Topsy: The Electrocution of an Elephant

"Topsy elephant death electrocution at luna park 1903" by Unknown - Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -
Topsy the elephant is electrocuted at Luna Park at Coney Island, New York on January 4, 1903. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1903, Topsy, an Asian elephant was euthanized by electrocution at Coney Island, New York.

Here are some things you may not have known about the incident.

Topsy was brought to the United States and performed in the Forepaugh Circus, where she gained a reputation as a bad elephant after killing a spectator in 1902. The next year, she was sold to Coney Island’s Sea Lion Park, which was redeveloped as Luna Park by new owners Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy. At Luna Park, Topsy was used to move timbers and power a carnival ride. Her trainer, William “Whitey” Alt, once stabbed Topsy with a pitchfork in an effort to get her to pull the ride. As a result, the police were called to investigate. This led Alt to remove Topsy’s harness and let her run wild in the streets. Alt, who blamed the incident on alcohol, was arrested. In December 1902, a drunken Alt rode Topsy down the streets of Coney Island and used the elephant as a battering ram to get through the door of the police station, leading the officers to hide in the jail cells. Alt was fired after that incident.

The owners, now without an elephant trainer, decided to euthanize Topsy by hanging her, and selling tickets so the public could watch. The president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals intervened, calling hanging a “needlessly cruel mean of killing” the elephant. After negotiations, he and the owners decided Topsy should be strangled with large ropes tied to a steam-powered winch, poisoned and electrocuted. On Sunday, January 4, an estimated 1,500 spectators and 100 news photographers descended on Coney Island. Topsy was fed potassium cyanide, a poison, electrocuted with 6,600 volts and then strangled by the apparatus for 10 minutes. Topsy was pronounced dead at 2:47 p.m.

On site that day was a film crew from the Edison film company. They recorded the event and weeks later released a 74-second movie of the proceedings. Contrary to claims, Thomas Edison did not organize the electrocution. 15 years earlier, Edison had been involved in the electrocution of animals to demonstrate the danger of alternating current as part of the War of Currents. Edison, a proponent of direct current, had already merged his company with General Electric and sold all of his stock.

Our question, which is generally larger, the Asian elephant or the African elephant?

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