Today’s post is a guest post by Chris Kincaid. Normally you can find him writing about Japanese pop culture over on JapanPowered.com, 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.
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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