Tag Archives: Topsy the elephant

What A Way To Go – Part Eighteen



Shock waves have travelled around the world at the treatment meted out to Marius the giraffe who was shot at Copenhagen zoo and whose carcass was publicly dissected and then fed to the lions. His crime – his genes were too common to be of use for breeding, a charge that could be levied against many of us, methinks. Soon afterwards, news emerged that another Danish giraffe, also called Marius – you can see what compounded the original Marius’ problems; not only were his genes too common so was his moniker – resident of Jyllands Park zoo was also up for the chop for the same reason. Seems the Danes are very picky!

If you think Marius’ fate was outrageous, consider the fate that befell an elephant called Topsy. The unfortunate pachyderm belonged to the Forepaugh Circus (great name) but had spent the last few years of her life at the turn of the twentieth century at Luna Park in New York’s Coney Island. Topsy had a bit of a temper on her – she had killed one of her keepers who had burned her trunk with a lit cigar (who wouldn’t react negatively to such treatment?) and had become aggressive to two other keepers who had struck her with a pitchfork. The zoo authorities decided that for such offences against humankind, she would have to go but how to achieve it?

The initial suggestion that she should be hung. Leaving aside the engineering feats that would have had to be performed to achieve the animal’s demise, this option was ruled out as being too cruel. The next suggestion was that she should be electrocuted.

At this point, Thomas Edison, the famous inventor, stepped forward. He had been waging a campaign against Westinghouse’s alternating current standard for distributing electricity – he had developed the direct current method as a standard – by demonstrating how unsafe and dangerous it was. Edison tried to illustrate his point by zapping a few dogs and cats, cattle and horses, but he was looking for a big stage event. Electrocuting an elephant was just too good an opportunity to miss.

So on January 4th 1903, in front of a crowd of 1,500 bystanders, Topsy was fed carrots laced with 460 grams of potassium cyanide before having a current of 6,600 volt AC sourced electricity passed through her body. The animal was seen to topple to the ground and to move for a few seconds, smoke billowing from her feet, before she met her maker. The whole gruesome event was filmed – you can find it on YouTube if you are so minded – and the result, Electrocuting an Elephant, was seen by audiences throughout the States.

Despite a trail of dead animals Edison’s campaign failed and AC, having demonstrated its superiority in less lethal ways, became the standard for electrical currents.

Truly, man’s inhumanity to animals knows no bounds.