Topsy the Elephant electricution

CONEY ISLAND – At 1:30 PM on the 4th of January 1903, a crowd was gathered in New York Luna Park in Coney Island to see the wonder of electricity in action: the technology that was yet to enter the everyday lives was to kill a female Asian Elephant.

By the day of her execution, Topsy had killed 3 people, the latest in 1902 in Brooklyn. Topsy set out on her murderous path in 1900 by killing two zookeepers: the first one in Waco, TX, the second one in Paris, Texas. In Brooklyn, her victim was J.Fielding Blunt of Fort Wayne, Ind., presumably because he had fed her a lighted cigarette.

News of Topsy’s attack on clerk Louis Dondero in Kingston, NY (Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle, June 6, 1902) was the last straw for circus manager Lewis Sells. He decided to get rid of Topsy. 

The execution was in the works for a whole half-year. The first plan of the zoo’s management to hang Topsy at the park and charge admission were stopped by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), who claimed that this method of execution was unnecessarily cruel.  

Topsy, standing in the middle of press photographers and on-lookers, refusing to cross the bridge over the lagoon to the spot where she was supposed to be killed.

Rumor has it that it was Thomas Edison himself who persuaded SPCA to agree to electricity being used. He wanted to prove that the technology of electrical transmission that his firm possessed was far superior to those used by his competitors in what became known as the “Battle of the Currents”. Even though Edison’s participation in the elephant affair is not proven, it is documented that during the late 1880s he and his associates experimented with electricity on dogs in their West Orange laboratory, which led to canine deaths.

It is also worth noting that Thomas Edison played no role in the direction of the Edison Electric Illuminating Co. of Brooklyn, which under the supervision of electrician P. D. Sharkey provided technical assistance and 6,600 volts of power relayed from new General Electric AC generators in nearby Bay Ridge for the execution in 1903.

Either way, it was decided that using electricity for the execution was a human thing to do. However, since there was no data on how easy it would be to execute an animal this size with the currents, it was decided to foolproof the execution with poison. Topsy was fed carrots with potassium cyanide, and her feet were placed in conductive copper sandals for efficiency.

1899 poster for the combined Forepaugh & Sells Brothers Circus featuring acrobats’ “Terrific flights over ponderous elephants”

The ordeal was filmed using another fledgling technology and is known as “Electrocuting an Elephant”, which by the way has 3.1/10 stars on IMDB.

Once Topsy had her last breath, Hubert H. Vogelsang who had paid for the elephant’s remains in advance, started butchering her. The New York Times reported that her head was sent to a taxidermist to have a trophy head made, the body organs were sent to Princeton’s Department of Biology, and it was expected to make umbrella stands from her feet.

Luna Park Coney Island 1903

The original main entrance of Luna Park on Coney Island as it appeared at the park’s opening in May 1903.

This is what The New York Times published the next day: “Topsy, the big, man-killing elephant at Luna Park, Coney Island, paid the death penalty at the park yesterday by the agency of a heavy electric current and 400 grains of cyanide of potassium.” 

By the time of her death, Topsy was 36 years old, of which she had spent 28 in the USA. She weighed 6 tonnes and was 10 feet in height, 19 feet 2 inches long.

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