Myth Buster-Topsy the Elephant

Did Edison really electrocute Topsy the Elephant?

Born in Asia circa 1875, Topsy was smuggled into America and touted as one of the first elephants born in captivity. Eventually she was brought to Coney Island to haul heavy materials.  Topsy arrived at Coney Island having killed her previous trainers, one of whom tried to feed her a lit cigarette.  Whitey, her handler in Coney Island, one day drunkenly rode Topsy through the streets of Coney Island.  When Topsy stopped walking, he prodded her trunk in a “savage manner” with a pitchfork.  Whitey was arrested and, in turn, threatened to turn Topsy loose on the crowd.  The officer marched Whitey at gunpoint to the police station where the elephant attempted to follow him into the building.  Topsy, stuck in the entrance,“ set up a terrific trumpeting.” Eventually her owners came and took Topsy back to the amusement park. 

Tospy the Elephant

Topsy was again subject to the whims of Whitey, who decided to have her terrorize park workers a few weeks after the police incident.  Whitey was eventually persuaded to call Topsy back but the elephant was doomed.  The execution was set for January 5, 1903 and “the executioners were very matter-of-fact electricians of the Edison Company.”   Edison was not present.  The electricians who electrocuted Topsy were connected with the "Edison Company."  This likely refers to New York Edison, the predecessor to ConEd.  Edison had not been part of the company for many years. 

While an Edison motion picture camera crew did film the event it is very unlikely that Edison himself was involved even in determining whether a film should be made.  Edison did not run his motion picture business himself.  Contrary to popular myth, the electrocution of Topsy had nothing to do with the battle between AC and DC, which ended with the formation of GE in 1892.

After her death, Topsy's skin was sent to the Museum of Natural History, her bones given to her owner, and her legs made into umbrella stands.  August 7, 1905 Tospy’s skull was exhumed. Her skull, weighing 300 pounds, was buried behind of the Luna Park Stables. It was found after three newly arrived elephants sensed her remains and refused to walk in the area. After the skull was removed, the new elephants proceeded without incident. 

 

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