In 1903, at the soon to open Luna Park on Coney Island, an elephant named Topsy was electrocuted, likely with advice from Thomas Edison, whose film crew recorded the horrible event. Over the past century, this bizarre, ghoulish execution has reverberated through popular culture with the whiff of an urban legend. But it really happened, and today, Edison''s footage can be found on YouTube, where it has been viewed nearly two million times.
Many historical forces conspired to bring Topsy, Edison, and those 6600 volts of alternating current together at Coney Island that day. Journalist Michael Daly''sTopsyis a fascinating popular history that traces them, from the rise of the circus in America and the lives of circus elephants, through Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the War of the Currents, and the birth of Coney Island.
Daly’s book starts with the 1796 arrival of the first elephant to set foot in America, called simply The Elephant. While her performance didn’t go far beyond uncapping bottles of beer with her trunk and drinking, she drew large paying crowds up and down the eastern seaboard. So large, in fact, that her owners walked her from town to town in the dark to avoid anyone getting a free look.
Other elephants followed, but essentially as solo curiosities. It wasn’t until the years after the Civil War that the circus in America boomed, thanks especially to magnates P.T. Barnum and Adam Forepaugh (or 4-Paw as he sometimes styled it). Barnum and Forepaugh are major characters inTopsy. Their constant competition and efforts to outdo each other led Forepaugh to hatch an outlandish scheme in 1877. At an incredibly dynamic time in American history, with the country growing and immigration on the rise, he understood that it was the first American born child of an immigrant family that often offered a real anchor. So Forepaugh smuggled in a baby elephant, captured in the wild in Asia (most likely Ceylon, now Sri Lanka), and passed it off as a true-American, the first elephant born in captivity. He said he wouldn’t sell her for $20,000. Barnum, who had been offered the same elephant from a dealer in Hamburg, called his bluff, and said he’d pay $100,000 for an American-born baby.
This was just one of the battles in the War of the Elephants. Forepaugh went big, billing one of his herd as the largest, so Barnum went bigger, importing an elephant from England named Jumbo. Barnum claimed he’d been hunting for an elusive "holy" white elephant for years, so Forepaugh simply painted one of his and concocted an exotic backstory that involved Thai royalty.
Topsy, rich in fantastic detail, brings to life the world of the circus, the caravans and sideshows, the astonishing athletic spectacles and the crooks. Daly highlights the differences between Forepaugh and Barnum. The latter was the gold standard, a master showman and spinner of "humbug” whose circus was nevertheless known as the "Sunday School Show.” Forepaugh played to a rougher crowed, and even traveled with his own team of pickpockets, who paid a sort of daily licensing fee to work the crowd. They even stole clothes from laundry lines while the people in small towns watched the circus parade. And all circuses resorted to "rat bills,” slanderous advertisements pasted along the routes. When one circus made use of electric lights to brightly illuminate the previously dim tents, another "warned” the public of the lighting’s supposedly dire health risks.
Similar to the contrasting morals of the shows, elephant trainers had a striking dichotomy. Most resorted to horrible violence and cruelty to bend elephants to their will, to "tame” them. Occasionally, as happens later with Topsy, they met violence with violence, killed trainers or broke free, and were subsequently branded "bad” elephants.
In contrast were two trainers, Stewart Craven and Eph Thompson, who are the heroes of this book. Craven was one of the most famous trainers in the country, and was well paid for his work. Thompson, his protégé, being black, was slighted. Forepaugh maintained a fiction that his spoiled son trained the elephants, but it was really Thompson who showed that kindness and care could achieve remarkable things. His elephants danced, stood on their heads, raced, balanced on a fake tight rope, and formed into a "living pyramid.” One could even somersault. Topsy was among these elephants, but she also dealt with cruey&ruelty; Forepaugh himself beat her so badly that her tail was broken and left permanently crooked.
The War of the Elephants was winding down just as the War of the Currents took off. Thomas Edison, synonymous in the public eye with electricity, stubbornly held firm to a misguided belief in the superiority of direct current, which could only be transmitted short distances. Alternating current, favored by brilliant oddball Nikola Tesla and his backer George Westinghouse could travel very far, but Edison argued that it was dangerous. To help win favor for DC, he maneuvered for New York State to switch from hanging to electrocution for executions, hoping that "Westinghoused” would become a common term, like "guillotined.” And to "prove” how dangerous AC was, he backed dozens of inhumane "experiments” where dogs were electrocuted.
Despite his best efforts, the Wizard lost the war, and control of his company. He remained embittered, even as his fame grew, thanks to the increasing importance of electricity. Daly segues from Edison to what should have been his triumph, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, the illuminated "White City.” Popular entertainment had exploded in America thanks to the circus, and the final main thread ofTopsyis a discussion of this landmark event, followed by the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo (at which President McKinley was assassinated), and the development of Coney Island.
It’s on Coney Island in January of 1903 that these strands all come together. Luna Park, which would go on to become iconic, was set to open that year, and the developers figured that an execution of the "bad” elephant Topsy would draw useful publicity. Edison, the War of the Currents lost, was still involved, at the very least with his film crew, though likely more closely. Throughout the book, Daly traces Topsy’s picaresque life up to this point, from her capture, the roar of the crowd, life on the endless road, and the tormenting of her trainers, weaving her tale through the other big stories. It''s a touching tale, and it is impossible to readTopsyand look at the circus, elephants, or Thomas Edison the same way again.
Above all,Topsyis an entertaining read that brings to life this remarkable world and its characters.