Edison Electrocutes An Elephant (incl video)

 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.

Thank you

Gaye Crispin

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.”

25 Comments on “Edison Electrocutes An Elephant (incl video)”

  1. Nicolas says:

    Some animal right group goes too far over trivial matters. However, this is not one of them. This is the first time I read about other side of Edison, and I hope he was not blinded by profit and had a big heart. Sadly, this is not so.

    • Gaye Crispin says:

      Hi Nicolas,

      Yes, it seems to have had a very small, hard heart indeed. Very sad. Thankfully, we have animal activists and social media. The Edison’s of the world’s days are numbered. It’s much harder in the west to get away with animal cruelty today…. thankfully .. hopefully.


  2. John Neal says:

    Thanks Gaye! I have never heard of this until tonight.

  3. Leo Basic says:

    Great post Gaye. Thanks for mentioned Nikola Tesla, one of the greatest mind in history. I’m proud to live in country where Tesla was born.

    • Gaye Crispin says:

      Hi Leo,
      You should be proud. He was a great man.

    • officeatnight says:

      I’m fairly certain that Tesla was an immigrant to the United States, having been born in the village of Smiljan, Austrian Empire (modern-day Croatia). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikola_Tesla. Perhaps, we have even more reason to be proud given that Tesla chose to become a US citizen. According to Wikipedia, Tesla told others that he valued his US citizenship more than any scientific honor that he had received.

  4. layanglicana says:

    I admit to chickening out of watching the video. To our generation/century, the idea that we have the right to treat animals like this is appalling. As recently as the 1960s, people were shooting tigers in India, but now the same people are the biggest supporters of the wild life preservation trusts, including tigers. ‘Autres temps, autres moeurs’ – other times, other customs.

  5. mithuhassan says:

    Not really understand; what to say !!

  6. mrbill01 says:

    … and yet AC was adopted as the standard type of consumer current …

  7. Tiffany says:

    So Sad!!!

  8. I am a fan of Edison’s innovations and he was ahead of his time, but all people can have parts of them that are not good and make choices that are not desirable. If they were all displayed there would not be many people that would come out unscathed.

  9. I did not know that this ever happened. Very sad that no one thought to send her to an open field to live out her days.

  10. JoeJoeKeys says:

    Excellent article Miss Crispin. I now see Edison in a whole different light….

  11. Bob Warren says:

    Have a Fantastic Monday and Happy Memorial Day!

  12. mandyf says:

    Unreal. I thought I heard all of the stories about Edison being a crook or heartless, but this takes the cake.

    • Gaye Crispin says:

      Hi Amanda,

      Thank you so much for sharing Topsys’ story. Edison was a pretty over the top character huh. An interesting study in how not to be. Not a lot of heart there.


  13. terilg says:

    Kind of horrified by this story, and amazed I’d never heard anything about it before.

    • Gaye Crispin says:

      Hi Teri,

      Yes, it’s a gruesome and horrifying story. Sorry if you found it upsetting, but I thought poor Topsy deserves for people to know her story .

      Hugs and thank you for sharing Teri,


  14. dl101 says:

    Very sad and disturbing.

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