Southern Brooklyn

Today, The 110th Anniversary Of Thomas Edison’s Brutal Murder Of Coney Island’s Topsy The Elephant

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The tale of Topsy the Elephant is sad and cruel, and today marks the 110th year since her grisly demise at the hands of Thomas Edison’s staged electrocution on Coney Island at Luna Park.

Topsy was a female circus elephant who never was comfortable with her captivity. Over her 28-year lifespan, she killed three men including a sadistic and abusive trainer who tried to feed Topsy lit cigarettes as food. Because of Topsy’s infractions towards her brutal masters, she was deemed too dangerous to live.

Originally, Topsy’s Luna Park owners wanted to kill her by hanging, but according to Wikipedia, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals stepped in and prevented that from happening. Although, quite frankly, in today’s world the logistics of hanging an elephant seem far more amazing than any of the alternatives.

But that’s today’s world. One hundred years ago, the alternative offered by famed inventor Thomas Edison was nearly magical. Edison stepped up and had the bright idea of electrocuting Topsy to death. Why that wasn’t considered cruel is beyond me, but everyone was willing to go along with it. It was just that kind of world.

Edison’s motives were to use poor Topsy as a prop in his ongoing war against Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla’s far superior Alternating Current electrical system. Edison, the inventor of the clearly inferior Direct Current method, juiced Topsy with 6,600 volts of Tesla’s AC, dropping her in seconds.

More than 1,500 spectators gathered at Luna Park on January 4, 1903, to witness the grim spectacle, and Edison filmed the execution as “evidence” of AC’s unsafe nature.

Edison distributed his short film throughout the United States, providing one of the earliest examples of filmed corporate propaganda. Ultimately, DC won the battle for America’s infrastructure in large part because of this flick.

While Topsy’s fate was tragic, her memory lives on in the form of a memorial erected at the Coney Island Museum on July 20, 2003.

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19 COMMENTS

  1. Just wondering if there was any connection between Topsy and the building that easing the shape of an elephant in Coney Island.

  2. Thank you for writing about this terrible day. It should never be forgotten. Ric Burns tells it in his 2000 documentary “American Experience: Coney Island” and Charles Denson’s ‘Coney Island: Lost and Found’ (2002, Ten speed Press) documents the tragedy in the second chapter of his extraordinary history.

  3. From the comments posted it appears the same indifference to Topsy still exists today. Nothing has changed in over One Hundred years. Good job Human Race-your cruel but you think your cool and witty..

  4. I was clearly referring to the “indifference” to Topsy’s suffering not a general “disinterest” in the event. The fact that you acknowledge the comments exhibit more interest in other aspects of this event, besides the obvious cruelty to Topsy, confirms my post regarding the indifference to Topsy.

  5. You’ve explained the reason quite well that expressions of distaste have not been the general tone of the discussion. The horrific nature of what happened, is, in our time, generally agreed upon.

    Do not discount the effect of more than 100 years of effort by animal rights groups. Attitudes have changed, and laws reflect the increased sensitivity.

  6. The War of the Currents took place in the late 1880s and this film had nothing to do with that long ago commercial battle. By 1903 electrocution had been adopted or was soon to be adopted in several states as a more humane method of execution than hanging. While it seems barbaric today at the time this would not have been seen as cruel and unusual punishment. We are still trying to solve the problem of finding a “humane”method of execution.

    Paul Israel
    Director and Editor,
    Thomas A. Edison Papers,
    Rutgers University

  7. […] This past January marked the 110th anniversary of the death of Topsy, who was believed to have been electrocuted as part of a stunt orchestrated by Thomas Edison to falsely portray the dangers of Nikola Tesla’s  far superior Alternating Current electrical system. The book discredits this famous telling as a myth. Edison, who filmed the spectacle at Luna Park in 1903, was apparently furious over having already lost the “current war” and merely wanted to be the first man to record a live death of any kind on film. […]

  8. YOU ALL HAVE CRUEL HEARTS AND YOU GUYS WOULDN’T WANT TO BE TREATED THAT WOULD YOU I HAVE A KIND HEART DOES ANY ONE ELSE

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