Monday, December 1, 2014

Cryptic Curiosities: Topsy

Standing about 10 feet tall and weighing around six tons, Topsy was an elephant with a nasty reputation.  The female Asian elephant was known for being a man-killer.  Amazingly, this was a major draw for the public, ever seeking a thrill.  While reports alleged that Topsy was a beast responsible for as many as 12 murders, these were likely exaggerated to further entice crowds.

Topsy was smuggled into the United States in 1875 to perform in the Forepaugh Circus, the captive elephant endured poor living conditions and regular harassment.  Topsy lashed out at her trainers on, but a few occasions, resulting in injuries.  But in 1902, a drunk taunted Topsy, throwing sand in her eyes and touching a lit cigar to her trunk.  The enraged animal flung the man to the ground and crushed him to death.  A few months later a spectator tried to tickle Topsy behind the ear, startling her.  The elephant lifted the man into the air and slammed him into the ground.

Following this latest "attack" the owners decided to sell Topsy and the elephant ended up at an attraction on Coney Island in New York.  Her constantly drunk trainer once stabbed her with a pitchfork and later intentionally setting Topsy loose to run the streets.  The event that proved to be the last straw for city officials involved the same drunken trainer actually riding Topsy, goading her to ram into a police station.

While the trainer was merely fired from his position, Topsy was given a death sentence.  It was not uncommon in those days for circuses and other attractions to publicly execute elephants, charging admission to the "spectacle".  Other elephants had been put to death by hanging via a large construction crane, while others were simply shot or poisoned.  Due to protests by early animal rights activists, however, the owners finally decided that Topsy would be electrocuted to death. 

On a cold January morning in 1903, Topsy was fitted with large copper sandals by engineers from Edison Electric Light Company.  The elephant, perhaps sensing what was about to happen, refused to be led to the intended execution site even with the enticement of food.  Wires which would soon carry some 6,000 volts through the copper fittings on Topsy's feet had to be brought to the spot where she firmly stood.  

After about 10 seconds, the elephant which had in life faced so much cruelty at the hands of men finally  collapsed and died.  Witnesses say that the elephant didn't even make a sound.

Apparently, the ghost of Topsy still wanders Coney Island...

Note:  I wrote this post some time ago, but it depressed me so that I couldn't bring myself to publish it...


  1. Bravo on this post. Glad you brought up the fact that the clowns building Luna Park killed Topsy (and not the often repeated internet myth that Thomas Edison did it).

    1. The whole "Edison did it" angle often factors into the story of his rivalry with Tesla, making Edison even more deplorable I guess. I accepted it as true until I did a little more research. Thanks for reading!