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The Tale of Topsy the Elephant That was Electrocuted, Poisoned and Strangulated

BY Namrata Naha November 2, 2018
Topsy the elephant being electrocuted

Topsy the elephant being electrocuted in Luna Park. (www.timetoast.com / Wikimedia Commons)

Topsy was an elephant that belonged to the herd of performers in the Forepaugh Circus for a major part of her life. The tragic story of Topsy began sometimes around 1875. The elephant traders in Southeast Asia seized the baby elephant weighing 200 pounds. She was later smuggled into America by Adam Forepaugh, the owner of Forepaugh and Sells Circus, who dishonestly used to bill her as the first elephant born in America.

Historical accounts of Topsy’s errant behaviour

In those days, like other circus animals, Topsy was a victim of human-inflicted brutality and abuse. She used to be tormented no ends during the course of her training and performances. It was because of this stocked up pain and agony she became infamous as a rogue elephant.

She had developed a penchant for rampaging circus resources, frequently going berserk and smacking against people, especially the cruel circus handlers when they tried to hurt or cage her up.

As indicated by different sources, she supposedly killed by trampling two circus workers in Texas. In 1902, she killed James Fielding Blount, a spectator from Brooklyn, in utter anguish, who instigated to extremely trouble her by throwing a lit cigar into her mouth.

After this much-hyped incident, Topsy was disposed of Coney Island’s Sea Lion Park. A year later, when the park was distressed with bankruptcy, its proprietor Paul Boyton leased it out to Frederic Thompson and Elmer Dundy who were then developing the Luna Park. Naturally, Topsy was turned over to her new owners.

Life became worse for Topsy after her entry to Luna Park. For whatever was left of her short-lived and pitiful life, she continued pulling massive building materials for construction and development. Frederic and Elmer termed it as her atonement pursuit for being so audacious and belligerent.

Topsy the elephant, here as well, was embroiled in several widely reported error incidents, mainly attributed to the inhuman actions meted out by either her unruly drunken handler or the park’s public attention-grabbing owners.

Topsy the elephant’s electrocution

Luna Park originally had plans to hang Topsy for her disruptive behaviour. However, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) stepped in and quickly squashed that idea citing reasons that hanging was unpardonably spiteful.

Based on information from prior instances of electrocutions of animals using alternating current, Luna Park officials decided on electrocution as the preferred and more humane alternative to killing Topsy the elephant.

On December 13, 1902, a press release from Luna Park issued a statement in newspapers that Topsy would be euthanized within a few days through electrocution.

Topsy the elephant's execution

Topsy being escorted to cross the bridge for her execution. (Louis Republic article / Wikimedia Commons)

Finally, the elephant was executed on January 4, 1903, at the Luna Park construction area in Coney Island. Since such an incident of electrocution of an elephant was never attempted before, a sizeable crowd drew in to watch the event at the recently opened park.

As the electrocution of an elephant was hitherto unknown, Topsy’s executioners made sure to complete the act successfully through a technique that combined all; electrocution, poisoning and strangulation. Topsy was fed poisoned carrots with her feet being strapped into copper sandals to apply the electric shock.

Topsy the elephant dead

Dead Topsy. (www.metrolic.com / Wikimedia Commons)

Hugh Thomas, who was the chief electrician of Luna Park, performed the electrocution. It sent shivers of 6,600 volts through Topsy’s body. The current application was switched off after 10 seconds.

There was a huge blaze of fire and stench of burning flesh. Her body violently underwent a tremor before tumbling to the ground. And, if she was really a ferocious, unmanageable beast, Topsy unquestionably didn’t demonstrate it on her last day.

The Thomas Edison angle behind Topsy’s death

Many people trust that Topsy was a casualty of the purported “War of the Currents” the scientific battle that was fought between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla over the concepts and viability of alternating and direct currents.

Fred and Elmer swung into action with Thomas Edison. He was then in strong contention with the alternating current strategy of Nikola Tesla. He was trying hard to uphold the direct current theory in the United States as the ideal standard of electricity provision.

In his endeavours to prevent and dissuade the general public from using AC owing to its increased potential dangers, Edison had been orchestrating numerous public demonstrations by electrocuting stray animals. Apparently, he couldn’t forgo the opportunity to electrocute Topsy and prove the heightened perils of AC once more.

The identity of a certain individual who apparently filmed the electrocution and consequent death of Topsy the elephant could not be revealed. The SPCA and Edison Electric Co. are surmised to have both contributed towards the planning and execution of the electrocution method. According to a rumour, an entire part of the persistent propaganda to devalue AC and foster Edison’s own predilection, direct current.

Numerous reports and sites allege that Thomas Edison not only recorded the entire event but also masterminded the killing. Sources like Rutgers University are of the impression that a film crew which represented the Edison Electric Illuminating Co shot the video in all likelihood.

The film was believed to be an opportunity for Edison to bespeak the pernicious nature of the abhorrent alternate current on a mammoth animal. It was a great man’s frustration and wrath at being confronted with getting an upper hand over and showing off his real worth as the true boss. But it hardly made any impact. Edison eventually lost the War of the Currents to his opponent Nikola Tesla.

Lack of evidence in Thomas Edison’s involvement

However, there is a lack of corroboration in this matter and contemporary historians have put this information away as a grossly fallacious one. According to them, Edison’s involvement is mostly dubious with newspaper accounts having no mention of it. There is also no evidence that Thomas Edison was in attendance during the course of the action.

The fact that any of the extant correspondence of Edison doesn’t mention about Topsy or an electrocution incident of an elephant at Luna Park is also worth noting.

Some people deviate, stating that Topsy, in many ways, was doomed to die. Edison’s electrocution was simply observed as a conducive and compassionate way to accomplish her death. And even, the War of the Currents drew to a close in the 1890s, while Topsy’s execution came much later. It has been conjectured that Topsy the elephant was not a pawn of the war of the currents, but of the “elephant wars” among the circus proprietors.

And for Topsy, who was a member of a species with profound intelligence and emotions, kept in bondage for such an extended period of her life, the feud between Edison and Tesla couldn’t have made much of a difference.

A few assessments report that nearly 1,500 onlookers and 100 photographers attended Topsy’s electrocution. Around then, an occasion like this generated a lot of buzz and curiosity among the general public. The execution, since then has been the subject matter of various books, articles and television documentaries.

Topsy’s electrocution being a massive disservice to animal welfare

Today, in any case, people introspect and consider this event as an absolutely deplorable and unforgivable moment that went down the chronicles as an extreme act of heinous crime and outrage against animal well-being.

With American society becoming increasingly sensitive to the affliction towards animals, Topsy’s execution has been portrayed as a quintessential example of indescribable cruelty to animals.

Topsy’s passing away ended up being stale news decently not long after the episode, however, on the grounds that a video documentation of her demise still exists today, she has returned into the public appearance as an exemplary image of how to show care and respect to animals.

A century later, at the Coney Island Museum, a memorial was unveiled, not only to commemorate the life and death of Topsy the elephant but also pay heartfelt tribute to a soul that contributed significantly to the scientific advancements in that period.

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Fact Analysis:
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