Wednesday, April 1, 2015


On January 4, 1903, Thomas Edison electrocuted a circus elephant named Topsy in front of 1,500 people and released a film made of the event. Topsy was being punished for killing three humans, including a sadistic trainer who had fed her a lit cigarette.

Topsy was the culmination of a long line of animals shocked to death by Edison with alternating current. In the early days of commercially available electricity, Edison and George Westinghouse were offering competing systems to the public. Edison was an advocate for direct current, and Westinghouse championed alternating current, which is what was eventually adopted throughout the USA. Edison killed animals (the larger, the better) with alternating current in order to demonstrate how dangerous Westinghouse's system was.

Or so the story has been told for over a hundred years. However, there actually is no real evidence that Edison participated in or planned the killing of Topsy (although he had electrocuted other animals), other than the source of the power was the Edison Electric Company. However, Edison the electric company at the time had no connection with Edison the man except for the use of the Edison name resulting from various corporation mergers in the 1890s. The "current war" with Westinghouse had been resolved ten years prior to the killing of the pachyderm with a decisive victory in favor of Westinghouse, and Thomas Edison had already sold most of his interests in power transmission companies. The movie of Topsy's death was shot by the Edison Film Company, but that probably was coincidence, as that organization filmed about 1200 other newsworthy events throughout the country around that time with little or no input from Thomas Edison. 

Readers of the January 13, 2015 offering of Henry's Daily Factoids will recall the sad tale of Murderous Mary, another elephant arbitrarily executed in the early 20th Century by the company who employed her. Topsy was provided a similar lack of due process. The owners of the Coney Island Sea Lion Park, where Topsy was exhibited, concluded that her habit of killing people made her too much of a liability. The owners announced plans to hang her and charge admission for the event, but the ASPCA vetoed that proposal. The ASPCA and the owners finally agreed that Topsy would be fed over a pound of cyanide, electrocuted, and then strangled by two winches. The part of the procedure which actually proved to be fatal was the use of electricity.

A portion of the morbid movie of poor Topsy's demise is available here, but only if you have the stomach and inclination to watch it. 

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