Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used To Be ► The Electrocution of Topsy

Dateline January 4, 1903 – On this day a circus elephant named Topsy was electrocuted to death by The Wizard of Menlo Park, Thomas Edison. The death sentence was carried out, ostensibly, because Topsy had killed 3 trainers in 3 years. However, the real reason for Topsy’s cruel death was commercial.

Trained elephants were a big attraction around the turn of the last century and Topsy had once belonged to the Adam Forepaugh Circus, just one of many traveling circuses working the large and small towns of ‘Merka. Topsy was later retired to Luna Park in Coney Island. However, Topsy wasn’t as well-trained as other elephants of the day and had killed 3 trainers, including the last one who, while drunk, tried to feed a lit cigarette to her. Topsy wasn’t happy and trampled the man to death. Go figure!

Originally Topsy was to be hanged for her crimes. However, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals stepped in and other methods of putting Topsy to death were contemplated. Thomas Edison won the day with his suggestion that Topsy be electrocuted. Edison’s plan had less to do with killing Topsy humanly, as electrocution was considered to be. At the time Edison was locked into a commercial battle with George Westinghouse which has come to be known as The War of Currents.

The War of the Currents was the Beta vs VHS battle of the day and the prize was the ability to wire ‘Merka for electricity. Edison was pushing the Direct Current [DC] method of electrical distribution and lighting, which required a much lower voltage. Westinghouse was pushing for Alternating Current [AC] because he had licensed the patents to Nicola Tesla‘s competing system. For Tesla hooking up with Westinghouse and competing with Edison was something of a pay-back. Tesla had worked for Edison at one time and told Edison that he could redesign a motor that Edison had created. Reportedly Edison said he’s pay $50,000 to Tesla if he could pull it off. When Tesla did, Edison claimed he was merely joking and the newly emigrated Tesla just didn’t understand ‘Merkin humour. A thousand laughs that Edison.

The real reason Edison wanted to kill Topsy with electricity is that he wanted to demonstrate how dangerous Westinghouse’s AC power was. He had already created a disinformation campaign against AC current. According to the WikiWackyWoo:

Edison carried out a campaign to discourage the use of alternating current, including spreading disinformation on fatal AC accidents, publicly killing animals, and lobbying against the use of AC in state legislatures. Edison directed his technicians, primarily Arthur Kennelly and Harold P. Brown, to preside over several AC-driven killings of animals, primarily stray cats and dogs but also unwanted cattle and horses. Acting on these directives, they were to demonstrate to the press that alternating current was more dangerous than Edison’s system of direct current.[29] He also tried to popularize the term for being electrocuted as being “Westinghoused”. Years after DC had lost the “war of the currents,” in 1903, his film crew made a movie of the electrocution with high voltage AC, supervised by Edison employees, of Topsy, a Coney Island circus elephant which had recently killed three men.

Edison opposed capital punishment, but his desire to disparage the system of alternating current led to the invention of the electric chair. Harold P. Brown, who was being secretly paid by Edison, built the first electric chair for the state of New York to promote the idea that alternating current was deadlier than DC.

Executing Topsy was a two-fer for Thomas Edison. Not only was he able to make another powerful statement against Alternating Current, but he also was able to film the event with his latest invention: the movie camera. His movie “Electrocuting An Elephant” toured around ‘Merka and Edison made money off its distribution and ticket sales.

WARNING: Not for the squeamish! 

BTW: In all likelihood Topsy was named after the character of Topsy in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in serial format in 1851 – 1852 and in book form in 1853. It’s from the Beecher Stowe book that we get the expression “grows like Topsy” or as Topsy put it, she just “grow’d.”

While looking for pics to illustrate this blog post I came across Topsy: the Electrocuted Elephant, a series of comic strips that make one think, or at least they do me.

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.