“Step Right Up, Folks!”
Coney Island’s Topsy the elephant was not unknown to photographers. Browsing through books and websites dedicated to Coney Island’s glory during the early 1900’s, it is easy to find photos of Topsy as she dutifully entertained crowds. Staring at the snapshots, it is not difficult to imagine the voices of the crowds as they pointed and shouted, “Look at the elephant riding a bike down the street!” or “Let’s take a ride on the elephant!” Photographers did not miss these awe inspiring moments of Topsy’s career.
Nor did they miss the grand moment of her execution.
On a cold day in January of 1903, a crowd of fifteen hundred spectators assembled at the future site of Coney Island’ s Luna Amusement Park for the thrill of watching the electrocution of the 28 year old Indian elephant. The event was made possible by the technological genius of Thomas Edison and his company of technicians.
Because of Edison’s involvement, the event was considered newsworthy and drew the attention of reporters and photographers. Of all the pictures, there is one greatly publicized and morbid photograph of Topsy’s death which remains forever branded on the face of Coney Island’s historic past.
At first glance, the grainy black and white picture shown above appears to be of poor quality. Closer inspection reveals that it is not bad photography, but smoke and debris from her electrifying fall. The photographer captured the crowd of people behind her in half motion. This is evident by the half raised arms and a few heads which are turned sideways. The photo was obviously taken only seconds after the lethal dose of AC current ripped through Topsy and bought the stage curtain down on her life. Behind the roped off area of spectators and technicians, is another spectacular amusement in progress: the armature of a half completed rollercoaster.
The nagging question of human morality clouds the viewer’s mind, much like the smoke and debris blending grotesquely with Coney Island’s winter sky.
Topsy’s life as a performing elephant was not an easy one. According to New York Times columnist Ed Boland, Topsy gained her reputation as a temperamental elephant after killing three of her trainers, one of whom fed her a lit cigarette. A history of abusive mishandling caused her to act aggressively.
But, Coney Island Amusement kings Thompson and Dundy were not concerned with the psychology of animal behavior. They were more concerned with the legal risk of having Topsy on their hands. They decided that the best way to avoid further problems was to euthanize the elephant.
Thompson and Dundy decided to use the event as an opportunity to make money off of America’s fascination with death and gore.
The entertainment duo brainstormed and came up with the idea of publically killing Topsy via an executioner’s style hanging. As Engineering and Technology writer James Pollard explains in his column “The Eccentric Engineer,” the idea to hang Topsy was abandoned when the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals intervened and deemed strangulation to be too cruel of a method.
Thompson and Dundy had to find a more humane way to rid themselves of the troublesome elephant.
When Thomas Edison learned of Thompson and Dundy’s aborted plan to execute Topsy, he offered to provide a quick and efficient method of disposing them of their troublesome pachyderm (Pollard). This was not because he felt compassion for Topsy and wanted to make sure her life ended as humanely as possible.
Edison was a scientist, and had no personal reservations about using animals in laboratory experiments for the betterment of technology. For nearly two decades, he was on a vendetta to prove that the alternating electrical current patented by his rival George Westinghouse was fatally dangerous. The news of an elephant in need of an efficient death presented Edison with the perfect opportunity to prove his point once and for all.
Edison sent a team of technicians to Coney Island to carry out the procedure along with someone to film the event (Pollard). By sending someone to film the event, he could promote his innovative motion picture camera. Coney Island Museum head Dick Zigun summed up the historic event by quipping, “Coney Island, which was the forefront of pop culture at the turn of the century, brought together electricity, and film and entertainment and cruelty to animals” (Vanderbilt). Thanks to Edison’s film, the American Public can be comforted to know that their fascination with death was prevalent even a hundred years ago.
More disturbing than the film itself is the fact that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals deemed strangulation by hanging as a cruel killing method, but saw nothing inhumane about making a public spectacle of Topsy’s execution. The event drew in a large crowd of people who were thirsty for amusement in the dead of winter. By charging admission, Topsy’s death proved to be a money making success for Thompson and Dundy. It also proved to be one of the greatest injustices to an innocent animal ever implemented in New York’s history.
Edison’s film footage still exists and continues to cause outrage among those who wish to view it at Topsy’s memorial in Coney Island’s Museum (Vanderbilt). For a penny, visitors can step right up to an artsy looking memorial, look into a peephole, and view Edison’s disturbing grainy black and white footage depicting the final ten seconds of Topsy’s pitiful life. But the photograph of her corpse is not exhibited at the site of this attraction.
That picture says enough without needing colorful art to enhance it. Topsy’s fallen body positioned on its side in front of a crowd of curious onlookers remains the true testimonial to her injustice.
In their quest to take amusement to new heights, the owners of Coney Island’s Luna Park capitalized off of the American public’s curiosity to see a death in progress. While technology has allowed incredible advancements in the amusement park industry over the past century, Topsy’s electrocution remains unsurpassed as a public spectacle. The photograph of her death serves as a memorial in itself, a horrific testament of how easily greed and propaganda can rob people of their humanity.
“Curiosities.” Voltini.com. Voltini Sideshows. Web. 7 Nov. 2011
Pollard, J. “The Eccentric Engineer.” Engineering & Technology (17509637) 5.15 (2010): 80. Academic Search Premier. Web. 14 Nov. 2011
Vanderbilt, Tom. “City Lore; They Didn’t Forget.” New York Times 13 July 2003: 3. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Nov. 2011.