Outside of Jumbo (and, in fiction, Dumbo), Topsy (1875 – 1903) is probably the most famous elephant in American history, and hers is a story worth knowing–definitive of a time, place, and moment in circus history.
Topsy was part of the Forepaugh Circus at Coney Island’s Luna Park. In three years, she killed three trainers–the last of whom was an abusive alcoholic who threw a lit cigarette into her mouth. Because of this, it was decided that Topsy needed to be put to death: she was sentenced to hanging. The ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) protested that this was inhumane; New York State had just replaced the gallows with the electric chair.
And so it was that Thomas Edison, currently battling George Westinghouse and Nicola Tesla about electric current (Westinghouse and Nicola argued that alternating current was safer, Edison was currently living off patent royalties after establishing direct current as the standard), designed Topsy’s death by alternating current–meant to add evidence to Edison’s stance on AC as deadly. On January 4, 1,500 came to watch Topsy’s electrocution. She was fed cyanide-laced carrots, and fitted with wooden sandals with copper electrodes connected through a copper wire to Edison’s electric light plant. Topsy was twenty-eight years old. Edison captured the event on film and released it with the title “Electrocuting an Elephant,” found “here”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkBU3aYsf0Q on YouTube.
In 2003 a memorial to Topsy was created for the Coney Island Museum.