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Topsy the Elephant Was a Victim of Her Captors, Not Thomas Edison

Many believe Edison killed Topsy to prove a point, but some historians argue otherwise

An illustration of Topsy from the St. Paul Globe on June 16, 1902. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

On this day in 1903, Topsy the elephant died of electrocution on Coney Island.

Many believe Topsy was a victim of the so-called War of the Currents, the battle between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison over alternating and direct current. “Captured on film by Thomas Edison, the event was one of a string of animal electrocutions Edison staged to discredit a new form of electricity: alternating current,” writes Tony Long for Wired.

But some disagree, saying that Topsy was destined to die anyways, and Edison’s electrocution was merely seen to be a convenient and humane way of accomplishing her death. After all, the War of the Currents ended in the 1890s, while Topsy’s death came later. Their ranks include Michael Daly, the author of Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison. He says Topsy was a victim of the “elephant wars” between circus proprietors, not the War of the Currents.

“Topsy had,  in fact, killed a man, but her execution was ordered only later, after she proved unmanageable at the hands of a trainer who savaged her with a pitchfork,” writes Vicki Constantine Croke in a review of Daly’s book for The New York Times. What Daly argues, she writes, is that the War of the Currents was well over by that time, and what had been proven is that Edison’s direct current was effective at killing animals.

“Luna Park originally planned to hang Topsy,” according to the Rutgers University introduction to the Edison papers. “But the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals objected, claiming that this method of execution was unnecessarily cruel.”

Relying on information from previous animal electrocutions using alternating current, they decided electrocution would be a more humane way to kill Topsy. During the War of the Currents, Edison supporters—desperate to show that alternating current was much more dangerous than direct current—had electrocuted a number of animals: dogs, calves, even a horse.

Because nobody had ever electrocuted an elephant before, they decided to make sure the act would be completed with a combination of poisoning, strangulation and electrocution. Topsy was fed carrots laced with potassium cyanide, and her feet were placed in conductive copper sandals so she could be electrocuted.

However, writes Rutgers, it’s unlikely that Edison was a direct part of Topsy’s execution or even saw it. His presence isn’t mentioned in newspaper accounts of the execution, and none of Edison’s correspondence that can be found now mentions Topsy in any way.

Topsy’s graphic death (which was filmed and is available on Youtube) did perhaps represent “the culmination of an intensively [sic] personal and private drama” for Edison, Daly writes.

The film was Edison's "opportunity to demonstrate the deadliness of the damnable current on the largest of land animals,” he writes, “a creature so much bigger than any mere man, big enough to vent a great man’s fury and frustration at being bested, to show who is truly boss.” But it didn't matter. The War of the Currents had been lost, and Edison's opponents, Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, had won.

And for Topsy, a member of a deeply intelligent and emotive species who was kept in captivity for so much of her life, Edison's feud couldn't have mattered less.

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