“They’ll say ‘Aww Topsy’…”

When coming up with ideas, for a while I’ve been trying to do people’s births or deaths, or other events, that took place on the date that the post would be published.  I haven’t had a lot of success.  At the beginning I wasn’t paying attention and was just picking things (not a bad thing, just a different approach).  When I started trying to pay attention, things that I found interesting didn’t happen on the dates I publish, so I would look close to the date and hope I struck something.  But today we have something that actually happened on today’s date!

bobs-topsyBy chance, this topic came up over the weekend too.  My parents were visiting and we put Bob’s Burgers on to watch and to have in the background at various points of their visit.  One of the episodes was the episode “Topsy” where Louise wants to take down her Edison-obsessed substitute science teacher.  The librarian whispers “Topsy” to Louise, causing the kids to look up Topsy.  They watch a video of the elephant’s execution, and eventually there’s a whole musical number about Topsy and Edison being in love…  It doesn’t have all the correct information, but it’s still interesting and has a fun song.  (The song is where today’s title comes from.)

Topsy the elephant was born around 1875 in Southeast Asia.  She was captured by elephant traders and wound up in the United States.  Topsy was sold to the Forepaugh Circus and was billed as the first elephant born in the U.S.  Forepaugh was in competition with Barnum & Bailey over who had the most elephants.  By saying Topsy was born in the U.S., Forepaugh would have a leg up over Barnum & Bailey.  Barnum exposed Forepaugh’s deception though, and so Forepaugh had to stop making the claim.

Topsy worked for Forepaugh for twenty-five years.  Towards the end of this time, she was gaining a reputation for being a bad elephant; a previous trainer had tried to feed her a lit cigarette – he, or another trainer around this time, was killed.  This reputation would stick with her for the rest of her life.

Animal trainers at this time were rough with their animals, especially large animals, like Topsy.  Elephants would have hooks used on them near their eyes or elsewhere on their head, to try and get them to cooperate.  Other trainers would use “beatings, hot pokers, and even guns” on the animals they worked with (1).  One of the ways Topsy was promoted was by drawing attention to her crooked tail; the crook in her tail was due to abuse she had suffered.  It’s really no wonder that Topsy grew, seemingly, increasingly violent with all that was done to her.

In 1902 Topsy was sold to Sea Lion Park at Coney Island.  Around this time, James Fielding Blount was one of the trainers working with Topsy.  He was often drunk and on at least one occasion tried to give Topsy whiskey.  Topsy refused and so Blount got mad and burned her with his cigar.  This upset Topsy even more, and she threw him away from her, causing his death.

Another of Topsy’s trainers, Whitey Ault, had come to Sea Lion Park with her from Forepaugh.  When Sea Lion Park didn’t last, Tospy became part of Luna Park.  Topsy helped move attractions to new locations.  When she didn’t do the work that was expected of her, Whitey got upset and would abuse Topsy.  On one occasion, that we know of, Whitey “prodded her trunk in a ‘savage manner’ with a pitchfork” (2).  Whitey was arrested for “animal cruelty, but later was acquitted because the amount of prodding was deemed acceptable” (3).

On another occasion, a drunk Whitey rode Topsy through the streets of town.  When the police stopped him, he threatened to release Topsy in the streets.  Because of this threat, Whitey was arrested.  Despite all the abuse he had done to her, Topsy was attached to Whitey, and tried to follow him into the police station.  Because she was a ten foot tall, three ton elephant, Topsy got stuck in the entrance and started trumpeting.  Whitey was allowed to take Topsy back to the park, but this was another strike against her.

After his arrest, Whitey was fired from Luna Park.  There weren’t any other elephant handlers around, though, that could handle Topsy.  Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy, the owners of Luna Park, wanted to get rid of her one way or another.  Because of her reputation, Topsy wasn’t sellable; they couldn’t even give her away in a raffle.  Thompson and Dundy then decided to kill Topsy, but of course they wanted to turn it into a public spectacle and sell tickets.

Topsy_the_elephantWhen the ASPCA heard about Thompson and Dundy’s plans, they stopped them.  The ASPCA said that tickets could not be sold to such an event.  Thompson and Dundy decided to hold a free event, then, and have press cover it.  How to kill Topsy was another matter.  Luna Park didn’t have a big enough gun to execute the elephant.  Ultimately they decided to try multiple tactics, culminating in Topsy’s electrocution.

Thompson and Dundy, always hungry for a spectacle, advertised the event for January 4, 1903, where “man-killer Topsy would be publicly hanged for her crimes” (4).  The plan was to use “large ropes tied to a steam-powered winch with poison and electrocution planned for good measure” (5).  This, too, was to appease the ASPCA.  Hanging alone was cruel and unusual punishment, they said.  Even New York State had done away with it in favor of the electric chair.

During the 1880s and 1890s, Edison and Tesla (and Westinghouse, backing Tesla) were involved in the “War of Currents”, trying to show if AC or DC was better and safer for use.  During this time, Edison electrocuted a lot of dogs and cats, and even horses and cows, trying to show how dangerous AC was.  Edison’s people even helped develop the electric chair as another way of showing how dangerous AC was.  Due to all this “expertise” the Edison company was called on to perform Topsy’s electrocution.

For Topsy’s execution, her former trainer, Whitey Ault was offered $25 to lead Topsy to the platform where she would be killed.  Despite all their differences over the years, Whitey refused, saying “he wouldn’t do it for a thousand” (6).  Since there was no handler for her, Topsy was very difficult to get into position.  Additionally, she shook off the electrodes that had already been attached to her, and refused to eat the cyanide-laced carrots that were made for her.

Eventually Topsy was able to be put on the platform, and she did eat the carrots (though they didn’t seem to do much on their own).  Once the electrical switch was flipped, Topsy died almost immediately – an Edison worker was electrocuted as well, though he survived.  Despite her having been declared dead, Topsy had a noose strung around her neck for about ten minutes as well, just to be sure.  The ASPCA doctors on hand said it was “the most humane way to kill an animal they had ever seen” (7).

In addition to providing the electricity for the event, the Edison Company also filmed the execution.  Edison probably didn’t attend the event, though his name has been stuck with it for all these years.  It also wasn’t part of the War of Currents, which took place over a decade earlier.  Topsy had fallen into obscurity for about seventy years after her death.  When she was rediscovered, it was false information that has tied Edison to Topsy in such a way.  A lot of places still perpetuate that false information too (including one of the sources I used a bit from, as well as Bob’s Burgers).

After her execution, Topsy’s skin was sent to the Museum of Natural History; her bones were sent to her owner; her legs were turned into umbrella stands (8).  A couple years after her death, Topsy’s three-hundred pound skull was exhumed.  The skull had been buried, pretty much at the spot where she fell, behind Luna Park’s stables.  New elephants in 1905 “sensed her remains and refused to walk in the area” (9).  After the exhumation, the elephants were fine walking over the area.

While Topsy definitely wasn’t the only elephant to have been treated so cruelly by her trainers and owners, the spectacle of her death has made her memorable.  It doesn’t hurt to have her named tied to Edison’s, no matter how tenuously that is.  The film of Topsy’s execution is available on YouTube (be warned, it is an execution), and there is a memorial to Topsy at the Coney Island Museum.

1, 3, 6, 7 – Derek Potter, “Theme Park History: The Dark Story of Thomas Edison and Topsy the Elephant,” Theme Park Insider, November 2014.

2, 8, 9 – Myth Buster – Topsy the Elephant: Did Edison really electrocute Topsy the Elephant?

4 – Topsy the Elephant

5 – Topsy (elephant)


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