Monthly Archives: July 2015

Topsy the Elephant Sentenced to the Electric “Chair”

Topsy the Elephant being executed by electrocution in 1903.

Topsy the Elephant being executed by electrocution in 1903.

Today’s post is a guest post by Chris Kincaid. Normally you can find him writing about Japanese pop culture over on, but today he’s stopped by to tell the sad, strange story of Topsy the Elephant.

Thomas Edison and Nikolai Tesla had a…strained relationship. Edison and George Westinghouse, Telsa’s bankroller, competed to electrify the United States. Edison championed his direct current (DC). Westinghouse peddled alternating current (AC). DC was safer than Telsa’s current, but direct current couldn’t travel long distances without losing power. Because of this, Tesla was winning the War of the Currents.

Edison refused to be undone however. He started a marketing campaign to prove Tesla’s AC was too dangerous to be used. How did Edison do this you may wonder? He publicly electrocuted dogs and cats.

In 1903, Edison heard of an opportunity to stage a true circus act and bury Tesla’s AC once and for all.

Topsy was a famous Coney Island elephant. Well loved by her trainer, Gus, she was a good elephant. Her tricks amazed the crowds, and they adored her tutu. But eventually the crowds thinned and Topsy’s fame became a memory. Gus drifted away, tending new animals that wowed the crowds. Gus still took care of Topsy, but he didn’t lavish her with the attention she once knew. Well, poor Topsy became the butt of jokes and cruelty by other people. One day, two of Gus’s buddies stopped over to tease the elephant. One of them tossed a lit cigarette into her mouth, burning her. Elephants are unable to spit out an object. It was at that moment when the years of Gus’s indifference and the pain of the cigarette sparked Topsy’s elephant rage. She grabbed one of the men with her trunk and threw him against a post. Then, she knocked over the man who threw the cigarette into her mouth and crushed him under a mighty foot.

Topsy would eventually kill two more people before she was tried and sentenced to be hanged. It seems strange to hang an elephant, but ever since the Middle Ages, animals have been sentenced to death for various crimes. Pigs were often executed. In 1457, a pig and her six piglets were accused to murdering a five-year-old girl. The piglets were acquitted on bail, but their mother was hanged.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals stepped in to prevent Topsy’s hanging. They deemed it too cruel. Edison offered his services.

In a marketing event that drew 1,500 people, Topsy was electrocuted to death. In the event it would have failed, she was fed a last meal of carrots laced with cyanide.

Edison used the event with Topsy along with other animal executions, to try to discredit Tesla’s AC.  Prior to Topsy, Edison developed an electric chair using AC to make people afraid of the current.  Well, today we continue to use both electric chairs to execute criminals and AC to light our homes.


Haskell, J (2003). Elephant Feelings. Ploughshares 29 (1). 97-105.

Oliver, K. (2012). See Topsy Ride the Lightning. The Scopic Machinery of Death. The Southern Journal of Philsophy. 50. 74-94

Pollard, J. (2010). The eccentric engineer. Engineering & Technology, 5(15), 80. doi:10.1049/et.2010.1517



Death, Drugs, and Aliens: The Enduring Mystery of the Lead Masks Case

Manoel_Pereira_da_Cruz_e_Miguel_José_VianaHistory is rife with mysteries, some stranger than others. What happened to the Amber Room, lost in the chaos and confusion of the biggest war in history? Where did Bela Kiss disappear to after revelations of his horrible crimes came to light? And who made the Costa Rica’s giant stone balls, and why?

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you see things), the answers to these and other long standing mysteries of history will probably never come to light. However, it is possible to make educated guesses that, while not revealing exactly what occurred, probably get as close to the truth as possible.

One such case were that sort of speculation is possible is the Lead Masks Case. On August 17, 1966, two electronic repairmen named Miguel Jose Viana and Manoel Pereira da Cruz, from Campos dos Scytacazes in Brazil, set out on a bus trip at 9am with three million Cruzeiros in their pockets. They stated that they were on a trip to buy a used car and supplies for their repair business. They arrived at their destination at 2pm, purchased a pair of identical raincoats, and then  stopped at a nearby bar to get a bottle of water. The bartender later reported that Miguel was in a hurry, repeatedly checking his watch. The pair kept the receipt for the water bottle so that they could claim a refund on it later. Three days later, they were found dead on a nearby hilltop, with crudely cut lead masks laying next to their bodies. Who, or what, killed them? No one knows for sure, and in fifty years no one has gotten any closer to a definitive answer.


A hunting trip leads to a terrible discovery

At 3:15pm on August 17th, Miguel and Manoel set off on foot up Marro do Vintem, a hill outside of town, dressed in suits and their raincoats. At about 5:00pm, a local boy named Jorge de Costa Alves saw the men sitting at a higher point of the hill. He returned the next day to find the two men laying on the ground. He thought they may be asleep, so he left them alone.

On Saturday August 20th, Jorge was hunting birds on the very same hill when his nostrils were assaulted by a putrid odor. The boy told his friends about the men’s strange behavior the days before and now the stench that permeated the hill top. His friends relayed the story to the police. Officers found the two bodies neatly dressed in their suits, and still wearing their rain coats. A lead mask, a lead square with a slit cut in it, lay next to each body.

Adding to the strangeness of the scene, notes were found next to the bodies. Some were simple electrical formulas. One mysterious note read:

“Sunday, one capsule after lunch; Wednesday, one capsule at bed-time. Be at the place arranged at 16:30. Take capsules at 18:30. After feeling effects, protect half the face with lead masks. Await the agreed signal.”

Police found no capsules on the bodies, nor any signs of physical trauma. The coroner’s office, claiming it was too busy, never ran a toxicology report. Cardiac arrest was ruled the probable cause of death for both men. The case became known as the Lead Masks Case.


UFO, Spiritualism, and the search for the truth

The mysterious deaths generated a lot of speculation, both then and now. At the time, a popular theory was that the men were robbed and killed, perhaps due to their role in an electronics smuggling ring gone bad. However, none of the evidence points to this. There was no physical trauma on the bodies, and each man had bags of money stuffed in the pockets of his suit. In addition, there was no evidence based upon their movements before climbing the hilltop that they even attempted to buy any electronics, let alone engaged in any smuggling operation.

Another popular idea is that Miguel and Manoel ran afoul of beings from another world. The cryptic wording of the messages lead some to believe that the pair attempted to contact beings from another world, and that the meeting did not go as planned. As strange as it sounds, this explanation is probably close to the truth, although not because aliens landed on the hilltop and stopped Miguel and Manoel’s hearts.

To understand how an attempt to contact otherwordly beings may have contributed to the two men’s deaths, it is useful to pull back and look at a couple of odd incidents that preceded the event. Two months before they died, according to tabloid reports from the day, Manoel and Miguel, along with a friend and fellow electronics technician named Elcio Gomes, built a device of some sort, meant to facilitate communication with intelligent beings on Mars, in Manoel’s garden. The device exploded as soon as it was activated.

Even more intriguingly, two years before the Manoel and Miguel died, another electronics repairman, was found dead on a hilltop with a lead mask next to him. Although details on this case are sketchy, the similarities are enough to infer some sort of connection between the cases.

What, then, was going on among the electronics repair community in Brazil more than fifty years ago? It appears, based on police investigations after the deaths, that Miguel, Manoel, and Elcio Gomes were involved in a group of “scientific spiritualists,” who believed they could communicate with beings from other worlds (as they attempted to do with the experiment in Manoel’s garden.) Police found scraps of lead and metal cutting tools in Manoel’s home. They also found books on spiritualism, which referred to “intense luminosity” associated with contacting spirit beings, which the lead masks were evidently supposed to protect against.

Another facet of the belief system seemed to involve the ingestion of drugs to help facilitate contact with spirits. These drugs were probably psychedelic substances of some sort. Perhaps the  men got a hold of a bad batch of drugs, and died on that hilltop performing some sort of odd ritual. Or, they simply overdosed. It is impossible to know for certain, but this is a reasonable guess. Still, with the lack of any forensic evidence, the exact cause of death in the now infamous Lead Masks Case will forever remain a mystery.



Barclay, Shelly, “The Lead Masks Case.” October 27, 2011. Historic Mysteries. July 12, 2015.

Bowen, Charles. “The Mystery of the Morro Do Vintem.” Flying Saucer Review, March-April 1967. Volume 13, No. 2. pgs 11-14. Retrieved from:,%20Manuals%20and%20Published%20Papers/Specialty%20UFO%20Publications/Flying%20Saucer%20Review/FSR,1967,Mar-Apr,V%2013,N%202.pdf

Dunning, B. “Solving the Lead Masks of Vintem Hill.” Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 21 Jan 2014. Web. 19 Jul 2015. <>


A Nazi Super Weapon–The Silbervogal Bomber

Wind tunnel model of the Silbervogel bomber.

Wind tunnel model of the Silbervogel bomber.

Nazi Germany was far ahead of its time in terms of its technology. From the infamous V2 rockets to the world’s first operational jet fighter, the Third Reich designed and built some of the most advanced and deadly weapons of their day. However, there were cases where the German technological imagination leaped far ahead of what could be manufactured given the materials and techniques of the time. I’ve covered the most ambitious of these out there designs before–nothing less than an orbital doomsday device that would orbit the planet and use concentrated sunlight to obliterate enemy cities.

While such a thing was wildly impractical at the time–we couldn’t even build the Sun Gun with today’s technology–the subject of today’s article was something more attainable, although still far out of reach for rocket engineers in the 1940s. Dubbed the Silbervogal (“Silverbird”), Dr. Eugen Sanger’s revolutionary aircraft was designed to fly halfway around the world to strike a blow right at the heart of the American homeland.


The Amerika Bomber Program and the Silverbird

Dr. Eugen Sanger originally conceived of his Silbervogel design as a peacetime craft that would be able to reach orbit. After publishing articles in Flight magazine about the potential of rocket powered aircraft, Sanger was given free reign to build a secret research lab in Trauen, where he could begin to design the Silverbird for more fearsome purposes. Sanger’s work, funded by the Luftwaffe (the German Air Force), fell under the auspices of the Amerika Bomber program, which sought to build aircraft that could launch raids across the Atlantic Ocean and destroy targets in North America.

While several conventional crafts were being developed under the program, Sanger’s rocket plane was the most futuristic and audacious. The craft sported a flattened fuselage and stubby, wedge shaped wings. Fuel was stored in two large tanks on either side of the fuselage, and the end of the fuselage sported a flat tail surface. Oxygen tanks were located forward of the wings. The craft would be propelled in art by a large rocket motor capable of generating 100 tons of thrust. The pilot would sit in a pressurized cockpit in the front of the craft. For armament, the Silbervogel carried one 8000 pound bomb.

The real audacity of the craft lay in its proposed flight plan. It would be propelled down a two mile for eleven seconds by a rocket powered sled. It would take off at approximately  1149 mph and quickly reach an altitude of 90 miles. Then, the main rocket would fire for eight minutes, gobbling 90 tons of fuel and propelling the Silbervogel to a blistering 13,724 mph. Once the rocket burn was complete, the craft would “coast” along, being dragged down by gravity. When it suck far enough to hit denser air about 25 miles above the surface, it would “skip” up to a higher altitude, much like a stone skipping across a pond. In this fashion it would fly over America, drop its payload, and eventually glide to a conventional descent in Japan, using its tricycle landing gear.


Flight of the Silverbird

Sanger’s Silbervogel bomber was so far beyond the cutting edge of 1940s technology that even Sanger himself admitted it would probably be twenty years before it took flight. Sanger did get as far as testing early versions of the rocket engine, when Hitler ordered Operation Barbarossa to begin in June 1941. With the German blitzkrieg taking on the titanic Russian Army, all resources needed to be funneled toward more conventional designs. Such far of designs as the Silbervogel were luxuries Germany could ill afford, and Sanger was forced to utilize his expertise elsewhere.

After the war, Sanger and mathematician Irene Bredt, who he would marry in 1951, went to work for the French Air Ministry. By this time, various countries including the United States and the Soviet Union had obtained Dr. Sanger’s research results. Stalin saw that Dr. Sanger could be quite an asset, and sent Russian agents including one of his sons to kidnap the scientist. French authorities learned of the plot, and managed to conceal the scientist’s whereabouts before the Russians could nab him.

Despite Sanger’s determination, the Silbervogel never did fly. The closest craft to it was the X-15, a rocket powered plane designed by the US in 1960. While no rail based weapon system such as Sanger envisioned has been used, his design is echoed in such iconic crafts as the Space Shuttle.