Topsy (circa 1875 – January 4, 1903) was a female Asian elephant who was electrocuted at Coney Island, New York, in January 1903. Born in Southeast Asia around 1875, Topsy was secretly brought into the United States soon thereafter and added to the herd of performing elephants at the Forepaugh Circus, who fraudulently advertised her as the first elephant born in America. During her 25 years at Forepaugh, Topsy gained a reputation as a “bad” elephant and, after killing a spectator in 1902, was sold to Coney Island’s Sea Lion Park. When Sea Lion was leased out at the end of the 1902 season and replaced by Luna Park, Topsy was involved in several well-publicized incidents, attributed to the actions of either her drunken handler or the park’s new publicity-hungry owners, Frederic Thompson and Elmer “Skip” Dundy.
Their end-of-the-year plans to hang Topsy at the park in a public spectacle and charge admission were prevented by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The event was instead limited to invited guests and press only and Thompson and Dundy agreed to use a more sure method of strangling the elephant with large ropes tied to a steam-powered winch with both poison and electrocution planned for good measure, a measure supported by the ASPCA. On January 4, 1903, in front of a small crowd of invited reporters and guests, Topsy was fed carrots laced with 460 grams of potassium cyanide, electrocuted and strangled, the electrocution being the final cause of death. Among the invited press that day was a crew from the Edison Manufacturing movie company who filmed the event. Their film of the electrocution part was released to be viewed in coin-operated kinetoscopes under the title Electrocuting an Elephant. It is probably the first filmed death of an animal in history.
The story of Topsy fell into obscurity for the next 70 years but has become more prominent in popular culture, partly due to the fact that the film of the event still exists. In popular culture Thompson and Dundy’s killing of Topsy has switched attribution, with claims it was an anti-alternating current demonstration organized by Thomas A. Edison during the war of the currents. Edison was never at Luna Park and the electrocution of Topsy took place ten years after the war of currents.
Topsy was born in the wild around 1875 in Southeast Asia and was captured soon after by elephant traders. Adam Forepaugh, owner of the Forepaugh Circus, had the elephant secretly smuggled into the United States with plans that he would advertise the baby as the first elephant born in America. At the time Forepaugh Circus was in competition with the Barnum & Bailey Circus over who had the most and largest elephants. The name “Topsy” came from a slave girl character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Forepaugh announced to the press in February 1877 that his circus now boasted “the only baby elephant ever born on American soil”. The elephant trader who sold Topsy to Forepaugh also sold elephants to P. T. Barnum and tipped Barnum off about the deception. Barnum exposed the hoax publicly and Forepaugh stopped claiming that Topsy was born in America, only advertising that she was the first elephant born outside a tropical zone.
At maturity, Topsy was 10 ft (3.0 m) high and 20 ft (6.1 m) long, with claims she weighed between 4 and 6 short tons (3.6 and 5.4 long tons; 3.6 and 5.4 metric tons). Over the years, Topsy gained a reputation as a “bad” elephant. In 1902, another event brought her again to prominence: the killing of spectator James Fielding Blount in Brooklyn, New York, at what was then the Forepaugh & Sells Brothers’ Circus. Accounts vary as to what happened but the common story is that on the morning of May 27, 1902, a possibly drunk Blount wandered into the menagerie tent where all the elephants were tied in a line and began teasing them in turn, offering them a bottle of whiskey. He reportedly threw sand in Topsy’s face and then burnt the extremely sensitive tip of her trunk with a lit cigar. Topsy threw Blount to the ground with her trunk and then crushed him with her head, knees, or foot. Newspaper reports on Blount’s death contained what seem to be exaggerated accounts of Topsy’s man-killing past, with claims that she killed up to 12 men, but with more common accounts that, during the 1900 season, she had killed two Forepaugh & Sells Brothers’ Circus workers, one in Paris, Texas and one in Waco, Texas. Journalist Michael Daly, in his 2013 book on Topsy, could find no record of anyone being killed by an elephant in Waco; and a handler named Mortimer Loudett of Albany, NY attacked by Topsy in Paris, TX suffered injuries but there is no record of him dying. The publicity generated by Topsy’s man killing brought very large crowds to the circus to see the elephant. In June 1902 during the unloading of Topsy from a train in Kingston, New York, a spectator named Louis Dondero used a stick in his hand to “tickle” Topsy behind the ear. Topsy seized Dondero around the waist with her trunk, hoisted him high in the air and threw him back down before being stopped by a handler. Because of this attack, the owners of Forepaugh & Sell Circus decided to sell Topsy.