Topsy (elephant)

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Electrocuting an Elephant, 1903.

Topsy (circa 1867 – January 4, 1903)[1] was a female Asian elephant smuggled into the United States while young to serve in Forepaugh Circus. Topsy went through years of abuse as a circus elephant, and after killing a trainer, she was killed by electrocution on January 4, 1903.[2]


Topsy belonged to the Forepaugh Circus and spent the last years of her life at Coney Island's Luna Park. Throughout her life she had been tormented by several people, multiple trainers and several audience members.[3] Louis Dodero, a resident of Poughkeepsie, New York, was present during the unloading of Topsy from a train while traveling Forepaugh Circus. Dodero used a stick in his hand to "tickle" Topsy behind the ear. Topsy then seized Dodero around the waist with her trunk, hoisted him high in the air and just held him there. [3] She proceeded to throw him down and was raising her right foot in apparent preparation for killing him when trainer, William Emery came running over and stopped her.[3] Only after years of mistreatment, Topsy killed one trainer, James Fielding Blount, who burnt the extremely sensitive tip of her trunk with a lit cigar,[4] and subsequently became aggressive towards two other keepers who had struck her with a pitchfork.[5] Topsy was deemed a threat to people by her owners and killed by electrocution on January 4, 1903 at the age of 36.[6] Inventor Thomas Edison oversaw and conducted the electrocution, and he captured the event on film. He would release it later that year under the title Electrocuting an Elephant.

Initially Topsy was supposed to be hanged, but other ways were considered when the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals protested. Edison then suggested electrocution with alternating current, which had been used for the execution of humans since 1890.[7] Luna Park's owners, Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy, were planning to collect twenty-five cents a head, but the event had received enough press attention that a squad of special agents from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals arrived.[3] 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.[3] Topsy's one trainer, Frederick Ault, "Whitey," was upset over the impending execution despite the many times he had abused Topsy, and he declined an offer of $25 to coax her to death.[3] He said he would “not for $1000”.[3] 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. In Edison's film, she obeys the men's orders to raise her feet and kneeling, topples to the ground and is seen to move for several seconds. According to at least one contemporary account, she died "without a trumpet or a groan".[6] The event was witnessed by an estimated 1,500 people and Edison's film of the event was seen by audiences throughout the United States.[7]

On July 20, 2003, a memorial for Topsy was erected at the Coney Island Museum.[8]

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