Topsy the elephant was a member of the performing elephant herd of the Forepaugh Circus for the majority of her life. The victim of excessive mistreatment at the hands of her handlers, she cultivated a reputation for rampaging and lashing back at those who tried to hurt or corral her. According to some sources, she also killed up to three people during her excited episodes.
Her handlers originally planned to hang her for her behavior – and charge admission for civilians to witness the event – but the SPCA prevented this method, claiming it was too inhumane. Instead, on January 4, 1903, Topsy was executed on Coney Island via electric shock. Since such a feat had never before been attempted on an elephant, the event drew a sizable crowd to the newly opened Luna Park.
Topsy perished about a decade after infamous historical enemies Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla clashed in the War of the Currents – a scientific battle to prove the viability of alternate versus direct electrical currents. Edison strongly believed alternating current electricity to be more dangerous, though he had lost the argument to Tesla. For his part, Edison is indelibly linked to the event because, in a newspaper at the time, his electricity company, the "Edison Company," was credited with providing the electricity for Topsy's execution. Though the company did bear this name, Thomas Edison had nothing to do with its founding or management.
The spectacle of Topsy's execution lost momentum soon after it occurred, but, because a film of the event still exists today, she has returned to the public consciousness as a symbol of how to respect and care for animals properly.
A graphic video of Topsy's execution is included below. Viewer discretion is advised.