Topsy the elephant was a member of the performing elephant herd of the Forepaugh Circus for the majority of her life. The victim of a great deal of human-inflicted abuse and pain, she cultivated a reputation for rampaging, becoming known for her penchant for running amok and lashing back at people who tried to hurt or corral her. According to different sources, she was also responsible for the death of at least one and potentially three people.
The original plan was to hang her for her behavior, but the SPCA stepped in and deemed that method too inhumane. So, on January 4, 1903, the elephant was executed on Coney Island by electrocution. Since electrocuting an elephant had never been attempted before, the event drew a sizeable crowd to the newly opened Luna Park to watch.
Topsy's death occurred about a decade after infamous historical enemies Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla duked it out 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 the execution. However, though the company did bear this name, Thomas Edison had nothing to do with its founding or management.
Topsy's death became old news fairly soon after the spectacle, but, because a film of her death still exists today, she has come back into the public light as a symbol of how to respect and care for animals properly.
WARNING: Be advised that a graphic video of Topsy's electrocution can be found below.
Some Claim She Was An Innocent Pawn In A Bigger Game
Topsy led a life that was very common for circus elephants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was treated badly and submitted to various forms of abuse, which culminated in 1903. In addition to having a pitchfork plunged into her side by her "trainer," a circus follower threw a lit cigar into Topsy's mouth, and her reaction to the pain was to trample him to death.
After the incident, Topsy was considered an inconvenience for her owners; thus, she became a way to display the pure force and danger of alternating current electricity. Although Thomas Edison had already lost the "War of the Currents," this display was a way to prove his research by those supporters who believed the current war to be an ongoing one.
The Docile Girl Stepped Into The Wires That Killed Her – And She Was Fed Poisoned Carrots
Because such a large animal had not been killed by electrocution before, Topsy's executioners gave themselves some insurance – besides strapping her feet into copper sandals to conduct electric current, they also fed her poisoned carrots.
Around 6,600 volts coursed through her body, creating small blue flames and smoke. The current was turned off after 10 seconds. And, if she really as some violent, uncontrollable beast, Topsy certainly didn't show it on the day of her execution. As one report had it: "The wires were dragged over. Topsy immediately complied when she was instructed to raise her right foot for the first death sandal. 'Not so vicious,' a reporter remarked aloud."
Contrary To Popular Belief, Thomas Edison Did Not Film Her Death
The identity of the specific person who filmed the death of Topsy remains a mystery. The SPCA and Edison Electric Illuminating Co. were both contributors to the planning and carrying out of the electrocution, but there is no actual proof that Edison was present for the event.
Many sites claim that he not only filmed but also personally orchestrated her killing. However, there is no proof that supports this whatsoever, and many contemporary historians are in agreement that this is fallacious information. Sources like Rutgers University suggest that a film crew representing the Edison Electric Illuminating Co. most likely shot the video.
Her Death Was A Public Spectacle
Some estimates report that 1,500 spectators attended Topsy's electrocution. At that time, an event like this was a major curiosity for the general public. Today, however, people are looking back and seeing the event as "a bit of a shameful moment in Coney Island's history," according to The Economist.
A century later, a memorial for Topsy was unveiled at the Coney Island Museum, to commemorate not only her life and death, but also what she contributed to the scientific developments of that era.