Elephant justice

Topsy the elephant was famously electrocuted in 1903. History has not been kind to her, so let’s set the record straight. No, she was not a victim of the AC vs. DC wars. She killed only one man, and that was in clear self defence.

St. Paul Globe. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Topsy was the first animal killed on film: poisoned, electrocuted, and hung in front of a crowd of onlookers. The recording is famous (you can see it, if you must, on the Wikipedia page below) and a lot of misinformation and mythology has accumulated around her. I’m going to address some of these myths, and in doing so paint a picture of a perfectly normal elephant tormented to death by malice and greed.

The 1870s saw a fierce elephant war between circuses over who had the best elephants. In one corner, the Barnum and Bailey Circus. In the other corner, the Forepaugh and Sells Brothers’ Circus. Who had more elephants? Who had bigger elephants? Who had a white elephant? (Barnum had paid through the nose for a white elephant, only to discover that it was pink. Forepaugh whitewashed a regular elephant and advertised it as the real deal compared to Barnum’s fraudulent albino.)

Forepaugh wanted to display the first elephant born in America. So he smuggled an infant elephant into the country from Southeast Asia and tried to pass it off as a local newborn. Barnum found out and exposed this fraud as part of their ongoing tit for tat. That baby elephant was Topsy.

Topsy grew up and killed a spectator. I’m not going to sugar-coat this one: Topsy did it. But I will say this in her defence: she was clearly provoked. James Blount, drunk, teased the elephants, threw sand in their faces, and burnt the tip of her trunk with his cigar. Topsy picked him up, dropped him down, and stepped on him.

What do you do if your elephant kills someone? Well, if you’re in the circus business, apparently you play up the killer elephant angle: this was the third man she had killed! No, the thirteenth! For a couple of months crowds flocked to see Topsy. When she threw another teasing spectator to the ground, the circus had had enough and sold Topsy to a park in Coney Island. William Alt, her handler, came with her, and this is where her troubles really began.

Alt was the only person willing to work with Topsy. But he was a drunk. In fact, he was a drunk driver. A drunk elephant driver. When the police arrested him for drunken elephant driving, the elephant came too, and even tried to enter the police station. Commotion, as you can imagine, ensued.

Alt was fired, but now Topsy had no handler. Her new owners tried to sell her, give her away, and even raffle her away. (Isn’t that what we’re all asking in our own lives, where’s my elephant? – sorry, couldn’t resist the Simpsons joke.) But with her reputation, they had no luck.

The park owners decided to excute her. As a publicity stunt. This is the bit that makes me really mad. They were building a new park, you see, and all the press attention over a public execution was great for promotional purposes. Hang the elephant from the park’s central tower (still under construction), and advertise the park at the same time.

Enter the ASPCA. How dare you kill this poor animal as a public spectacle! Following negotiations, the owners agreed not to charge admission, and to kill Topsy more humanely: with poisoned carrots, electrocution, and then strangulation with a steam-powered winch.

There’s a persistent myth that Topsy was electrocuted with alternating current (AC) electricity to show off its “dangers” and so drive the public towards Edison’s competing direct current (DC). This is not true. That war had ended a decade earlier. His company filmed the death, but there’s no evidence that Edison was involved in the electrocution or even the filming.

Topsy died from the electric shock. And I’m still angry about that.



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