, CITY LORE; They Didn't Forget, The New York Times, published: July 13, 2003
  24. ^ READ: Poem Donated By U.S. Poet Laureate By Global Animal on September 6, 2011
  25. ^ - Tony Long, Jan. 4, 1903: Edison Fries an Elephant to Prove His Point, January 4, 2008
  26. ^ "While an Edison motion picture camera crew did film the event it is very unlikely that Edison himself was involved even in determining whether a film should be made. Edison did not run his motion picture business himself. Contrary to popular myth, the electrocution of Topsy had nothing to do with the battle between AC and DC, which ended with the formation of GE in 1892." -, The Edison Papers, Myth Buster-Topsy the Elephant
  27. ^ Michael Gelb, Sarah Miller Caldicott, Innovate Like Edison: The Success System of America's Greatest Inventor, Penguin - 2007, page 29
  28. ^ a b c, The Edison Papers, Myth Buster-Topsy the Elephant

External links[edit]

Contemporaneous newspaper accounts