In 1903, Topsy, a performing, bicycle-riding elephant from Coney Island’s Luna Park was publicly executed.
The 28 year old female elephant was ordered to be put to death after developing a habit of killing her keepers, including one who’d tried to force her to eat a lighted cigarette.
Plans to publicly hang Topsy were thwarted by the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals after the society objected.
This was when Topsy fell into Edison’s hands, the same Edison who had been electrocuting animals since the 1880s.
Topsy Meets Thomas
Edison was no animal rights activist. Far from it!
At the time of Topsy’s sentencing, Edison had been busily discrediting Nikola Tesla’s Alternating Current (AC) by using it to publicly electrocute stray animals such as cats, dogs, horses and even an orangutan. Edison would buy strays, particularly cats, and publicly electrocute them to demonstrate the deadly effects of AC.
Edison’s shock and horror displays were designed to persuade the public that Nikola Tesla’s AC was far too dangerous to ever be used in people’s homes, and that Edison’s own Direct Current (DC) form of electricity was the superior form or power.
Edison was a shrewd businessman and recognised the media opportunity connected with the impending execution of Topsy. He realised the execution of a rogue elephant would be a huge draw-card attracting a large crowd. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Edison to discredit Alternating Current (AC) as being safe for domestic use …. once and for all!
Edison decided to capture, on film, Topsy the elephant being electrocuted and dropping dead within seconds of Tesla’s AC electricity passing through her body. He believed this film would be the nail in the coffin of AC, permanently putting an end to anyone ever wanting AC in their homes, or around their families and children.
The Prisoner Enjoys A Final Meal
On Sunday January 4, 1903, Topsy the performing elephant was fed her final meal – a bucket of poisoned carrots. The carrots had been laced with cyanide just in case anything went wrong with the electrocution. She was then led to her place of execution in strappings Edison had helped design especially for the occasion.
Topsy’s special electrocution outfit would ensure over 6,000 volts of Tesla’s Alternating Current would successfully pass through her body, providing gruesome entertainment for the 1,500+ spectators attending the display.
Topsy wore copper lined wooden sandals and an electrode studded harness, all provided by Edison. The 6600 volt AC generator she was hooked up to was also generously provided by Edison.
The stage was set…
Lights Cameras Action
Electrocuting An Elephant – The Movie
Because of Edison’s extensive experience in electrocuting animals, and his involvement in developing the first Electric Chair for human executions, Topsy’s execution went perfectly according to Edison’s plan.
The film “Electrocuting an Elephant” shows Topsy the elephant being electrocuted to death in well under 30 seconds by AC. The footage was filmed by the Edison Moving Picture Company and distributed as a 24 second film. The video below is a copy of the footage Edison shot that day in 1903.
Warning: this video may disturb some viewers, and is a graphic portrayal of the execution of Topsy.
Electrocuting an Elephant was just one of the many bizarre and unrelenting steps Edison took in his attempt to discredit Tesla’s AC, and topple his rival George Westinghouse.
Interestingly, and for the record, Edison in later years admitted he knew all along that AC was the superior form of power.
Thomas Alva Edison (February 11, 1847 – October 18, 1931)
Entrepreneur and inventor …. who also electrocuted animals.
Edison is famous for the saying: Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.
At the time Topsy came into Edison’s life, Edison was already successful, with tremendous opportunities and choices available to him.
Edison could have played a different role in Topsy’s story, other than her executioner.
As my friend Michelle Gilstrap suggested, Edison could have thrown his considerable wealth and weight behind Topsy, and used his influence to organise her being sent to open and green pastures …. far from the madding crowd.
Or Edison could have used his scientific brain to investigate the abusive conditions she’d lived under, and brought to light the plight of circus and zoo animals.
There are many animal rights groups operating globally today, and despite most having valid reasons for existing, animal rights activists can still find themselves subject to ridicule and vilification. Especially when they have to tackle corporatism!
The role of the animal rights activist is just as relevant today as it ever was. Perhaps even more so. And with human nature being what it is, animals rights activists will probably be just as necessary 100 years from now. –
Do you have a favourite animal rights group you support?
Please feel free to post their name or link below.
Ghandi said: There are seven things that will destroy us: Wealth without work; Pleasure without conscience; Knowledge without character; Religion without sacrifice; Politics without principle; Science without humanity; Business without ethics.”