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, with claims she weighed between 4 and 6 tons. Over the years, Topsy gained a reputations as a "bad" elephant. In 1902 another event brought her again to prominence; the killing of a spectator James Fielding Blount[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[3] Because of this attack the owners of Forepaugh & Sell Circus decided to sell Topsy.[4]

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,[5] 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.[7]

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, 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 euthanize within a few days by electrocution. At least one local paper noted 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.[8][3] 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 tall Electric Tower (the structure had reached a height of 75 feet at the time of the execution). 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 forbid 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 elephant "executions" including poisoning, but that, as well a 1901 attempt to electrocute an elephant named Jumbo II two years earlier in Buffalo, New York had ended in botched executions.[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.[12]

The date of Topsy's execution 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 execution. 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 near by buildings, which were charging admission to see the event.[13] 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 it conformed to what had been agreed to. 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.[14] They spent the night before[15] 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".[16]

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 by Carl Goliath, an expert on elephants who formally 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.[17] 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[3] saying he would “not for $1000”.[3] They finally gave up trying to get Topsy across the bridge and decided to "bring death to her".[18] 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.[19] 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 Sharkey's signal an electrician on a telephone told the superintend 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 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".[20] After Topsy fell the steam powered winch tightened two nooses placed around her neck for 10 minutes. An ASPCA official and two veterinarians employed by Thompson and Dundy determined that the electric shock had killed Topsy. During the execution the superintend 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 was left with small burns from the power traveling from his right arm to his left leg.[21]

The event was filmed by a crew from the Edison film company, possibly shot by Edwin S. Porter or Jacob Blair Smith,[22] and was added to the lineup of films viewable in Edison kinetoscopes within a few weeks under the title Electrocuting an Elephant.[19]

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".[23] 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.[3] 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.[24] 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.[25]

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[26] 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 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 after the 1892 merger of his company into General Electric and that companies move towards alternating current. 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 Electric Light Company.[3][27] 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.[28] 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 generators at Bay Ridge, but he shows no actual contact or communication between the owners of Luna Park and Edison over Topsy.[3]

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" [3][29]

See also[edit]

Other circus elephant executions/deaths


  1. ^ originally from Fort Wayne, Indiana and described as a circus follower, maybe trying to get employment at Forepaugh
  2. ^ "Book Review: "Topsy"". The Wall Street Journal. August 2, 2013. Retrieved September 15, 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i 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. 
  4. ^ Samuel Hawley, TOPSY THE CIRCUS ELEPHANT, (research collected for the novel "Bad Elephant Far Stream")
  5. ^ Verious accounts from the period name him as "Frederic Ault", "William Alt", "William Alf" (per:Michael Daly and Samuel Hawley)
  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. ^ "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. ^ BAD ELEPHANT DIES BY SHOCK, Electricity Kills Topsy it 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. ^ BAD ELEPHANT DIES BY SHOCK, Electricity Kills Topsy it Coney Island, New York Press, January 5, 1903 (at
  13. ^ BAD ELEPHANT DIES BY SHOCK, Electricity Kills Topsy it Coney Island, New York Press, January 5, 1903 (at
  14. ^ Topsy, an Elephant, Executed at Coney Island, New York Herald, January 5, 1903 (at
  15. ^ Topsy, an Elephant, Executed at Coney Island, New York Herald, January 5, 1903 (at
  16. ^ Brooklyn Bulletin - Volumes 9-10 - National Electric Light Association. Brooklyn Company Section - 1916, page 18
  17. ^ "TOPSY, THE ROGUE ELEPHANT, WAS ELECTROCUTED, POISONED AND HANGED St. Louis Republic, January 11, 1903, pge 24
  18. ^ "TOPSY, THE ROGUE ELEPHANT, WAS ELECTROCUTED, POISONED AND HANGED St. Louis Republic, January 11, 1903, page 24
  19. ^ 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. 
  20. ^ "Bad elephant killed. Topsy meets quick and painless death at Coney Island," The Commercial Advertiser, New York, Jan. 5, 1903. Retrieved October 27, 2006.
  21. ^ The Sun (New York), Jan 5, 1903, page 1
  22. ^, 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
  23. ^ - Coney Island - Movie List
  24. ^ - Topsy the Elephant
  25. ^ TOM VANDERBILT, CITY LORE; They Didn't Forget, The New York Times, published: July 13, 2003
  26. ^ - Tony Long, Jan. 4, 1903: Edison Fries an Elephant to Prove His Point, January 4, 2008
  27. ^, The Edison Papers, Myth Buster-Topsy the Elephant
  28. ^, The Edison Papers, Myth Buster-Topsy the Elephant
  29. ^, The Edison Papers, Myth Buster-Topsy the Elephant

External links[edit]

Contemporaneous newspaper accounts