The story of Topsy the elephant, and her death on January 4, 1903, is one that has taken on many forms over the years. Some claim that Thomas Edison himself was personally involved, but this wasn’t actually the case.
That doesn’t, however, change the unfortunate events that day.
Topsy the Elephant
Topsy the elephant, born in 1875, was a female Asian elephant who had been brought to the United States. She performed at the Forepaugh Circus for 25 years, and after killing a spectator in 1902, she wound up at Coney Island. She had a reputation for being difficult, but you know — she was an elephant.
Eventually, after the firing of her original handler and a number of other incidents, the officials at Luna Park at Coney Island decided they couldn’t manage Topsy, anymore, and decided to put her down. They at first considered hanging, but outcry from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals prevented that. Their ultimate decision, then, was to use strangling with a steam-powered winch, poison, and electrocution.
So, on January 4, 1903, a large group gathered at the park and chained Topsy to a post. They placed electrodes on her feet, and ran a copper wire over to an electric light plant. Then, they flipped the switch, and 6,600 volts of alternating current flooded through her body. The Edison Manufacturing movie company filmed the event.
As Wikipedia so tersely describes, “…in front of a small crowd of invited reporters and guests, Topsy was fed poison, electrocuted, and strangled, the electrocution ultimately killing her.” The short film, titled Electrocuting an Elephant, would later be featured in coin-operated kinetoscopes.
Here’s a video of the film, but fair warning: While it’s old and grainy footage, if you don’t want to see a poor elephant get electrocuted, don’t watch. This is, as they say, “probably the first filmed death of an animal in history.”
In regards to Thomas Edison, various places online (and admittedly the original version of this very article) have stated that he was involved with the electrocution personally. This is not true. While the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Brooklyn oversaw the electrocution, they were a private company that, at that time, was not affiliated with Edison himself.
Sidenote: The first electric chair was created by Harold P. Brown and Arthur Kennelly, under the employ of Thomas Edison. The first electrocution as a means of capital punishment was performed on August 6, 1890, with the execution of William Kemmler (which is itself a terrifying story, really).