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



2 thoughts on “Topsy the Elephant Sentenced to the Electric “Chair”

  1. Frank U

    Sorry but your story is mostly wrong. Topsy was killed in 1903, 10 years after the “War of Currents”, in a publicity stunt by Luna Park owners Thompson and Dundy, not Thomas Edison. Also AC was being “peddled” by Westinghouse, not Tesla (Tesla had very little to do with the “War of Currents”). Topsy’s death was also 14 years after the invention of the electric chair. In general Edison electrocuting Topsy is considered an urban myth.

    The “Gus” story is fictional (I forget who wrote it).

    More at

  2. Segraine Post author

    You are correct, Topsy was killed in 1903 as I wrote in the article. I just wrote the association indirectly. Academic sources I use from a university database contradict Wikipedia. The account of the cigarette episode is also supported by Micheal Daly’s book. Several other sources also state Thomas Edison was behind Topsy’s execution and not the Luna Park owners. Edison may not have been present, but he was the mastermind. Although the owners most certainly benefited from the publicity stunt.

    Edison was known for frying animals to demonstrate the danger of AC. An elephant fits in this history.

    You are correct about the electric chair. I was mistaken and made the correction.

    You are also correct about Westinghouse. I know he was the one peddling Tesla’s AC. Edison focused on disputing AC so I too focused on that. However, I made it look as if it was Edison vs. Telsa instead of Edison vs Westinghouse. Correction is made. Thanks for putting me straight!


    Daly, M. (2013). Topsy : the startling story of the crooked-tailed elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American wizard, Thomas Edison. New York : Atlantic Monthly Press, c2013.

    “America’s Debt to Topsy.” (2003). The Economist

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