The elephant was stolen from her home, secretly smuggled into America, and called Topsy, after the slave girl featured in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That says it all.
Warning: This story brought tears to my eyes, and was very difficult to write. However, I believe it’s an important story to tell in order to show how far we’ve come in America when it comes to treating both animals and humans, how far we still need to go, and how important it is for us to ensure that other countries catch up and keep pace with us.
Our sad story begins around 1875, when a 200-pound baby elephant was captured by elephant traders in Southeast Asia. Adam Forepaugh of the Forepaugh & Sells Circus smuggled the elephant into America and falsely billed her as the “first American born elephant.”
Topsy quickly became the star of the circus and a fan favorite.
Like many circus animals at the time, Topsy was subject to harsh treatment and torture during her training and performances. Trainers often prodded her with sharp hooks between the eyes and in the head or used hot pokers to make her obey their orders.
Naturally, Topsy’s temper became shorter and shorter, and she turned on her trainers. She attacked several handlers and reportedly killed two circus workers in Texas (no records exist to prove this accusation). And then in May 1902 she killed a spectator in Brooklyn who went too far.
According to published reports, James Fielding Blount allegedly offered her whiskey, threw sand in her face, and then put a burning cigarette into her trunk. The man met his end when Topsy wrapped her trunk around him, tossed him into the air, and then smashed and trampled him on the ground. Payback is a bitch, as they say.
Frederic Thompson and his business partner, Elmer “Skip” Dundy acquired Topsy in 1902 when they took over the long-term lease on Paul Boyton’s Sea Lion Park.
Following this highly-publicized incident, Topsy was sold to Captain Paul Boyton, the proprietor of Sea Lion Park at Coney Island. When his park went bankrupt a year later, Paul Boyton turned the elephant over to the new owners, Frederic Thompson and Elmer “Skip” Dundy, who were constructing Luna Park on the site.
Life before Luna Park was horrible for Topsy, but it was about to get much worse. For the rest of her short pathetic life, she was put to use hauling building and construction materials. Frederic and Elmer called it her penance for being so aggressive.
One of Topsy’s biggest jobs was moving the massive “Trip the Moon” structure from Steeplechase to Luna Park.
One of her biggest jobs was moving the massive “Trip the Moon” structure from George Tilyou’s Steeplechase Park to Luna Park. The 80-foot tall, 40,000 square foot structure was placed on heavy timbers with big wooden rollers, and Topsy was put to work. She put her forehead against the building, and, with the help of only a few poor horses, pushed it nearly a mile down Surf Avenue to its new location.
Whitey the Elephant Beater
William Ault, better known as Whitey, was Topsy’s keeper and slave driver for over a decade. He was the only one who could handle her – but apparently he could only handle her if he tortured her. He often used a pitchfork on her, and was arrested at least one time after police observed “excessive” prodding. One time the ASPCA prosecuted Whitey for wounding Topsy’s eye, but unfortunately he was acquitted of animal cruelty because the abuse was deemed acceptable at that time.
The “Trip to the Moon” attraction at Luna Park featured a 30-passenger airship resembling a giant red canoe with wings. The “Airship Luna” was suspended from the ceiling by steel cables, permitting the ship to rock and swing lightly. Hundreds of lights and sound effects added to the experience.
The final nail in Topsy’s coffin came at noon on a December day when an intoxicated Whitey tried to ride the elephant down Surf Avenue. After about a half mile, Tospy stopped, causing Whitey to slide off. This angered him, and he began prodding her trunk in a savage matter as a crowd watched and cheered (Yes, it there were smart phones in those days, a video of this violent act would have gone viral).
Policeman Conlin of the Coney Island police force arrested him, whereupon Whitey said he would turn the elephant loose upon the crowd. Conlin in turn threatened to shoot the trainer if he let Topsy charge the crowd. Whitey acquiesced — temporarily. They made their way to the police station on West 8th Street, where Topsy mounted the broad granite steps and got wedged in the front door.
Topsy tried to enter the new Coney Island police station and magistrates’ court, but got wedged in the door. Located on West 8th Street, the 1897 building was known as the Little Brown Jug at Coney Island. The court was shut down in 1958 and the building was torn down. A new station for the police (60th Precinct) was erected on the site in 1971.
Sergeant Levis begged Whitey to drive the animal back, but it took him a while to obey the order (Levis should have used a pitchfork on him!). Finally, Fred Thompson showed up, paid the bail, and ordered Ault to return Topsy to Luna Park. Whitey was ordered to appear in court on charges of disorderly conduct.
Whitey was immediately fired, but with no one left to handle Topsy, Fred and Elmer had to get rid of her. They tried to raffle her off and give her away for free, but no zoo would take her. With no other options left, the men decided to euthanize Topsy.
First the men announced they would kill Topsy by hanging her from the new Electric Tower, which was being constructed in the middle of the former park’s Shoot the Chute lagoon (the tower was only 75 feet high by this time). ASPCA president John Peter Haines quickly quashed that idea.
The ASPCA would not allow Fred and Elmer to hang Topsy from the Luna Tower in Coney Island. However, 13 years later an elephant was hanged to death in Erwin, Tennessee.
Next, they discussed charging a 25-cent admission to publicly electrocute the elephant. The backup plan was to feed her cyanide-laced carrots and strangle her with large ropes hung from the tower and tied to a steam powered winch.
For some asinine reason, Haines said no to the admission fee, but he was fine with a public execution.
On December 13, 1902, Luna Park press agent Charles Murray released a statement to the newspapers that Topsy would be euthanized within a few days by electrocution.
A “First-Class Execution”
“The affair is expected to be one of the most brilliant society features of the Coney Island season.”—New York Tribune, January 3, 1903
The execution was set for January 4, 1903. Expecting a large crowd due to all the publicity, Fred and Elmer hired a caterer and a brass band for the event. They told the press it would be a “first-class execution.”
Fred and Elmer turned to Thomas Edison, who was then competing with Nikola Tesla’s alternating current (AC) method and trying to preserve his direct current (DC) method as the electricity standard for the United States. In his attempt to discourage the use of AC, Edison had been staging public demonstrations of its danger by electrocuting stray and unwanted animals, including cats, dogs, horses, and cows. Apparently he just couldn’t resist the opportunity to demonstrate the “dangers” of AC one more time.
Edison agreed to electrocute Topsy, and as an added bonus, he said he would document the event using a movie camera, another one of his inventions. (I guess you could say he got two bangs for the buck — major sarcasm). The electrocution was supervised by P. D. Sharkey, chief electrician with the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Brooklyn.
You can watch Edison’s video here, but it is disturbing.
On January 4, 1903, a crowd of about 1,500 spectators and 100 photographers gathered in the Luna Park construction zone to witness the hours-long spectacle. First, elephant “expert” Carl Goliath and other handlers loaded her with chains and tried to coax her over the lagoon bridge using apples, carrots, and hay. (The men had offered Whitey 25 dollars to help with the execution, but he turned it down, saying he wouldn’t kill her for a thousand dollars.)
Days before the event, press agent Murray arranged media coverage and posted banners around the park and on all four sides of the makeshift gallows advertising “OPENING MAY 2ND 1903 LUNA PARK $1,000,000 EXPOSITION, THE HEART OF CONEY ISLAND”. You can see these signs on the unfinished “Electric Tower” in this press photograph of the electrocution.
After two hours, they finally got her in place, but then she wouldn’t stay still on the metal plates. She shook the copper-lined wooden sandals off her feet and refused to eat the cyanide-laced carrots. They say elephants are smart – she definitely knew what was happening to her.
Thomas Alva Edison, around 1903, was often associated with the death of Topsy. Edison was not present at Luna Park and it’s unclear what impact he had on the execution or its filming.
Eventually Topsy ate the carrots and Sharkey signaled for Joseph Johansen, the superintendent at Coney Island station nine blocks away, to pull the switch. At the same time, Luna Park chief electrician Hugh Thomas closed another switch at the park, sending 6,600 volts from Bay Ridge through Topsy’s body for 10 seconds.
There was a flash of fire and the odor of burning flesh. Her body shook violently and she fell to the ground. Then the steam-powered winch tightened two nooses placed around her neck for 10 minutes as an added precaution. An autopsy showed that that the poison did not have time to take effect.
Originally intended to serve as a hotel, the elephant contained a cigar store in the front legs, a gallery in the “Stomach Room,” a grand hall through the diaphragm and liver, and a museum in what would be the elephant’s left lung. The elephant’s eyes in the “Cheek Room” had telescopes and served as an observatory.
Johansen was knocked out and nearly electrocuted himself, but he sustained only small burns from the power traveling from his right arm to his left leg. When you look at these photos, it’s amazing more people weren’t injured. (Let’s see: metal plates, 6,600 volts, a 5-ton elephant on a rickety bridge over a body of water — OSHA would have had a field day with this one.)
Topsy was about 35 years old at the time of her death, which is about half the expected life span for an elephant with a decent life in the wild.
The fire also destroyed Lorenzo Shaw’s Channel Chute, a wooden roller coaster built in 1895 that encircled the hotel and was often called the Elephant Scenic Railway.
This ride featured cars that were taken by elevator to the top and then circled back down around the Elephant. The nearby Toboggan Slide survived the fire.
The Elephantine Colossus
Ironically, Topsy was electrocuted on the very spot that was once occupied by the iconic Elephantine Colossus, otherwise known as the Elephant Hotel. The 12-story pachyderm designed by James V. Lafferty stood above Surf Avenue and West 12th Street from 1885 until 1896, when it was destroyed in a spectacular fire.
A Coney Island Tragedy: Burning of the Historic Elephant: The prophetic cover from the October 10, 1896, issue of The Illustrated American.
Built two years before the Statue of Liberty, the Elephant Hotel was said to be the first artificial structure visible to immigrants arriving to America. Its manager often exaggerated the view, telling visitors they would be able see places like Yellowstone Park, Niagara Falls, and Paris from the elephant’s back.
In the 1890s, the giant elephant served as a brothel (male patrons would say they were “seeing the elephant”). However, when the structure caught fire on September 27, 1896, it had not been used for several years.
When the smoke cleared, all that remained standing was a part of the elephant’s foreleg. At least this elephant was not a living, breathing creature when it fried.
In recent years, several former employees of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus have gone public by speaking out against the way elephants continue to be mistreated. Like Topsy, these animals are abused with sharp metal bull hooks and are kept on chains for most of their lives.
On March 5, 2015, the Feld family, which owns Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, announced that it would phase out its 13 performing Asiatic elephants by the beginning of 2018. These elephants will join the more than 40 pachyderms already resident at the Feld family-owned Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida.
Luna Park opened on May 16, 1903, just four months after Topsy’s murder. The park was quite spectacular at night, with all the towers and minarets lit up by more than 250,000 incandescent lights. It’s more than ironic that Topsy was executed by electricity at the base of the park’s iconic Electric Tower.