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Topsy belonged to the Forepaugh Circus and spent the last years of her life at Coney Island's Luna Park. Because she had killed one trainer (who burned her trunk with a lit cigar), and subsequently became aggressive towards two other keepers who had struck her with a pitchfork, Topsy was deemed a threat to people by her owners and killed by electrocution on January 4, 1903 at the age of 36. 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. Edison used the film in his campaign against George Westinghouse and AC technology.
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.
Topsy was fed carrots laced with 460 grams of potassium cyanide before the deadly current from a 6,600-volt AC source was sent coursing through her body, partly as a demonstration of how "unsafe" his competitor's (George Westinghouse) alternating current design was. In Edison's film she 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". 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.
Portions of Edison's film Electrocuting an Elephant have appeared in many works of popular culture such as:
A song called "Coney Island Funeral" recorded by the history band Piñataland for their EP Songs from Konijn Kok tells the tale of Topsy.
Topsy's electrocution is included in Christopher Bram's novel The Notorious Dr. August, Kevin Baker's novel Dreamland, Alice Hoffman's novel The Red Garden, and Nick Arvin's collection of stories, In the Electric Eden.
Topsy is a character in Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon's poem "Plan B" from his September 2010 book Maggot. Topsy was also the subject of W. S. Merwin's poem, "The Chain to Her Leg", published in the December 13, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.
The history of the event is chronicled in Michael Daly's 2013 book Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison.
A fictionalized account of Topsy's life is presented in Samuel Hawley's 2013 novel Bad Elephant Far Stream.