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Why did Thomas Edison electrocute an elephant?

From Asia to America
Elephants have been included in circuses dating back to Roman times, and many have suffered incredible abuse.
Elephants have been included in circuses dating back to Roman times, and many have suffered incredible abuse.
© Lebrecht/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis

Topsy was just a baby when she was captured somewhere in Southeast Asia around 1875 and then shipped to the U.S. She was put to work for the Forepaugh Circus, which at the time was in competition with Barnum & Bailey to own the most impressive collection of elephants.

Topsy was passed through several owners and multiple trainers, most of whom used methods that by today's standards would be considered abusive. The animal's tail was famously crooked because of the beatings she endured. As the years went on, Topsy apparently became more and more short-tempered because of her maltreatment and she developed a reputation for aggression.

In 1902, a man named James Fielding Blount reportedly burned Topsy with the red-hot tip of a cigar. In a pain-fueled rage, she struck back, killing him. Yet her owners found her too valuable to part with, so they kept her as part of the show, letting her man-killing past become a part of her appeal.

Eventually she wound up at Coney Island's Luna Park, a brand-new amusement park in New York City. She was one of the biggest attractions and became an animal celebrity of sorts, if one with more than a little notoriety. At one point, her owners put her to work hauling building materials at the park, where numerous accounts bore witness to beatings and other cruelty from her human caretakers.

In one particularly ridiculous instance, a handler named Whitey Ault became intoxicated and rode her through the city streets, frightening citizens and police along the way. Although the incident was entirely Ault's fault, the fallout resulted in more negative publicity for an animal that already had a nasty reputation.

Topy's owners decided that it wasn't in their best interests to keep an elephant known for unpredictable behavior. After negotiating terms with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), they arranged for a publicly staged killing of Topsy.

On Jan. 4, 1903, a team led the 28-year-old Topsy to a ring of 1,500 spectators and wound a noose around her neck. They fed her poisoned treats and then affixed two copper elements, one to her forefoot and other to a hind foot, ensuring that the AC electrical current would flow throughout her entire body. The electricians were, quite notably, from a company bearing Edison's name.

When the men finally flipped the power switch, more than 6,000 volts of electricity coursed through Topsy. She keeled over almost instantly. After 10 seconds, the technicians stopped the current and the noose around her neck was cinched until observers deemed her completely dead.